Menu: Accelerated Learning – Best with Sides

Hodara, M., & Jaggars, S. S. (2014). An Examination of the Impact of Accelerating Community College Students’ Progression Through Developmental Education. The Journal of Higher Education, 85(2), 246–276. doi:10.1353/jhe.2014.0006

Menu:  Accelerated Learning – Best with sides

Most community colleges are feverishly trying to meet President Obama’s College Completion Challenge of increasing the number of students who complete a degree or another credential by 50% by the year 2020.  The task is large.  Fewer than 30% of community college students graduate within 6 years.  Even fewer who come in testing into below-college level (aka developmental) courses graduate within 6 years (College Completion Challenge Fact Sheet).  Whether you are neo-liberal and want students to contribute to the economy or an old-fashioned liberal and want equality for all people especially those who have been traditionally under-served, you may find this article examining accelerated learning in English and math classes at the City University of New York (CUNY) community colleges a worthy read.

There are several items on the menu of strategies to helping the under-prepared learner progress toward graduation – e.g. accelerated learning, contextualized learning, and problem-based learning.  This article focuses on accelerated learning – an approach in which the developmental sequence of courses an under-prepared student must take is shortened or sometimes offered concurrently with college-level courses.  The authors examined data from the six CUNY community colleges.  Students in the CUNY system are diverse:  “15% of students are Asian, 29% are black, 37% are Latino, and 19% are White; …48% are first-generation college students; and 46% have household incomes under $20,000” (City University of New York 2011 in Hodara & Jaggars 2014).  Overseeing all this diversity is a centralized developmental education testing policy with firm cut off scores at which students are placed in developmental education classes.  Each of the six colleges, though, was more or less free to design their own “menu” or developmental course sequence.

The authors found that the English and Math departments did not tend to consult with their sister departments in the district resulting in varying developmental sequences at each college.  Though to me that seems an oversight of administration, it provided the researchers with a ripe opportunity to compare length of developmental course sequences across the district through analysis of data without having to design an experiment.  In English, the researchers designated the treatment group as two colleges that had a single course of either of six or seven credits and compared those to four colleges with two classes in their sequence.  In Math, the control group was determined to be the five colleges that had three developmental math classes compared to the one college making up the treatment group that had only two developmental math courses.  Data were made available to the researchers over a 10 year period which allowed for some longitudinal following of students out of the community college into the CUNY universities.

The methodology is where things get complicated (and honestly over my head at this very early point in my doctoral program).  The researchers were concerned that just comparing outcomes of students in the short (treatment) vs long (control) term sequences would not account for confounding variables.   They noticed gender, race, and financial aid assistance differences right away and wanted to account for high school performance and students’ academic and professional goals.  By using a couple of logistic regression models, the researchers were able to compare like students to each other e.g. students with similar high school, region of birth, citizenship status, and college major.  This section has much more detail to it and I encourage readers with appropriate expertise to explore it further and those without to trust in the prestige of the Journal of Higher Education to believe the researchers did it right!

In general, students in the accelerated courses had better outcomes in their courses and in subsequent college courses than students in the control groups.  The results were not robust, though, and there was some difference between the English and the math sequences.  Students in the accelerated English sequences were more likely to get to college-level English and to accumulate credits and graduate.  However, students in the math sequence, though they passed college-level math, did not demonstrate long-term college success.  Academic policies within the institutions may contribute to that finding.  The authors report that passing college-level English is required for many other courses allowing those students to continue to make progress toward degree completion while passing college-level math does not necessarily lead to progress in other courses for non-STEM majors.

One aspect of this article’s contribution to the field is its interesting perspective on the role of community colleges in the field of higher education.  The authors suggest that community colleges may actually create barriers against achieving a college education – the opposite of their mission of increasing accessibility to higher education for those who might not have the option to attend university.  Since more first-generation and students of color start at community college that may inadvertently create a class system stratifying the middle and upper class white students into the universities and the students of color and low-income students to community college.

Another contribution is the authors’ acknowledgement in the discussion that the generally modest gains seen for the students in the accelerated classes can likely be improved by “more thoughtfully designed reforms incorporating stronger student supports” leading to “substantial increases in developmental students’ college-level credit accrual and graduation rates” (Hodara & Jaggars 2014).  Also, that as colleges continue to work on meeting the completion challenge with improved graduation rates that collaborative conversations around developmental education are more likely to happen thus building relationships and infusing diverse perspectives to provide a more nutritious meal that includes healthy sides in addition to the main dish of accelerated learning.

The influence this article has on me and my evolving line of inquiry is that, before taking this class, I was considering pursuing an interest in data analysis – partly because I was getting tired of feeling as though I wasn’t making the difference I had hoped to in the classroom.  Though I believe familiarity with data and careful analysis is crucial to effective teaching and effective programs, I find that the the analysis is not quite as tasty to me as the prospect of creating a colorful and nutritious “meal” with a variety of sides that complement the main dish.



Hodara, M., & Jaggars, S. S. (2014). An Examination of the Impact of Accelerating Community College Students’ Progression Through Developmental Education. The Journal of Higher Education, 85(2), 246–276. doi:10.1353/jhe.2014.0006

The College Completion Fact Sheet. American Association of Community Colleges.  Retrieved from