The Washington Post
An alternative to
remedial college classes gets results
By Danielle Douglas-Gabriel
When students are unprepared for the rigors of college, schools often
require them to take courses to catch up to their classmates. Those
remediation courses, though, do not count toward a degree and may delay
students from graduating on time, costing them money in the long run.
Boston College is taking a different approach to help students with
weak academic records by using a set of learning strategies that
require no more than one three-credit class. And new research shows the
model is paying off as the vast majority of students are graduating in
four years, results that administrators say have national implications
for improving college completion.
The Learning to Learn office at Boston College tracked more than 150
low-income, underrepresented and first-generation college students who
completed the Applications of Learning Theory course in the last
decade, and found 95 percent earned a degree in four years.
The course teaches techniques for critical thinking, reading,
note-taking and test preparation. The idea is to move away from rote
memorization toward inquiry-based learning, encouraging students to
develop an ongoing dialogue with new information, said Marcia Heiman,
who developed the course as a consultant for the Learning to Learn
The office provides academic support through the federal Student
Support Services program, an offshoot of the government’s TRIO
initiatives for disadvantaged students. While 38 percent of college
students in the program graduate within six years nationwide, according
to the Education Department, those at Boston College are completing in
less time and at more than double the rate.
“The course essentially changes how students learn and that has
sustained, long-term impact,” Heiman said. “We’re teaching students to
ask themselves the questions being asked by the field every time they
go to lectures or pick up a book, and they can then anticipate what
could be on an exam.”
What’s striking about the results is the population of students in the
Learning Theory class had SAT scores as low as 500 (out of a possible
1600), not the typical profile of students admitted to Boston College.
The well-heeled private school certainly has resources to assist
disadvantaged students on the path to graduation, but Heiman has helped
administrators at a wide range of schools replicate the learning
strategies to shore up retention and graduation rates. She estimates
that roughly 20 colleges employ the techniques, with some using a
co-curricular model that lets students immediately apply what they’ve
learned in other classes.
At Lake Michigan College, students identified as needing remediation
take one hour of Higher Learning Strategies, a course based on Heiman’s
work, and then take a standard English or science class, explained Amy
Scrima, a professor of psychology at the public college who implemented
the course three years ago. Students can take an additional lab, where
they can bring in homework assignments from other classes to apply the
“A lot of the skills we’re teaching them, like active reading
strategies, only will make so much sense if they’re not using it and
seeing the results in their classes at the same time,” Scrima said.
“It’s real-time help. And students earn credit.”
The nonprofit Complete College America has advocated for universities
to provide remediation side by side with college-level courses, rather
than having students take remedial classes before their core course.
That sort of intensive tutoring, according to the organization, could
help students stay on track to graduate on time and avoid spending more
money to obtain a degree.
A study by Education Reform Now found that one in four students have to
enroll in remedial classes their first year of college, costing an
aggregate of $1.5 billion. Those students on average pay an extra
$3,000 and borrow nearly $1,000 for remedial coursework, according to
the think tank, which used data from the Education Department. What’s
more, 45 percent of students enrolled in such classes are from middle-
and upper-income families, contrary to the popular notion that only
low-income or community college students need remediation.
Brenda Faulkner, director of the student counseling center at Tarleton
State University in Texas, said she has seen a tremendous growth in the
number of incoming freshman needing remedial classes. She estimates
that roughly 50 percent of students entering the public college this
past fall were not ready for college-level work, compared to 38 percent
the prior year. The university requires those students take a two-hour,
credited course, called Learning Frameworks, based on Heiman’s
It’s a little too early to track graduation rates because the course
only got under way in 2013. But Faulkner said the retention rates for
students enrolled in the frameworks class are now comparable to the
general population. About 76 percent of students who took the course in
the fall of 2014 returned in the following fall, compared to 74 percent
the previous school year. By comparison, Tarleton recorded a 83 percent
retention rate for the general population fall 2014, down from 85
percent a year earlier.
“I’ve seen so many kids just heartbroken when they realize they’ve been
underprepared for college in high school, and now it’s costing them
money to figure out how to read a textbook,” Faulkner said. “The
strategies we’re teaching give them the skills and the confidence to
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