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Technical College Rethinks Approach to Remedial Education

Athens Technical College math professor Vidya Nahar assists a student in her newly re-designed learning support math course.
Maura Walz
Southern Education Desk

Georgia higher education officials have a goal: by 2020, they want 60 percent of young adults in the state to earn some kind of college credential.

They’ve got a long way to go. In 2011, just over 36 percent of 24 to 34-year-olds in that state had earned an Associates Degree or better, about another 6 percent have a certificate.

Since passing the Grad Act in 2010, Louisiana has been pushing for colleges and universities to boost their graduation rates by allowing them to hike tuition if they do. But Louisiana is still far behind – fewer than 31 percent of young adults have a degree.

One big barrier? Most students enter college unprepared to handle the coursework – and many end up dropping out. One technical college in Georgia is trying new ways to catch those students up.

Remedial education needs a makeover. Roughly 23,000 students in Georgia take these learning support classes to catch them up on basic skills they need to succeed in college, but only a quarter of them ever graduate.

So people like Carol Myers, dean of general education at Athens Technical College, are trying to figure out a better way. The key, Myers says, is to get students through learning support quickly so they don't become discouraged and drop out. But at the same time, the courses must be strong enough to prepare students for the rigors of college work.

"So you don't want to just push them through, get them in there and have them fail," Myers said. "It's not just getting as many students passing, you want them to pass and stay enrolled. And that's really the challenge."

That's why learning support math classes at Athens Tech now look like this: a computer lab full of students each working individually on lessons and quizzes, with professor Vidya Nahar moving from student to student, answering questions. Nahar says it's a huge change from traditional remedial courses.

"In traditional class I would walk in and say this is the lesson we are going to do. I'd go to the board and start lecturing, without realizing how many are there with me or how many had fallen behind or whatever," Nahar said. "Now it's one-on-one. It's like having 20 classrooms under one roof."

Each student works through the lessons at his or her own pace. If they fail a test or quiz, Nahar helps them figure out why. Students can't move on until they've mastered each lesson, which Nahar says works better than the old way, when teachers would move on even if every student didn't understand every concept.

"If students didn't understand fractions, they would still pass the course, but that fraction will catch up with them in the higher level courses."

Nahar says that the new class format creates more work for her. But she's not complaining.

"I enjoy teaching this way," Nahar said. "I mean, I feel I was a good teacher even when I was teaching traditional class, but the interaction with students was not was much as the interaction with students is now. I get to know each student personally."

And while some students say that the flexible model makes it feel like they're teaching themselves, nursing student Hannah McLean says it's helped ease the anxiety she used to feel around math.

"Like, I have to take a test today -- I'm not looking forward to it, but I'm not like, oh my gosh, I'm not coming to class because of that test," McLean said.

McLean and fellow nursing student Leann Wilson say that their new confidence has been reflected in their grades.

"It hasn't been such a struggle like it was in high school," Wilson said.

"That's the thing," McLean added, "I mean, I made an A. I've never seen an A in math, ever."

And Athens Tech dean Alyson Heil says that when students make high grades in their remedial courses, they're more likely to thrive when they make it to collegiate-level classes.

"One thing I can say that every single student who enrolled in their college level course that went through the redesign, actually passed their college level course. So those that have taken it, passed it," Heil said.

And Athens Tech's success is prompting other schools around the country to follow suit. The Complete College America initiative, which funded Athens Tech's re-design, just released a report encouraging community colleges to adopt the type of changes the school has modeled.

This story comes from the Southern Education Desk, a public media consortium exploring the challenges and opportunities for education in the region.