A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Why should there be remedial classes in college?

When it comes to college, being accepted is hardly the first step. Many of our students get a rude awakening when they arrive there, when they find that their grades from high school don't match their skills that they are expected to use to succeed in college. I found this article from the San Francisco area East Bay Daily News just fascinating:
What students learn in high school and what they need to know for college doesn't always match up, according to a national survey of high school and college instructors.

Teachers at all levels value organized, coherent writing from their students. But college professors more often rated punctuation as paramount, the study says, while high school teachers placed more importance on developing a topic and writing a great introductory paragraph.

In math, high school teachers labeled higher level subjects like calculus as a priority.

"What college teachers say is they want students with a firm grasp of the basics," said Cynthia Schmeiser, president and chief operating officer of the education division at ACT, a college entrance exam company.

The survey results released today might help explain why community colleges and universities send so many freshman to remedial classes.

Nationwide, 28 percent of incoming freshman enrolled in remedial college classes, according to a 2004 report by the National Center for Education Statistics.

In the California State University system, nearly half of the incoming freshman this year scored below proficient in English on placement tests that determine what level of courses students should take. More than a third fell short of being college-ready in math.

"Yes indeed, we do a large amount of remedial and developmental amount of work - more than we would like," said James Murphy, chairman of the English department at California State University, East Bay.

This year, less than half showed up at Cal State East Bay ready for college math while less than 60 percent of incoming freshman tested at remedial levels in English. Out of necessity, the school runs what are known as developmental writing classes to help get students up to speed.

"Not that we don't think it's important, but it would be nice if could be done somewhere else," Murphy said.

In the state community college system, the largest in the United States, more than 300,000 students ended up in remedial classes last school year, according to a March accountability report.

Read the whole thing. And by the way, who can spot the grammatical error (it appears twice) in the article?

I remember back when I was a brand new English teacher. I was told that the LATEST THING in English language arts instruction was a system whereby one simply tried to encourage students to write, and one didn't try to "discourage" them with learning and utilizing nasty things like correct spelling, punctutation and the like. Now our students were supposed to use the "writing process," which included proofreading and editing either one's own work or someone else's work, but how can a student do that when that student doesn't know what to look for? The papers ended up being far more e. e. cummings than anything else, but without any poetry. Of course, you know I nodded my head sweetly at my principal, went into my room, closed the door, and started drilling comma splice correction and gerunds into my students' heads.

I felt so subversive!

I was A Rebel With a Clause.

My students often grumble about the fact that, as a social studies teacher, I correct (and dock the grade accordingly) for spelling, punctuation, and the like. I will tell you this curmudeonly insistence upon proper writing skills does make grading essays a much more laborious process than I would like, as well.

Well, what do you see in your classrooms? I'd like to do a completely unscientific survey.



At 4/11/07, 7:27 AM, Blogger La Maestra said...

After spending years drilling students on that ever-important developing a topic and intro, this year with my HS freshmen I'm back to being the spelling and grammar Nazi, and while I'm not foregoing topic development/organization altogether, it's definitely not my main area of focus.

But I'm getting high school "college-prep" freshmen educated with whole language, and to many of them, there is no difference between "wan't", "whant", and "want". AAAUUUUGGGHHHH. Screw topic development--I have bigger fish to fry, and I can't take the language abuse anymore!

There is a teacher in my department who refuses to do things like spelling and grammar and mechanics with her students--she insists that by high school, they should already have a grasp of those, and what they need is topic development and organization. It's a teacher I really respect and otherwise really like, but in this thing, I'm greatly frustrated.

At 4/11/07, 9:40 AM, Blogger MommyProf said...

Unscientifically, on my students' papers, I see mistakes and have to spend time on teaching things they should have learned in junior high at the latest. I have resorted to Eats, Shoots and Leaves for kids as a way to possibly, please, get my visual learners to understand comma placement and why it matters. I teach juniors in college.

It's not all mechanics, but content has suffered as well. Most of them CAN write clearly, but DON'T. I blame chat and e-mail. It kills me when students e-mail me messages with neither punctuation nor capitalization at all. I think they will try the same thing for their bosses.

At 4/11/07, 10:14 AM, Blogger Jess said...

Hey mommyprof? They do try the same thing for their bosses. And on their resumes, too. I actually wrote to my alma mater to complain about the quality of the resumes I received from them when I was looking for an intern, and asked why students did not have access to a resource to help them write decent resumes. Turns out they do...they just don't use it. I refused to interview anyone with two or more spelling, punctuation, or glaring grammatical errors--they didn't seem to be terribly concerned with quality control, and that wasn't what I was looking for.

It doesn't matter how well-developed the thought may be...if you can't express it in a legible, understandable manner, it's not going to be well-received. Just my two cents as a non-teacher :)

At 4/11/07, 10:19 AM, Anonymous Ivory said...

Frankly, I don't think we should be teaching remedial classes in college. Students should know they have to be proficient before they arrive or they won't be admitted. It would force everyone to communicate better about what's expected if admission was absolutely linked to minimum proficiency in writing and math. I like what the UC system does. Students get no credit for remedial work, have to complete it through a community college, and have one term to get up to speed before they are expelled from the University.

At 4/11/07, 11:38 AM, Blogger Polski3 said...

Recent h.s. grads not being ready for college is nothing new. The high school I attended knew there was an issue with "us" not knowing enough about things like sentence structure, etc. and offered a class called "College Prep Grammar". And this was back in the mid-1970's.

The process begins far back. For my group, I recall we often were given a choice in 5-6th grade about doing work from our Language Arts books or going out for kickball, softball, volleytennis (anyone else remember that one?)..... guess what the choice usually was. And from what I saw later in high school, the group of us from elem. school did better than many students from the other elem. schools in town.

I also recall that most of my college professors, in my major and minor classes, focused on the content of our papers rather than on the grammar, spelling, etc....some of which could be blamed on being a "typo" because we were using typewriters to create our class research papers.
I know myself, and I have a hard time seeing my own writing errors (as probably evidenced in my blogposts and blog comments).

I wonder if the colleges and universities who admit freshmen students need to be more concerned about the maturity level of some of this kids and if those students are emotionally ready for college?

At 4/11/07, 11:43 AM, Blogger Polski3 said...

SEE ! There I go ! Another instance where me fingers don't do what my brain tells them to do....."about the maturity level of some of [this] kids and if those students are emotionally ready for college?"

Should be ".....some of these kids....."

At 4/11/07, 1:14 PM, Anonymous Vox said...

The problem doesn't always lie with the students, though, Ivory. As the article points out, many high school teachers are teaching students to focus on areas that won't prepare them for college. In some needy or rural schools, most of the teachers are beginning teachers or not always of the best quality, and students suffer for it (especially in rural schools, where they may have the same teacher for all subjects into high school, and sometimes that teacher is teaching two or more grades in one classroom).

Sometimes students have failed to take advantage of opportunities available to them. I think that these students will continue to do so during college, and I agree with you that if remedial courses were offered for no credit, they would probably be weeded out. Removing remedial courses altogether, though, punishes those students who truly want to learn but have had a string of educational bad luck, especially with a B.A. or B.S. becoming more and more important to getting a job that pays more than minimum wage.

At 4/11/07, 1:20 PM, Blogger rebecca said...

High school teachers are, I think, influenced by the skills required for doing well on writing tests, while by college, communicating clearly and not making life harder for the teacher with 187 papers to grade primarily on content becomes more urgent.
When I taught remedial English at a college which will remain nameless, we chose a test which would identify as "rememdial" the number of students we needed for our department's bottom line to look good. Not that it didn't benefit them, but we should bear in mind that testing is a business, and so are colleges.

At 4/11/07, 3:58 PM, Blogger Amerloc said...

"Freshman" instead of the requisite plural form, which may well indicate at least part of the problem: any of the mainstream reading students might do is replete with errors produced by people who ought to know better.

Of course, we can play classroom games to seek out and ridicule such bumbling, but if the "mainstream" publishers care so little, why should our students?

So they don't.

Except (perhaps) when they're jumping through our little hoops...

At 4/11/07, 11:11 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

I love it when a student says, "Well, I can't spell." Like it's a chronic condition, like eczema.

You know all the cheat codes for your latest X-box game, but you can't be bothered to learn how to spell "cities" correctly?


At 4/11/07, 11:28 PM, Anonymous SciGuy said...

If I graded grammar as well as science content my entire stock of red pens would be bled dry by second block...

At 4/12/07, 6:56 AM, Blogger Mamacita said...

I teach some of those college-level remedial grammar courses, and I can tell you straight out that these people can't spell, can't write, and have absolutely no idea what basic grammar is. The younger students have the worst skills; the older students had basic grammar back in the day, and with a little reminding they can remember. But the younger students. . . .God help us all. They've been taught how to take a standardized test and that's pretty much it. They can't write a complete sentence; they can't parse; they can't spell. AND, they're furious that they're placed into a zero level class when their high school grades 'was so high.'

I won't even get into the emails I get from them.

All I can say is, I would not hire most of them to flip a hamburger in my business; I'm not sure they could read the instructions.

Oh lord, I have to stop now or I'll start getting into their elitist demands and the fact that most of them have never taken a test and been forced to have the score 'stand' instead of redoing it over and over until they get it right. Hell, most of them have never had to do any kind of individual work; everything was apparently done in groups. And their PARENTS. . . . .

I'm stopping now.

At 4/12/07, 9:57 PM, Anonymous Luke Walsh said...

My position is that college teachers, and teachers in general, have to be aware of the balance of academic and learner in their students. Nurturing the balance makes a tremendous impact on the student's learning while she/he takes the class and in future classes. Too often teachers, including myself, only perceive how the student is performing in their class, which seems logical, yet this is only the first step of many in reaching and developing a student. I wonder how many teachers, when developing their class objectives or teaching style, reflect on how their class will contribute to the students' future growth. Some teachers would mention that they are preparing students for future classes by teaching them content, such as a prerequisite. However, could we as teachers move beyond only preparing students for future content and prepare students to speak in front of others, to articulate their understanding to others, to time manage the priorities in their lives, to reach out to themselves for help, to understand when to be an independent or dependent learner, etc? Some teachers would argue that they are not the students' parents or some type of student-sitter and that teaching them these life skills should be left to a separate class, such as freshman seminar or to those people raising them. Again this is drawing a line in the sand between the academic and the learner side of a student, and saying that teachers are one side and caretakers are on the other. Again, another choice is to accept the division within a student and that the duality is not an impassible wall that prevents crossing, rather it is a bridge where all people can cross and equally nurture the growth of the human being.

At 4/14/07, 5:34 AM, Blogger CaliforniaTeacherGuy said...

"What students learn in high school and what they need to know for college doesn't always match up, according to a national survey of high school and college instructors."

In this paragraph, "doesn't" should be "don't", in keeping with the obviously plural subject (i.e., "what...and what"). Unless, of course, I'm a complete grammar moron and don't know what I'm talking (or writing) about.

At 4/14/07, 5:39 PM, Blogger Mrs. Bluebird said...

You don't, don't, don't want to see the sort of writing my 7th graders produce. It's enough to give me hives and lead me to a drinking problem. I don't know how language arts teachers do it - it's all I can do to grade the essay questions on my tests. I don't dare give them any writing assignments that can be completed at home - I get too many parents doing it for them....and man, do they get pissed off when they don't get a good grade!

At 4/15/07, 11:11 PM, Blogger EliRabett said...

We’ve been correlating basic math vs. success in General Chemistry for several years. The interesting thing is that there is a floor, below which the kids flat out fail, but there is not a very strong correlation with grade above that floor. In other words, if they don’t have the basic math skills they are lost. If they do, then other things are determinative (hours spent, study skills, etc.)

At 4/22/07, 8:10 AM, Blogger Aisby said...

My 11th graders cannot spell, write, or punctuate. This is one of the most disturbing things that I found when I started teaching. I do not grade for grammar on tests or homework. But I do writing assignments (at least 2 or 3 per week) where I correct their grammar and grade for it).
My students, too, tell me that they write more in my US History class than they do in English. I just tell them that my job as an educator is to make sure that they don't leave the 11th grade illiterate.

At 4/22/07, 8:11 AM, Blogger Aisby said...

OH...and WHY OH WHY are students not diagramming sentences anymore? It may be boring, but it's the best way to learn the parts of speech and how to use them.

At 4/26/07, 8:51 AM, Anonymous Parental Perspective said...

I like the state tests, because as far as I can see, they're the only reason our school bothers to inform the students that such things as parts of speech exist.

Now, our school is very progressive, and has been telling parents for years not to worry about such things as spelling, grammar, punctuation, or clear writing. Fortunately, my children were cursed with parents who recognize nonsense when they hear it. Most parents, however, have a touching faith in their children's teachers, even when those teachers are spouting such nonsense as, "we don't have time to care about spelling, and anyways, they just have to use spell check."

In other words, if there's a disjunction between the expectations of college instructors and high school teachers, the comments here lead me to believe that an equally great abyss yawns between middle school and elementary school.

What are the education schools teaching? Would it be worthwhile to have colloquia in which high school teachers could outline to elementary school teachers precisely which skills they expect students to master?


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