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?


  1. With most of these problems I can only sympathize, but I have a concrete suggestion regarding #4. You say you don't have time to mark/assess the work students need to do. As my class grew years ago I faced the same problem (or rather, the similar one of too few teaching assistants) and turned to peer grading. Even students who cannot answer a problem are often able to assess the correctness of a solution, especially when given a precise grading rubric. The massive online courses are facing this problem in spades, and some are beginning to publish research on how to make peer grading effective (http://hci.stanford.edu/research/assess/ ). What has worked for me is to select a small group of students each week and sit (or have my TA sit) in a room with them to supervise their grading. They quickly learn to recognize correct answer. They may need to get help parsing or determining proper grades for incorrect answers, but even these tend to fall into a few standard types they can come to recognize. And, the experience of grading others' work can provide significant insight on how to write their own answers better, and why they should.

    1. Well, the one thing I'll say is that as much as 10 years ago I was trying to use online software to solve that problem, but it seemed to result in too many technical/ access/ input problems for students (and any single problem would just end their attempts with it, required or not). That was Pearson MathXL.

      Peer grading I guess I'm still pretty skeptical of, particularly when I'm not just interested in the final answer but also all the symbolic syntax details. I may be biased because as a student, those kinds of practices felt enormously burdensome (added busy work for the better students).

    2. And the fact that MOOCs need it to work to satisfy their objectives doesn't increase my faith in it (if anything, it makes me more skeptical).

    3. This definitely gave me something to think about this week. In trying to visualize how I could add it to my class, another problem seems to be that if every piece of homework was graded, then that would at least double the workload on the students, which is already too great for most attendees. So I don't see any way around the fact that at some point our students need to become independent self-learners.

      Partly I really do wish they could get the chance to interface with someone else's writing, and grapple with the reasons why we need to write correctly and clearly. But I used to assess that in the past, and honestly it became so combative that I gave up on it.

  2. You're certainly in the trenches. The problem is, as you point out, there's interlocking problems! They need logic in high school, which I learned in my sophomore geometry class, but, I take it, is not commonly taught these days. They need to learn to parse sentences, which in my opinion is best taught by diagramming, but that is not commonly taught these days. They need to learn to be independent self-learners, but, as I understand it, kids are taught-to-test these days and, well, you can't produce independent self-learners like that. Unfortunately, you absolutely can't address these issues yourself - there's just not enough time, for starters. I wish I could offer something more encouraging...

    1. Sometimes being an honest listener is the best we can offer to someone. :-)

  3. Addendum -- Eyesight. Usually once a semester I have a student who is shaky for a month, then runs into a wall later on. Trying to help, I ask them to follow the process on the board, and they squint and squint and it turns out that they've never been able to read anything on the board. Sometimes they have glasses and refuse to wear them. They sit at the back of the room and refuse to move closer when I suggest it.