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Remedial education (also known as developmental education, basic skills education, compensatory education, preparatory education, and academic upgrading) is assigned to assist students in order to achieve expected competencies in core academic skills such as literacy and numeracy.[1]

Whereas special education is designed specifically for students with special needs,[2] remedial education can be designed for any students, with or without special needs;[3] the defining trait is simply that they have reached a point of lack of preparedness, regardless of why. For example, even people of high intelligence can be under-prepared if their education was disrupted,[4] for example, by internal displacement during civil disorder or a war.

In Canada

In Canada, the process whereby mature students take secondary school courses so that they can qualify to take post-secondary education is called academic upgrading.[5] The Workers' Compensation Board of Nova Scotia defines academic upgrading as "programs offered to adult learners who require the academic pre-requisites needed for entry into many occupational programs." The Alberta Ministry of Enterprise and Advanced Education advises that academic upgrading can be pursued through a post-secondary institution, a school board program such as a storefront school, or via distance learning.[6]

In the United States

In the U.S., postsecondary remediation is delivered on both 2-year community college and 4-year university campuses. The bulk of remedial courses focus on advancing underprepared students' literacy skills (English [Basic writing] and reading) or math skills.[7] However, remedial courses can also be offered for other subjects such as science or study skills.[8]

Student placement

Many students are placed into remedial courses through placement tests such as the ACT,[9] SAT,[10] ACCUPLACER,[11] or COMPASS assessments.[12] Often, each college or university sets its own score thresholds for determining whether a student must enroll in remedial courses. However, some states are moving toward a uniform standard for remedial placement cut scores. Students are required to enroll in remedial courses before advancing to a college-level course in that subject. Colleges review a student's score by subject - math, English, science, etc. - and compare that score to the school's cutoff.[13] For example, a college might use a score of 19 on the ACT math section as the threshold for determining whether a student must enroll in a remedial math course or college-level math course.

Particularly at community colleges – which are open enrollment to any student with a high school degree[14] or GED – multiple semesters of remedial coursework may be available to and required of students who enter with low placement test scores.[15]

Whether placement tests are the most effective method of placing students is an open debate across the US. Some colleges and states are experimenting with using high school GPA and placement test scores to determine student course referral. A study of placement tests by the Community College Research Center in 2012 found:[13]

Placement test scores are not especially good predictors of course grades in developmental education classes. More importantly, the tests do not have much explanatory power across a range of measures of performance including college GPA, credit accumulation, and success in gatekeeper English and math classes.

— Clive Belfield and Peter M. Crosta

Using GPA with standardized test scores may also improve the accuracy of remedial placement and limit the likelihood of placing students into additional remedial courses they may not need. North Carolina recently implemented a statewide policy that allows two-year colleges to use both placement test scores and high school GPA to place students.[16]

Student enrollment

Estimates on the portion of students in higher education taking remedial courses vary. At two-year colleges the percentage reported of students taking at least 1 remedial course varies from 41% to as high as 60%.[17][18] Students from low-income households, African American students and Hispanic students are more likely to enroll in remedial courses.[17] National estimates show that among two-year college students, students age 17-19 are most likely to enroll in remedial courses followed by students age 20-24 and then students age 25+.[19]

The likelihood of remedial placement varies among states because of high school preparation, student demographics and state policies for assessing and placing students in remedial courses. Previous proportions of recent high school graduates enrolling in remedial courses at two-year colleges range from over 70% in Tennessee to 31% in North Carolina.[20] The proportion of students enrolling in remedial courses on public, four-year college campuses is generally lower, ranging from 35% in South Dakota to 5% in Washington state.[21]

The state of Colorado issued a 2012 report on remedial placement showing that 40% of recent high school students enrolled in remedial courses at both two-year and four-year colleges. Sixty-six (66%) of students enrolled in a two-year college and 24% of students at a four-year institution needed remediation.[22]

Educators and researchers also question whether many of the students directed into remediation ultimately need the course work, and some studies have found that the current method of using placement tests to assign students to remedial courses may be related to overplacement.[23]

Course delivery

There is an active debate on how remedial courses should be delivered to students.[24] Students who are placed into remedial courses have differing skill levels and needs for support. There is an active debate on whether students that are on the upper end of the skill spectrum may be most successful bypassing remedial coursework and enrolling in college-level courses with additional tutoring (see National Efforts to Strengthen Remediation). In contrast, students with larger skill deficiencies may require substantial math and English instruction before they can succeed academically. Researchers continue to investigate and make recommendations for effective remedial education models.[25]

Currently, remedial education courses are delivered many ways across the United States:

  1. Traditional, semester-long courses;
  2. Cohort models that group a class of students together in a series of remedial courses;
  3. Placing students in college-level courses with mandated tutoring or supplementary instruction;
  4. Modularized courses that target particularly student skills;
  5. Intensive, compressed courses that accelerate student readiness;
  6. Courses that integrate remedial content with occupational skills;
  7. Self-guided computer-based courses that adapt to student skill deficiencies;
  8. Online, in computer-based, traditional semester model.

In 2011, a nonprofit did a review of studies on remedial education delivery and found that "programs that show the greatest benefits with relatively rigorous documentation either mainstream developmental students into college-level courses with additional supports, provide modularized or compressed courses to allow remedial students to more quickly complete their developmental work, or offer contextualized remedial education within occupational and vocational programs."[26]

Accelerating the pace at which students progress through remedial courses is a reform now regularly highlighted in academic research and advocacy as effective for increasing student success. Often, remedial courses do not count toward a student's graduation requirements and taking many semesters of remedial education can lengthen a student's path to graduation and take up much needed financial aid. The Community College Research Center has found that accelerating a student's remedial English requirements resulted in a higher likelihood of students completing their remedial sequences, a higher likelihood of enrolling in college-level English courses and a higher likelihood of students receiving a 'C' or better in the college-level course.[27]

Online Courses: Some colleges have explored the possibility of providing remedial education courses online for students; however, evidence indicates that completion of online remedial courses is lower across almost every group of students compared to in-person remedial instruction.[28] There is also evidence that students enrolling in online remedial education are less likely than their in-person counterparts to continue on to college-level coursework in the same subject.[29]

The methods for delivering remedial education and whether to deliver remedial education are active debates in the U.S. As Bahr (Bahr 2008a, pp. 420–421) explains, "On one hand, it fills an important niche in U.S. higher education by providing opportunities to rectify disparities generated in primary education and secondary schooling, to develop the minimum skills deemed necessary for functional participation in the economy and the democracy, and to acquire the prerequisite competencies that are crucial for negotiating college-level coursework. On the other hand, critics argue that taxpayers should not be required to pay twice for the same educational opportunities, that remediation diminishes academic standards and devalues post-secondary credentials, and that the large number of underprepared students entering colleges and universities demoralizes faculty. Following from these critiques, some have argued for a major restructuring of remediation or even the elimination of remedial programs altogether.[30]"

Research on outcomes

Depending on their skill level upon entering college, students can spend one or more semesters working to fulfill remedial requirements before advancing to college-level courses required for their degree. An example of a full sequence of math remedial courses for low-skill students might include: 1) Pre-Collegiate Math, 2) Basic Algebra, and 3) Intermediate Algebra.[31] There are many questions about how this structure both benefits students by increasing their preparation and harms students by increasing the courses required and time needed to complete college. Thomas Bailey from the Community College Research Center describes this in a 2010 report:[31]

For example, those with the greatest need for developmental math may be expected to enroll in and pass pre-collegiate math or arithmetic, basic algebra, and intermediate algebra, in order to prepare them for college-level algebra.

Complete College America, a national non-profit working on remedial education reform,[32] reports that among remedial students at two-year colleges 62% complete their remedial course and 23% complete associated college-level courses in that subject within 2 years (for example, complete math remediation and the college-level math requirements for their degree). On 4-year college campuses, 74% of students in remedial courses complete the course, and 37% complete remediation and an associated college-level course in that subject within 2 years.[19] The same report projects that 9.5% of two-year college students starting in remediation will graduate within 3 years, and 35.1% of 4-year college students starting in remedial courses will graduate within 6 years.

Similarly, a nationwide study of two year college students participating in remedial education found 46% of students referred to remedial reading and 33% of students in math remediation completed their remedial sequence. A substantial portion of these non-completing students – 29% in math and 16% in reading – did so because they did not pass their remedial course.[31] Another 11% of math students and 9% of reading students exited college without ever having failed or completed a remedial course. Students that enrolled in college and were placed into a sequence of 3 or more remedial courses were the least likely to persist to a college-level course. Like in all education pathways, there are many different points at which remedial students can step out of education. Research from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University suggests that many students do not complete their remedial sequences or do not enroll in the first college-level course in that subject.[33]

National efforts

Over the last several years, a large amount of philanthropic and research attention has been directed at remedial education programs.[34] Often, focus on remedial education is directed at 1) increasing the successful completion of remedial sequences 2) increasing the overall number of students with college degrees and certificates in the US and 3) decreasing the cost of remedial education to colleges and states.[35]

Complete College America

A national non-profit organization, Complete College America (CCA), was established in 2009 and looks at paths to improving higher education outcomes for all students. The organization has provided large amounts of national data on the proportion of students enrolled in remedial courses across demographic groups. The organization has also worked with states to set goals for increasing college completion and making adjustments to higher education policies. Currently, CCA heavily promotes enrolling more students directly into college-level courses even though they would traditionally test into remedial courses. The organization also heavily promotes better aligning remedial courses with college-level courses, and using diverse measures of student academic standing for remedial placement.[36]

Achieving the Dream

Originally an initiative led by the Lumina Foundation, Achieving the Dream focuses on increasing the success of college students – particularly students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. Starting in 2004 the project funded promising, data driven approaches to strengthening remedial education coursework. Today, Achieving the Dream is its own, national organization with the same driving mission: "Achieving the Dream is a national reform network dedicated to community college student success and completion; focused primarily on helping low-income students and students of color complete their education and obtain market-valued credentials." The organization continues to fund positive interventions that move underprepared students through remediation with greater success and features a list of best practices and exemplary colleges from which other higher education administrators can learn. Achieving the Dream promotes many different promising interventions that can increase the success of students including: first-year student success courses that provide students with the skills to navigate college expectations/academics more effectively, accelerated remedial courses in math and English, student mentoring and coaching, mandatory orientations for new students and supplementary computer tutoring for remedial students.[37] Achieving the Dream also takes an active role in state policy advocacy and is currently working in 15 states to strengthen student remedial success.[38]

Core Principles Statement

In December 2012, The Dana Center at the University of Texas, Complete College America, Education Commission of the States, and Jobs for the Future released "Core Principles for Transforming Remedial Education: A Joint Statement" with 7 key principles for strengthening community college remedial programs. The statement's principles included: aligning remedial courses with a student's long-term area of study at the college, using multiple measures to placement students in remedial courses, requiring all students –including under-prepared students– to pick a program of study when they enter college, integrating academic support services into pre college-level coursework, creating accelerated course models with students with larger skill deficiencies, and measuring completion of remedial courses.[39]

Strategies that accelerate students through remedial coursework and on to college-level (also called gatekeeper) courses are widely promoted as one path to increasing the success of under-prepared students.[31]

Changes in North Carolina

In 2012, North Carolina underwent a wide scale redesign of their remedial education programs.[40] Branded as 'Success NC', the program's Developmental Education Initiative takes steps to redesign math and reading curricula, move students through remedial courses faster and better assess and place students. NC colleges can now incorporate high school grades into their course placement decisions. Additionally, starting in 2014, all colleges will deliver remedial reading & English in 3 shorter, 8 week modules for some students while allowing higher level remedial students to enroll in college-level English courses with required supplementary English instruction.[40]

Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation

In 2009 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation appropriated $16.5 million to 15 colleges in 5 states to promote promising interventions in the remedial education.[41] Fueled by the broader goal of increasing the number of college graduates nationwide, the Gates Foundation promoted remedial interventions that proved successful, particularly low-income students and students of color, through the Lumina Foundation's Achieving the Dream Initiative.[42] A host of findings, recommendations and best practices —-including 25 Steps to Effective Remedial Education—-from the Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation investments are now available through the Development Education Initiative through Achieving the Dream.[43]

In California AB 705

In October 13, 2017 Governor Edmund Gerald Brown Jr. had signed into law that passed and took effect January 1, 2018 to eliminate standardized placement exams to California Community Colleges Chancellor's office and that required to maximize probability students will enter and complete transfer level courses they were highly unlikely to succeed in Transfer level, by using a multiple measures a high school coursework, GPA, and Grades, high school performance that are more stronger than a standardized test, that aren't good measuring, for the reason most students are placed too many students to remedial courses may have a less education goals, AB 705 that ensures to all students not place to remedial courses that can delays and deter educational progress unless evidence Suggests that are highly unlikely to succeed In college level course.

AB 705 Timelines

English and Math: Fall 2019.

ESL: Fall 2020

Developmental Education

Another way to think of remedial education would be developmental education. Developmental education and remedial education are often used synonymously.[44] They were both designed to teach college- and university-level coursework that is designed to make up for knowledge and ability gaps for students considered unprepared for college-level work. [45]At California-based two-year institutions, such as community colleges, students enrolled in developmental education courses account for 40% of their undergraduates. At California-based 4-year institutions, such as CSUs and UCs, every 4 out of 10 students enroll in a minimum of 1 developmental education course. [46]

From developmental education sprang the Accelerated Learning Program (ALP), which is a formal course of study. This program was initially started in part by Peter Adams at the Community College of Baltimore County. This program places a student who has been declared to need further progression in their education to meet college-level requirements to enroll in a first-year composition class where 50% of the students are ALP students and 50% have been placed in first-year composition. It is reported that 74% of students have passed first-year composition as a result of ALP. [47]ALP is reported to be a well-known national program that has served as a template for hundreds of colleges across. The community college of Baltimore County is one college that has shown long-term statistics showing the effectiveness of this co-requisite program.[48]

The variety of student demographics and their respective level of preparedness also play a role in the success of developmental education.[49] A study done at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University found that students who were placed in developmental courses after scoring close to the college-level cutoffs appear to have experienced far more negative or no consequences. In contrast, students who fell just short of the upper- and lower-level developmental course cutoffs and were enrolled in the lower course experienced a higher percentage of beneficial results.[50]

In Europe

While remedial programmes are common in the United States, they are less common in Europe. Nevertheless, several European higher education institutes have started to offer remedial education programmes as well.[51] One of the reasons why European universities are starting to develop remedial courses is the different situation in the two continents. In the United States, a common assumption is that remediation attracts underprepared students of low socioeconomic status. Inadequate academic preparation is no longer a barrier to college access. In contrast, in Europe, a large part of the transitional problems are caused by differences among national secondary educational programmes, which are determined on a national level.[52] Therefore, these students are hindered to effectively start a bachelor or master programme. Remedial or developmental courses can help to bridge the gap.

European Framework of Transitional Preparatory/Remedial Teaching

To be able to compare and assess various preparatory courses in Europe, a European framework of transitional courses is necessary. By developing European Framework for Transitional Preparatory Courses (EFTPC), teachers around Europe can see how their design of their courses fit with the framework. In addition, potential improvements are identified and can be extended with the insights from the field. By using the wiki technology, each teacher can add his/her suggestions to the EFTPC. This Framework is being developed in frame of European project STEP (Studies on Transitional Electronic Programmes).


The question that rises is whether successful completion of a remedial course guarantees students' success in college. The literature provides limited evidence for the effectiveness of remedial courses on outcomes such as: persistence to graduation, quality of performance in subsequent courses, drop-out, and grade point average. Many researchers claim that very little research has been conducted to investigate the effectiveness of remedial or developmental education and that research concerning the effectiveness of remedial education programs has been sporadic, underfunded, and inconclusive and has serious methodological flaws. Recently, efforts have been made to use more rigorous research designs (e.g. regression discontinuity design) to evaluate remedial effectiveness and suggest that post-remediation classroom composition (e.g., concentrated underpreparedness) moderates developmental education effectiveness efforts.[53]


One way of measuring the effectiveness of a developmental/remedial program is to investigate whether the enrolled students actually complete the remedial courses successfully. Several research studies have found that underprepared students who completed remedial coursework achieve greater academic success than underprepared students who did not complete remedial coursework or students who started college academically prepared. Such findings support McCabe's statement that successfully-remediated students perform well in standard college work.[54]

Despite the claim that a number of rigorous studies using a regression discontinuity design have found underprepared students who score near placement test cut off scores and enroll in remedial education perform no better than similarly scoring students who place directly into college level courses, several studies have demonstrated developmental education programs provide benefit.[55][56]

This may in part be due to the "leakage" that often occurs from the beginning of a developmental program to its end. Research from the Community College Research Center indicates that even students who successfully complete a developmental class often drop out of school before entering credit programs [55]

Acceleration Programs in Developmental Education

This has led to Acceleration in Developmental Education with The Community College of Baltimore County and the California Completion Project perhaps the two leading proponents. These programs merge (in different ways) developmental classes with credit classes.

Success factors

Kozeracki (2002)[57] distinguishes seven commonly cited elements that are associated with student success in developmental programs:

Other research suggests that "bridge" programs that integrate basic skills and remedial education with higher-level content or technical training can produce substantially better results than traditional remedial programs.[58]

Online remedial education

Online remedial education is defined as an instruction method using Information and communication technologies (ICT) which helps students to provide knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in university.[59] This way, foreign students can study in their home country, which reduces their costs while at the same time offering flexibility to develop their knowledge and skills. ICT has the power to support independent learning as well as to learn irrespective of time and geographical constraints with the widespread implementation of internet. [60]

Advantages and disadvantages

Advantages and possibilities:

Disadvantages and problems:

Role of teachers

In order to provide a positive experience and to ensure the effectiveness of online remedial courses, the tutor's roles in designing and organizing the learning experience, providing technical advice and support, encouraging and facilitating discussion, encouraging participation, using a variety of forms of instruction, and resolving communication problems are crucial.[52]

Collaborative tools

A recent development in collaborative working and learning is the use of synchronous tools like web-videoconferences whereby learners meet online at a fixed time (synchronous) in an online classroom.[61] While web-videoconferencing is not a new phenomenon, tools like Skype, MSN Web Messenger and Adobe Acrobat Connect allow learners to efficiently communicate using free or low cost technology such as a simple desktop computer. Until recently, such basic technology would only allow for asynchronous learning, as for example in discussion groups.

See also


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