“Write Like College”: How Remedial Writing Courses at a Community College and a Research University Position “At-Risk” Students in the Field of Higher Education
by M. Kate Callahan & Donalda Chumney — 2009
Background/Context: Twenty percent of first-year students in public 4-year institutions and 42% of first-year students in public 2-year institutions in the United States enroll in remedial courses. Yet despite widespread remediation across U.S. colleges and universities, there remains a great deal of uncertainty about how remedial courses develop the academic skills and habits of mind required for students to succeed in college-level courses. Remediation at the college level is a widely debated practice, yet there is a dearth of research that assesses the efficacy of postsecondary remediation. In addition, there is evidence that student outcomes differ depending on whether students participated in remedial coursework at a community college or a 4-year institution. A theoretical analysis of first-year students’ experiences of remediation in both contexts may help to reveal the institutional structures that act to maintain or reduce this disparity in outcomes.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Two questions guided this study: (1) How do first-year developmental writing courses at a research university and a community college compare? (2) How do differences in institutional provisions of course content, instruction, and tutoring resources to remedial students at a research university and a community college impact students’ self-reported experiences in the first year of college? To address these questions, we analyze the relationship between postsecondary institutional structures and the efficacy of remedial writing instruction for underprepared students by examining the experiences and outcomes of remedial writing students enrolled in two institutions, an urban community college and an urban research university. We apply Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of practice and consider remedial writing as a position in the field of higher education.
Research Design: A qualitative comparative case study approach was used, including three primary methods of data collection: ethnographic observations of students and instructors during one semester of course meetings; taped interviews with instructors, students, and a college writing program director; and a compiled catalog of course documents including course syllabi, class notes, assignments, and samples of student writing provided by instructors. Both course instructors also provided data on student performance. Using Atlas.ti qualitative analysis software, we coded and categorized field notes and interview transcripts to facilitate the development of theoretical concepts.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Although remedial writing can be viewed as a subordinate position in the overall field of higher education, our ethnographic study reveals that institutions further determine the advantage or disadvantage of remedial students by controlling their access to cultural capital and the supportive academic resources that are critical for navigating the field of higher education successfully. In addition, although all students in the two courses seemed to possess a college-going habitus, only students enrolled in the remedial writing program at the 4-year university acquired a habitus of what is required to be successful once enrolled. We believe that these findings may inform postsecondary remediation practices and add a new angle to the debate over whether remedial courses have a place at 4-year institutions. In particular, our findings suggest that it is not the type of institution but the confluence of curriculum, pedagogy, and level of resources afforded to students by the institution that influences students’ experiences with remediation.
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