Basic Skills Instruction in Community Colleges: the Dominance of Remedial Pedagogy

Year of publication: 
July 2011
Policy Analysis for California Education

In the second of eleven PACE Working Papers, W. Norton Grubb et al, continue their analysis of basic skills education in California Community Colleges.

A previous working paper argued, that, to understand basic skills education, it is necessary to observe classrooms to see what the “instructional triangle” involving the instructor, students, and content is like. This working paper presents the results of observing classes in 13 community colleges. It starts with a conceptualization of instruction, distinguishing behaviorist teaching, constructivist teaching, and hybrid teaching that combines the two (as well as several other dimensions of quality), and provides various reasons why hybrid or constructivist teaching is likely to be more effective than behaviorist teaching.

One notable feature of remedial classrooms is the consistent encouragement and support of students. Sometimes this takes the form of support classes or Student Success courses, but often it is simply part of common instructional practice.

However, the majority of basic skills classes follow what we call remedial pedagogy — drill and practice on sub-skills, usually devoid of any references to how these skills are used in subsequent courses or in adult roles. Remedial pedagogy takes different forms in math, reading, writing, and ESL (where it is least common). Unfortunately, remedial pedagogy violates many of the precepts of effective instruction presented in the first section of this paper, so there are reasons to think that this approach is partly responsible for the lack of success in developmental education.

Fortunately, there are many alternatives to remedial pedagogy, some of which are outlined in this paper and many of which are further developed in Working Paper 3.


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