Rethinking remedial classes

Students in remedial classes are tested plenty, but don’t have the chance to apply skills outside the classroom, Grubb says.

Longtime Berkeley professor W. Norton Grubb is one of the leading researchers of the community college system. His latest study, “Basic Skills Education in Community Colleges: Inside and Outside of Classrooms,” took more than three years to complete and led him to 20 California community colleges and 180 classrooms.

It is, perhaps, the most comprehensive portrait to date of the current state of remedial education.

But his findings may be somewhat disheartening to both teachers and students alike. Grubb was shocked to discover that most professors were clinging to an outdated approach to teaching basic math, reading and writing.

“The dominant form of teaching in these classes is this: Drill and practice on small sub-skills without ever getting to the larger competencies that are really important,” says Grubb. “The teaching is often totally decontextualized. There’s no application to anything outside the classroom. It’s just these freestanding exercises. So the students can’t see the relevance to the world outside the classroom.”

Although teachers often readily admitted this was not the best method, Grubb found they typically struggled to shift to modern techniques. Various forms of professional development already exist for these professors, but Grubb advocates for a thorough basic skills teacher certification process. 

“This idea is not popular in higher education. But it’s the pattern in K-12 education: People need to have certificates before they can start in the classroom,” he explains.  “With very few exceptions, that’s not true in higher education, because they want to distinguish themselves from K-12.”


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