The Instructional Services developmental education program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville draws its practices from theoretical perspectives that focus on student attrition as well as those that focus on student-centered learning and development. We believe, as Tinto (1987) suggests, that by focusing on solid instruction, retention will result. Hackman & Dysinger (1970) found that students with lower competence but with moderate to high commitment tended to persist unless forced out due to failing grades. Eddins (1982) and Valverde (1985) found that disadvantaged students as a group need more academic support. Pascarella & Terenzini (1979, 1980) and Pascarella and Wolfle (1985) found that frequent contact with faculty leads to higher levels of persistence. As Tinto suggests, academic and social integration are important to retention. Levels of such integration may be viewed in the goals students have and in the motivation they demonstrate in reaching those goals. While background skills and abilities may make a difference in persistence, it is the many experiences, both social and academic, that students have within the institution that have a greater impact on persistence. Experiences in and out of the classroom with instructors, informal conferences, and making meaningful student contacts within the classroom aid in the integration that leads to retention. Tinto also suggests that the first semester is most at risk because of students needing to make the transition from their high school lives to university life. His studies indicate that programs that work to help students make that transition are effective. These typically “stress improving study skills (e.g., writing and reading skills), study habits (e.g., learning to apportion one’s time to meet academic deadlines), academic preparation (e.g., high school mathematics), the use of libraries and other institutional resources, and the writing of college-level reports and term papers.” (Tinto, p. 149)
Our institution’s admission policies contribute to developing a diverse student population. These policies also make it more difficult to predict reasons that students are retained or not retained. Students who participate in developmental courses at our institution tend to have lower admission criteria and placement test results. In addition, we have a higher percentage of African-American students in our courses than in the university in general. Our students must begin their developmental coursework during their first term of attendance. Our instructors work with students in classes, but we also rely on out-of-class contacts to reinforce classroom experiences, and we emphasize the improvement of study skills and habits as well as academic preparation.
Our students are actively engaged in content-specific skill attainment and application. Such skill attainment and application are intended to transfer to future courses and are to be used for problem solving, critical thinking, communication, and self-development within our courses. In order to develop these skills, program staff understand that we must deal with students’ self and identity, motivation, interaction with the environment, ways of knowing, learning preferences, and self-regulation and goal setting, as described by Silverman and Casazza (2000). The SIUE College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) intends to develop graduates who demonstrate characteristics of communication, critical thinking, problem framing and solving, knowledge, integration and application of knowledge, self-development, citizenship, and life-long learning. Silverman and Casazza’s six topics that are the basis for research in learning and development mesh with SIUE’s desired graduate characteristics in a theoretical framework that guides our instructional efforts.
Chickering’s (1969) theory of identity development provides seven vectors that describe psychosocial development during the college years. Our interactions with students, both in and out of class, and our curriculum that involves students actively in their learning reflect these seven vectors as we work with students in their first year to:
1) develop intellectual, physical, and manual competence
2) manage emotions
3) move toward interdependence
4) develop mature relationships
5) establish identity
6) develop purpose in future directions
7) develop a value system
In accord with Mezirow’s (1981) theory of transformation, we find that students bring to college belief systems about their abilities, and these beliefs affect the way they view themselves as needing or not needing our services. Our instructors address those beliefs through discussion and written feedback and are as in tune to student attitudes as they are to skill development.
We recognize the influence of Rotter’s (1966) work with locus of control on the students in our courses. Frequently students state initially that they see our classes as holding them back, that the placement tests that place them in such courses are not fair indicators of their abilities, or that their previous teachers had somehow failed them. We gradually see many students reassessing their performance over the term and understanding that they have some control over their efforts and resulting performance.
Since we must be “bearers of bad news” that students must complete selected developmental courses, we deal a blow to their sense of self-worth. However, as Weiner (1990) and Covington (1993) determined, once students begin to succeed academically in classes designed to support their efforts, their sense of self-worth improves. Support in our courses comes in the form of teacher and student modeling of success behaviors, mastery assignments and quizzes, and grades that do not count against students’ grade point averages but give them a sense of their progress, thus reducing some of the stress of course completion, as reflected in Bandura’s (1977) self-efficacy theory.
Many of our students commute, are non-traditional in age, have family obligations, and see the university experience as one to be endured until they can get a high-paying job as a result of having earned a degree. As a result, our courses must deal with these issues by creating an environment in which students can feel comfortable discussing issues, expressing concerns, and exploring boundaries as they find ways to deal with this new environment. Lewin (1936) and Kaiser (1971) emphasized the impact of the interaction between student and environment on both the developing student and the developing environment. As we work to help students adjust to the university environment and its expectations, we attempt to provide the coping strategies that Brookfield (1995) indicates are desirable for maximizing student/environment interaction.
According to Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989), learning is likely to be more effective if learners are involved in solving realistic problems relevant to them. Since students bring their own perspectives to the process of “knowing,” with filters based on their own perceptions and values, it is important to discuss and clarify their understandings. In order to broaden learners’ schemata, it is also important to recognize that at least three components of intelligence (Sternberg, 1980) must be considered as ways that learners process information – analytical (traditional learning), synthetic (beyond traditional to create solutions to novel problems), and contextual (adapts to everyday world and goes beyond to select and shape the environment). Cross and Steadman (1996) found that students do more higher order processing by using active learning to approach problems from different perspectives. Cross (1981) also found that adult learners have more problems with short-term memory, so they do not retain meaningless material and lack motivation to learn it. In the classroom, then, new material should be meaningful with aids to help organize and associate, material should be presented for mastery, students should learn one idea at a time to avoid competing information, and teachers should provide frequent summaries.
The work of Schraw & Bruning (1996) and Vygotsky (1965) highlight the importance of guided instruction to bring students closer to their realized potential as learners through collaboration and constructivism. Bruffee (1993) views learning as an active, sociolinguistic process aided by small group activities and relationships made in the learning process. Brookfield (1986) finds that students who are successful self-directed learners are more field dependent as they view learning in a social context. Baxter Magolda (1992) found that college students’ ways of knowing and reasoning go through four stages:
1) absolute (knowledge held by external authority)
3) independent (own interpretations)
4) contextual (informed judgments)
Many of our students are in the absolute stage, so it is important that we provide guided experiences that help students think and problem solve so they may progress to stage four by graduation. We emphasize writing about relevant topics, reading about current issues as well as about textbook ideas, working in pairs and small groups, teacher-guided instruction and practice with student input, variety in instructional practices, discussion and discovery to build background and expose students to different perspectives, and self-reflection.
Cultural differences may have an impact on student perceptions of self-worth and student performance if the culture of home and school are significantly different (Brookfield, 1990; Bruffee, 1993; Pai & Adler, 1997). To be more cognizant of the potential cultural mismatch, teachers should engage in “culturally responsive teaching” to model effective communication processes (Wlodkowski & Ginsberg, 1995).
Physiological factors appear to affect learning preferences. Kitchens, Barber, & Barber (1991) noted that formal schooling favors left-brain thinking (language, analytical, linear thought process), so it is important that teachers present instruction that requires students to use both hemispheres. In that manner, students whose learning preferences are more right-brain (visual, spatial, creative, synthetic thinking) are not neglected.
Personality-based factors may impact the ways people approach learning. Witkin (1976) identified field-dependent and field-independent learners, with those who are field-dependent as having more difficulty distinguishing significant from nonsignificant details. If teachers provide some direction, this structure aids field-dependent learners, especially within the social interaction of the classroom, while not interfering with field-independent learners.
Students need a variety of instructional approaches to meet different learning preferences. Learning preferences can be modified if students incorporate learning strategies into their structures for learning. We use discussion prior to practice to share cultural frameworks and provide field-dependent learners with structure. We provide a variety of lesson formats to address differences in learning styles and preferences.
Garner’s (1987) work on metacognition helps explain how one knows himself and the task at hand so as to use his repertoire of learning strategies to approach new learning. Many of our course assignments require students to think about and respond to the processes involved in the task as well as to complete the product. Course goals are revised as the term progresses, as students make progress toward achievement of those goals, in accord with the work of Weinstein & Mayer (1986) and Pintrich (1995) toward self-regulated learning through goal setting and revision.
Cross & Steadman (1996) found different effects when learning-oriented (mastery) goals or grade-oriented (performance) goals were set, and Atkinson & Feather (1966) found that grade-oriented students either set goals so low that they could attain them or so high that they realistically could not be expected to achieve them – thus ensuring failure. We find that learning-oriented goals that focus on what students must accomplish to be competent in skill areas, with regular written and verbal feedback, self-reflection, and grades that are not calculated in grade point averages, allow students to focus on success.
As we structure classroom-learning situations, we rely on the work of Pintrich & Schunk (1996) who suggested four principles for classroom instruction to maximize self-regulatory learning:
and Presley’s (1995) emphasis on instructional matches with teacher modeling and practice. We provide detailed course syllabi, outlines, and assignments while making provisions for revision based on student input and progress. We make the courses challenging enough to stretch students, especially those who do not believe they “need” the courses, while reasonable enough in expectations that students are able to meet with success regularly. Staff are supportive and challenging; they are trusted by students and confident in students’ ability, so they are able to provide challenging yet reachable goals that help students commit to achievement. We work with students to develop both short-term goals in their regular assignments and long-term goals for end-of-term accomplishments and course recommendations. We use homework checks, conferences, written and verbal feedback, and students do journaling to provide us with feedback, particularly in reading and writing courses. Application of study strategies is regularly part of each course.
Developmental coursework at SIUE is systematically planned, implemented, and assessed with student needs in mind.
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