Same Course, Different Outcomes: The Mysterious Case of Computerized Developmental Math in Tennessee

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A few years ago, Tennessee math teachers faced a puzzle. Why was remedial math taught by computer successfully helping high school students get ready for college when the exact same course at the community college wasn’t working?

Since 2012, the state of Tennessee has offered a computer-mediated developmental math course to high school seniors who scored below college-ready benchmarks. The course, called SAILS math, was identical — in both content and delivery model — to the developmental math curriculum in Tennessee community colleges (though Tennessee community colleges have since moved to a corequisite remediation model).

Though the courses were the same, high school students finished the course at much higher rates. They were between 14 and 29 percentage points more likely than college students to complete the course with a passing grade in a single semester.

Remedial Coursework in College: The Bermuda Triangle of Higher Education

In the past several years, the problem of college-readiness — recent high school graduates heading off to college only to discover that they are not prepared to do college-level work in math and/or English — has drawn increasing attention nationwide. Students who are not college-ready are required to take remedial (also called developmental) courses in college, which are designed to help them develop foundational knowledge to succeed in college classes. Remedial courses have very low pass rates nationally. Students may take these courses multiple times before passing them, or become discouraged and drop out of college altogether.

For this reason, remedial education is referred to as the ‘Bermuda Triangle’ of higher education. Students go in, but many never come out. Remedial mathematics is particularly problematic. A large proportion of students are required to take remedial math courses, but only a third of these students are able to complete the entire developmental sequence and move on to college-level work.

Computers to the Rescue! Or, Maybe Not…

To help students spend less time completing remedial requirements in math and to improve pass rates in these courses, many community colleges have implemented math courses that use computer software to do the teaching.

These courses are ‘individualized’ and ‘self-paced,’ to allow students to spend more time on topics where they are weakest, and not waste time sitting through lectures and completing assignments on topics that they already know. Despite the promising theory behind these courses, outcomes are disappointing. My research for the Community College Research Center (CCRC) showed that many students made slow or no progress moving through the remedial math curriculum in these courses.

A Pitfall of the ‘Individualized’ Nature of Computer-Mediated Instruction

Why would a course designed to promote faster student progress seem to result in the opposite? One thing that came up repeatedly in interviews with college students in computer-mediated remedial math classes was that they procrastinated and fell behind, often resulting in failing the course.

The dark side of ‘individualization’ in computer-mediated courses is that they place the onus on the student to be a self-regulated learner — someone who is able to complete assignments without strict deadlines or the prodding of an instructor. As the college student outcomes suggest, though, the developmental students in community colleges may not have the academic self-regulation to succeed in these courses.

So what was happening in the high schools that enabled computer-mediated courses to meet the goal of accelerating student progress through remedial math? After conducting research in Tennessee community colleges and high schools, I came to the conclusion that institutional context — specifically, institutional expectations for student academic self-regulation — has a significant impact of the effectiveness of computer-mediated courses. While colleges tend to assume a high level of student independence and self-regulation, high schools do not. High schools operate under the assumption that students will not do the work if left to their own devices, and put in place structures and practices that provide stricter oversight and accountability. This more proactive and active management of student work, it turns out, helps students do better in computer-mediated courses.

What lessons can we use from this insight into the puzzle? For starters, computer-mediated developmental courses in math may have stronger outcomes if offered in high school rather than college. The institutional and cultural features of high schools more effectively support the goals, i.e. faster completion of developmental math requirements, of these courses.

But the lessons can also be applied to college-level courses. Students with weak proficiency in math and/or poor academic self-regulation will be more successful in computer-mediated courses that include strong structures to bolster student motivation, and create accountability for meeting course deadlines. Tweaking a computerized course to add more structure and clearer demands can push students to make it to the finish line.


Maggie P. Fay is a research associate with the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.