Remedial Recommendations

So granted that the last blog post here was thinking about all the reasons why remedial college math classes in algebra are so tough (for students and teachers), I'm pleased to say that 3 weeks into this almost-all-algebra-remediation semester, things are definitely going the best for me in my decade-long teaching career. Here are some things that I'd say have had a clear, beneficial impact on my current semester:

  1. Shorter class times. In the prior 8 years at CUNY, I have always had 2-hour long algebra classes, meeting twice per week (partly because I've mostly been part-time, teaching at night). For the first time, my classes are 1 hour long, meeting four times per week. This clearly works better for the endurance and attention available to the students. We're in, focused on one narrow topic, and finished before everyone gets too tired & cranky. This has been a pleasant and great surprise to me; definitely the biggest-impact of the semester. (Not that it would work for night students or part-time teachers, where the travel burden would be inefficient.)
  2. Starter exercise pack. I expect students to have a copy of the textbook and be practicing exercises from it regularly, but very few do so (as noted last time). One problem is that students don't immediately have the textbook in the first week, as they're saving up, looking for a used copy, or having an old edition shipped online (as I explicitly encourage). This gap then sets the habit of them skipping my "practice" advice. What I did this semester is to copy a packet of "starter exercises" from the book, covering the first few weeks, with answers, so I can hand it out the very first day and explicitly point to what they can practice that very night. I've found this to be quite helpful in setting the precedent for regular practice; I've had more students than usual come to class with questions about problems, and this sets up a virtuous cycle of other students seeing it as expected behavior.
  3. Tailored, trickier problems. In the past my routine was to lecture, then turn to the book and practice problems from the text with students. Partly due to the relatively small number of problems in our in-house text, about a year ago I went through the course and wrote custom exercises for every in-class topic. Generally I wrote these to be tougher than standard starting problems, and every single problem from the first integrates common stumbling blocks (negative numbers, one and zero coefficients, etc.). Among the advantages here are that (a) we're not totally boring the students who have seen the material before, (b) we're always dealing with problems similar to test items, and (c) we're spending time "triaging" all the trouble spots. These exercises are working very, very well for me. Textbooks usually start problems sets with very rudimentary "common sense" examples to get started, but granted the limited class time we have available, I would highly recommend skipping those low-level problems and immediately start working with at least mid-level exercises for every topic.
  4. Ending with flex-time. There's probably a better name for this, but what I mean is: I end every class with a few exercises (one word problem or two pure algebra) and say, "This is the last thing we'll do today; show me the answers and you're free to go" (this being maybe 20-30 minutes before the end of the period). Then I circulate and check answers, give corrections or hints, etc. The better students push themselves to finish quickly and happily leave (thereby avoiding bored-irritated-distracted people in the room); the mid-level students get more time for feedback and cleaning up trouble areas (and also with less embarrassment or defensiveness from a roomful of people listening in); and the very weakest student gets some personal one-on-one time with me. I have to remember to give any homework or next-class directions prior to this point, of course. This was a great, semi-accidental find on my part. (And the flex-time mechanism works even better with 1-hour classes, since it happens twice as often as it would for my night classes.)
  5. Surrendering on mobile devices. My remedial students commonly come in with smartphones running and earbuds in both ears throughout the entire class. Considering that my higher-level students practically never do this, in the past I felt it was my responsibility to model proper collegiate discipline and be very hardcore about having people shut off their devices at all times. Frankly, the resistance to this could be so fierce that it blew up into security issues on me a few times. So as stupid as it seems, this semester I've been letting people sit in class using phones and with earbuds in without immediately confronting them (unless they were directly interacting with me at the time). It seems to take some of the pressure off, and in some cases for students who are legitimately already on top of the information, it may reduce the boredom-irritation factor. On the one hand, it's dumb as all hell, but on the other hand I don't really have the tools to fix that problem on top of everything else.
  6. Entering with a sense of joy. Not really new, but I try to remember to come into class with an upbeat attitude and thinking about how great it is to share the topic of the day with whomever's willing to listen. Obviously from the name of this blog you can tell that's not actually my most natural personality. But if I can, I try to shake as much crankiness off before stepping into the room. As the simply amazing film Monsieur Lazhar put it, "A classroom is no place for despair". That does seem to make things run more productively and with less general combativeness than some times in the past.

Do you have any tactics and strategies that work particularly well in the context of remedial college classes?


Reasons Remedial is Rough

Today is the start of my fall semester at CUNY, and my schedule is almost entirely teaching remedial algebra courses. (You know, the toughest course in the curriculum, that generally less than half students anywhere pass.) So as I think about introducing myself to my students this week, and trying to earn their trust that what I'm asking them to do is truly necessary and worthwhile, one question that sometimes pops up is, "Why do so many students fail at remedial algebra?"

The answer is that there's lots of reasons, and usually more than one for any given student. The philosopher Michel Foucault would call this state being "overdetermined" -- there's no single root cause we can ferret out that would fix everything. Without consulting hard data sources, here's a list of the top reasons that I see from my personal experience:
  1. Lack of math skills from high school. Many students simply don't have the requisite skills from high school, or really junior high school (algebra), or in many cases even elementary school (times tables, long division, estimations, converting decimals to percent, etc.). This deep level of deficit is like sand in the engine when trying to learn new math.
  2. Lack of language skills from high school. What's dawned on me in the last year or so, in the context of applied word problems, is that many students may actually be worse at English than they are at the basic math. Grammar isn't taught anymore, so students can't parse a sentence in detail, can't identify the noun or verb in a sentence, and so forth. This cripples learning the structure of any new language, algebra included.
  3. Lack of logic skills from high school. No one teaches basic logic, so students can't automatically parse If/Then, And, Or, Not statements, which form critical parts of our mathematical presentations and procedures.
  4. Lack of study skills or discipline. Almost none of my students do any of the expected homework from our textbook. (On the one hand, I don't collect or award points for homework, so you might say this is unsurprising; but my judgement is that the amount of practice students need greatly exceeds the amount of time I have to mark or assess it.)
  5. Lack of time to study. Certainly most of our community college students are holding jobs, or caring for children, or supporting parents or other family members. The financial aid system actually requires a full-time course load for benefits; combine that with a full-time job -- really, the equivalent of two 40-hour jobs at once -- and you get a very, very challenging situation. (Side note: In our lowest-level arithmetic classes, I find that work hours are positively correlated with success, but not so in algebra or other classes.)
  6. Untreated learning disabilities. This would include things like dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADD, etc. All I can do is speculate as to what proportion of remedial students would exhibit such problems if we instituted comprehensive screening. But I suspect that it's quite high. When students are routinely mixing or dropping written symbols, then disaster will result. Unlike other languages, concise math syntax has no redundancies to enable the "you know what I mean" safety net.
  7. Emotional problems or contempt for the class. I put this last, because it's probably the least common item in my list -- but common enough that it shows up in one or two students in any remedial classroom; and a single such student can irrevocably damage the learning environment for the whole class. Some students who actually know some algebra start the course thinking that it's beneath them, and become regularly combative over anything I ask them to do, sabotaging their own learning and that of others. It's pretty self-destructive, and the pass rate for these kinds of "know-it-all" students seems to be about 50/50.
If you've taught similar courses, does that line up with your experiences? Have I left anything obvious out of the list?