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Rethinking remedial education is essential to student success

The University of New Mexico is rethinking remedial education by developing innovative approaches to improving student success.

We now offer specially designed courses in introductory writing and math that allow students who previously might have taken remedial courses to start earning UNM credits immediately, moving them more swiftly and successfully through their undergraduate careers.

Many students need additional help to transition to the expectations of college courses and our colleagues at CNM have done a fine job of serving our students in this capacity by offering non-credit-bearing introductory studies courses on UNM’s main campus.

However, as the Legislative Finance Council recently reported, an examination of programs at other colleges and universities suggests that it is best for students to get that extra help in courses that are fully integrated into college-level curricula and earn credit toward a degree.

Over the past two years, UNM has invested millions of dollars in new faculty, curriculum and instructional space that have made it possible to transform the way we teach first-year students.

In terms of introductory writing courses, two recently piloted programs suggest that we can eliminate reliance on courses that do not carry college credit.

Our “Stretch” program extends the work of the first semester writing course over two semesters, accompanied by overall assistance in the transition to college. In a trial run last summer, 100 percent of the students completed the first semester of work.

In our equally successful “Studio” program, students began typical first semester writing immediately and were supported with an extra one-credit-hour course that provided additional assistance in college-level writing. UNM is now prepared to extend these opportunities to all main campus students in the 2014-2015 academic year.

Introductory mathematics courses have long been a significant barrier to the progress of UNM students. Over the past year and a half, we have worked to change this pattern by dramatically altering the teaching methodology in what is the first math course for many students: Intermediate Algebra.

Students now use self-paced programs in our new Math Learning Laboratory (MaLL), one of President Robert Frank’s first major initiatives at UNM. We now deliver Intermediate Algebra across three one-credit courses, which allows students to master the elements of intermediate algebra in smaller modules than in the past.

Because students must master the material to complete the course, more are finishing with A’s and B’s, and we know this level of mastery is likely to improve their success in subsequent math courses.

We are now exploring the possibility of using this pedagogy to teach students who in the past would have been placed in math courses that do not carry college credit.

Work in the MaLL will produce more successful transitions to college-level math and can greatly reduce, though not eliminate, the reliance on remedial courses.

Legislators on both sides of the aisle have made it clear that they would like all institutions of higher education in the state to do a better job of graduating more students in a more timely fashion. They have also made it clear that, in times of tight budgets, we need to reduce the amount the state spends on college education that repeats courses taught at the high school level.

UNM students and their families have also emphasized that they would like us to do all we can to shorten the time to degree to reduce the financial burden on families.

We have heard these messages loud and clear. UNM has embraced a wide range of initiatives in undergraduate education that have already improved our six-year graduation rates by more than three percentage points in the past two years.

We expect these changes will soon lead to the best graduation rates in the modern history of this University. Rethinking remedial education is essential for sustaining this improved record of student success.