Remedial math alternatives found lacking in California’s community colleges

Community college students most in need of developmental help are least likely to be exposed to helpful alternative approaches, a new study finds

By Ross Brenneman

remedial algebra

While California’s community colleges are experimenting with alternative models to deliver developmental math, the rate of adoption has been slow, a new study finds.

New research from former USC Rossier Ph.D. students Holly Kosiewicz and Kristen Fong, and current Ph.D. student Federick Ngo, published in the July 2016 print edition of the Community College Review, examines how colleges look to improve remedial instruction, and finds large urban community colleges to be lacking.

Traditional models of remediation typically feature lecture-based, semester-long courses. Alternative approaches include supplemental instruction, such as tutoring; a reduction in the amount of time spent in developmental education; and redesign of curriculum and learning.

Studies suggest such alternative approaches may be more effective in remediation than traditional methods. But in an analysis of eight years of classes, researchers found that 69 percent of developmental classes in a large, urban community college district (LUCCD) in California used a traditional method rather than alternative approaches. The LUCCD serves a diverse body of about 220,000 students; the majority of students are people of color.

“Students with the lowest level of preparation for college have the least amount of access to these alternative approaches,” says Kosiewicz, who led the study for USC Rossier.

More than 60 percent of California’s community college students are assigned to developmental education classes, but research shows only a small percentage ever enroll in college-level courses required for a degree. Indeed, studies also suggest that the more time students spend in such classes, the more likely they are to drop out.

The number of classes using a traditional model of remediation was determined through a content analysis of more than 8,900 course schedules published between 2005 and 2013. Of the models used in the 31 percent of classes that didn’t rely on traditional methods, half involved supplemental instruction. However, the study also found that alternative models were more likely to be used at higher-level classes.

“Not only did the most academically underprepared students lack overall access to alternative models of delivery, but they also lacked access to a variety of these types of models of delivery,” the authors write.

The study offers several hypotheses for why students in the lowest-level classes had the least access to alternative methods, including:

  • The belief that students in lower levels of the sequence will benefit more from additional instruction while students in the higher levels may benefit more from additional time to understand the content;
  • Students placed into higher levels of the sequence are more likely to be enrolled as full-time students and able to spend additional semesters of coursework to focus on mastering content; and/or
  • Adjunct faculty are more likely to teach lower levels of the developmental math sequence and may not have the time or resources to learn how to teach developmental math in ways that radically depart from the conventional method.

Many states have taken steps to encourage use of alternative models of developmental education. In Texas, for instance, community colleges are required to develop models that quicken a student’s progress in developmental education, and similar efforts have been put in place in North Carolina. California, however, offers its community colleges significant latitude, which may be why schools are slower to try alternative paths.

Kosiewicz notes that the results should not be taken to mean that faculty are resistant to changing how they deliver developmental education.

“Faculty and administrators might encounter significant barriers that may make it difficult for them to adopt these approaches, and allocate them in a way that benefits all developmental math students,” she says.

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Results of the study can be found here. For media inquiries, please contact Ross Brenneman at or (213) 740-2327.