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.