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Learning about Teaching
If the students don’t get it, what’s the point?

By Andrea Conklin Bueschel

Too often, it is easy to assume that students who don’t appear motivated or who aren’t achieving at a high level don’t care what happens in the classroom. In fact, it may be these students who care the most. Unlike the highest achieving students who are likely to succeed almost regardless of instruction, the students who are struggling with basic English and math are painfully aware how much teaching matters. Given their often precarious grasp of the material, they understand that some classes work better than others for them, even if they can’t always articulate why.

While there are many factors that affect student learning, ultimately teaching may be the most important.
So as higher education grapples with how to measure, and, ultimately, how to enhance student learning, students have important insights to offer about what is and is not working in our classrooms. As part of an ambitious project called Strengthening Pre-collegiate Education in Community Colleges (SPECC), I have spent dozens of hours in the past two years talking with community college students from pre-collegiate (or remedial or developmental) classes. They tell me that for years they have been exposed to the same material taught in the same way, multiple times with unsuccessful results. They also tell me that some new classes taught by SPECC participants are a whole new experience for them, that they’ve made a difference in their learning.

As policymakers consider the enormous costs states are paying to teach high school-level material to college students, it is tempting to pass resolutions and regulations to limit developmental courses at the college level. Yet we all understand that until drastic improvements are made across the system, many students knocking on our college doors won’t be ready for college-level courses. In California, many community colleges report that 75 percent or more of their students require pre-collegiate courses in math or English, and only small percentages of them ever succeed in classes that count toward a bachelor’s degree.

Since community college developmental courses will remain a critical gateway to student success for years to come, it is important to focus on what actually happens in the pre-collegiate classroom. While there are many factors that affect student learning, ultimately teaching may be the most important.

Through SPECC­a project of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation­my colleagues at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and I have encountered many excellent teachers who are doing everything possible not to replicate the unsuccessful experiences that students have had before. They devote a considerable amount of time and energy to trying new pedagogies and strategies for improving their own practice as developmental instructors. In interviews with students at 11 campuses, it has become clear that the students in the classes of these instructors often have very different experiences from their other classes.

Any time an instructor can make things more engaging makes a difference.
Take “Pedro,” a student attending an urban community college in southern California. His high school grades were strong enough to qualify him for a California State University campus, but he decided to attend a local community college instead. Originally his decision was based on financial reasons, but after his community college placement tests, he realized that he was academically underprepared for college-level work. Unlike many students who never persist past their pre-collegiate coursework, Pedro has had a positive experience, in large part because of what happened in some of his classes. For example, Pedro’s pre-collegiate math teacher made a special effort to connect with his students, whether using their names in class examples or citing pop culture references (like using “American Idol” to introduce statistics). “He’s not going to give an example of a train that passes this way and that,” Pedro said. This personal connection mattered to Pedro, who said that most of his friends who weren’t in this class or others like it have dropped out.

Even more important than a personal connection, this math class clearly enhanced Pedro’s learning. While he had always earned good grades in his high school math classes, it wasn’t until he was asked to think about math differently that he realized how little he really understood. In his pre-collegiate class, Pedro had to apply math to real-life situations, talk about it in a small group of classmates, and present concepts to the class.

Pedro was engaged with his schoolwork in a way he never had been in high school, and for the first time he thought about why. He describes that first class as “group oriented” and thinks that the departure from traditional, lecture format made a difference. It wasn’t just that his teacher was a nice guy who taught an “easy” class; rather, the instructor had created an environment where working hard paid off in deeper understanding. Pedro is one of many students I have interviewed.

SPECC engages teachers of pre-collegiate English and mathematics in an activity that is lamentably rare on college campuses, whether two-year or four-year: studying what approaches can best help students learn the foundational material necessary for them to be successful in college-level courses. By engaging in the scholarship of teaching and learning, they have used different class structures, learning communities, lab components, technology and supplemental instruction to help students master material. But rather than a blanket application of the reforms du jour, these instructors incorporate scholarship and assessment to understand what is (or is not) working and why.

The faculty participants in the SPECC project have opened up the “black box” of learning by trying new things in their classrooms, and the students are aware of the differences. In the interviews and focus groups I conducted with students on each of the SPECC campuses, one of the overwhelming messages is that students care about how a class is structured. Not only did the innovations strengthen their understanding of the material, but also made them aware of their own learning processes. Consider these examples:

  • Students learned very quickly that small group class structure made students more comfortable asking questions, and that they could both learn from their peers and be experts themselves. In fact, they would like other instructors to do the same. “My math teacher, as soon as she teaches something, she expects that everybody gets it. In English class, even if you don’t get something, we are in groups every day, so we say, ‘Oh, what did that mean?’ and ‘Oh, that’s what that means.’ If we did that in math, I think I’d get it; I think I learn better from my peers, too.”

  • Students also appreciate it when instructors are transparent about their expectations: “I like [the instructor’s] teaching style. She’s really explicit about the points that she’s trying to make, and she emphasizes them.” Too often these students don’t know what teachers expect of them, and each successive year expectations become more opaque.

  • Another form of transparency has to do with why instructors teach the subject matter. The common lament of “how will this be useful in my life?” is a real one, especially for students who haven’t been motivated by traditional academic instruction. Practical application makes a difference, as with this student who describes an instructor who “connects real life with math. All of our problems are from real life experiences. It’s so much easier when he does it that way, and it’s so easy to understand.”

  • Other instructors are using technology in new ways with developmental students. Some English classes are now conducted in a computer lab, and the instruction is based on Power Point presentations and online assignments, creating a “living textbook” that the students contribute to and feel invested in.

  • In a pre-collegiate English class, the professor had the students “teach” the class to the instructor by mastering a topic of their choosing. They knew they could be questioned on any aspect of it, so they engaged in intensive preparation. The students described not only how they thought about what it means to teach and present material, but several commented on how the teacher acted as “student.” She was able to model not only how to ask questions and make connections, but signaled that it was okay not to have all of the answers.

These are just a few examples of things that SPECC teachers are trying in their classrooms. The overall goal is to improve student success. Any time an instructor can make things more engaging makes a difference. We know that students who start in pre-collegiate classes are less likely to persist to transfer-level courses and complete a degree. These students have many more reasons not to stay in class than they do to remain. While no one is advocating making class interesting simply for entertainment’s sake, it is clear that there must be some creativity in how faculty approach classes with these students.

These students are mature in understanding the larger challenges of teaching and learning. They understand the tensions teachers face­including the challenge of getting large, heterogeneous classes through the course material. But they also know that if the students don’t get it, what’s the point? While there are always students who just want to get through and pass, plenty of students realize that they are only deferring the problem to the next course in the sequence. As one student explained, “I feel like it’ll be better for [the instructors] to change their ways of teaching so that students will understand, not just get a passing grade.” Students also know that it’s not just the responsibility of the teacher; they must participate fully in their own learning.

The students themselves are valuable resources for feedback and decision making about their own learning.
It is not clear yet what are the long-term effects of intense focus on the scholarship of teaching and learning in pre-collegiate classrooms. But it is clear that students think there is a difference. They are more engaged in their classes, something that can affect not just achievement but persistence and completion. There seems to be greater development cognitively and meta-cognitively, as well as on affective measures including overall confidence. There are implications for additional support for faculty development. Finally, it is clear that the students themselves are valuable resources for feedback and decision making about their own learning.

Pedro is a reminder of why the extra time, energy and effort are worth it. After his success in his pre-collegiate math class, the professor asked Pedro to be an instructional aide for the next group. In his new position as a student teacher, Pedro was even more aware of what helps students learn, favoring many of the same strategies his teacher had used. Pedro also realized that his teaching made him a better learner. From teaching the students, he said “I taught myself to teach myself. Instead of just trying to remember it, I read the book, and then explained it to myself­why it is, what it’s supposed to be, what would you get from the next chapter.” As he prepares to transfer to a four-year institution, Pedro is confident in his abilities. And because of his experience, Pedro is now considering teaching as a career.

Changing classroom practice is easier said than done. Many faculty and staff at community colleges have spent years trying to improve student success. But there are constraints on community college campuses that can inhibit their ability to do so. Many of the approaches the faculty in SPECC have taken require additional time and work (at least initially), and community colleges, as institutions, often do not reward these alternative approaches. Enrollment and seat time are the bottom line financially, and many community colleges operate too close to the bone to create much support for alternative approaches.

Yet at the same time, community colleges tend to be the most innovative segment in higher education, due in part to the fact that people must be creative with limited resources to achieve their goals. Through SPECC, we have found that a little bit of outside stimulation goes a long way with community college faculty. It is challenging to re-structure a course to incorporate new strategies and pedagogies, but much more rewarding than the hours of drill or “plug and chug” that embody so much of basic skills instruction. Faculty describe new energy they get from their new practices, and from their students’ responses.

The challenge for our campuses, and community colleges generally, is not to let constraints overshadow the commitment and creativity of the many faculty who want to improve student learning in new ways.


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National CrossTalk Winter 2007



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