Groups of students hover around desks in an Oklahoma City Community College classroom, conferring with each other about the math problems on the worksheets in front of them.
Today, the lesson is on factoring equations. Instructors walk from one group to another, talking to each about multiples, products and greatest common factors.
Strictly speaking, this isn't a college-level math class. Credit won't count toward students' degrees, and their GPAs won't reflect how they did.
But experts say courses like this one — and how they're conducted — are a critical factor in whether a student graduates with a degree or leaves college empty-handed.
Such low-level classes, commonly called remediation or developmental courses, are generally geared toward students who aren't ready for college-level work. But research has shown students who wind up in these classes are less likely than their peers ever to graduate.
In a 2011 report, nonprofit Complete College America calls developmental courses “the Bermuda Triangle of higher education.” According to the report, about 35 percent of bachelor's students who take these courses graduate with a degree within six years, compared with 56 percent of the overall student population.
Higher education officials worry that trend could hamper the state's ability to meet its college completion goals. Glen Johnson, chancellor of the Oklahoma Higher Education system, has called for an additional 20,400 degrees and certificates awarded in Oklahoma over the next 12 years.
That concern is leading some schools, including OCCC's math department, to rethink the way they handle developmental courses. Department director Tamara Carter said the department tried a number of different options that had been implemented in schools around the country. In the end, she said, the department kept the pieces of each plan that worked for OCCC.
“It was a huge transition,” she said.
The college's old developmental math program closely resembled the traditional college model, Carter said — students mainly listened to lectures and took tests.
Under the new model, courses are more varied, she said. Students spend a certain amount of time in lectures, and then move to another room where they work through math problems in small groups. Then, they move to a third room, where they work through more problems on computers, with instructors on hand to answer questions.
The new model also includes an array of other pieces, including a new course designed to teach students skills like study habits and time management. Those skills are particularly important for older students who may be several years removed from high school, Carter said.
Although the new model is only two years old, it already appears to be paying dividends. One semester after the program was implemented, the department saw a sharp increase in the student success rate, climbing from 42 percent in the spring 2010 semester to 55 percent the following fall. That figure has continued to climb, reaching 62 percent in fall 2011.
Fewer students are withdrawing from the course, as well. During the fall 2011 semester, the course's withdraw rate was 12 percent, a sharp drop from the 25 percent withdraw rate the program saw during the spring semester of 2010.
Statewide, about 42 percent of public college students enrolled in at least one remediation course during the 2010-2011 academic year. Of that total, 79 percent were community college students.
Tony Hutchison, the Oklahoma System of Higher Education's vice chancellor for strategic planning and analysis, said that trend is at least partly the result of a conscious effort to push remedial course offerings to community colleges.
Because community colleges cost less, students who take development courses at community colleges tend to use up less of their financial aid packages taking those courses than they would if they took them at a four-year school.
Efforts to curb the statewide remediation rate appear to be paying off. During the 2010-2011 academic year, Oklahoma saw a drop over the previous year in first-time freshmen enrolling in remediation courses.
That drop was sharpest among students coming directly from high school — 35.7 percent of those students enrolled in remediation courses in 2010, down from 40.3 percent in 2009.
Range of efforts
That drop is at least partially the result of a range of efforts on the state level to keep students out of those courses to begin with, said Cindy Brown. One of the key tools at the system's disposal is the Oklahoma Educational Planning and Assessment System, the system's director for student preparation.
The system provides students and parents with reports that show how the student is doing in specific areas, based on how he or she performed on tests. The reports allow students and parents to identify areas where the student needs to improve, so he or she can focus on those topics, Brown said.
It also gives teachers similar reports that show how their classes perform on tests. If an entire class answers a certain type of question incorrectly, Brown said, the teacher can adjust his or her instruction to help students understand the topic better.
Although the process is ongoing, Brown said students' test scores are showing progress, and she expects the upward trend to continue.
“It's slow and steady,” she said. “But that's how education is.”