Undoing the Endless Cycle of Developmental Education: Where to Begin?

by Wendy Howerter, Ed.D. / Feb 22, 2017

Community colleges are well aware of the rate of students entering college needing some level of developmental education. This is not only a problem at community colleges but also at 4-year institutions, although remediation is more intensive among students who begin at public 2-year institutions than among their peers who begin at public 4-year institutions (Chen & Simone, 2016, p. 16). In 2003-2004, 28% of entering community college students needed to take developmental English/reading (Chen & Simone, 2016). Of the students beginning at public 2-year institutions who needed to take developmental English/reading, 63% completed all developmental courses, 16% completed some, and 21% completed none of their developmental English/reading courses (American Association of Community Colleges, 2016). The need for remediation is ever present at Lincoln Land Community College (LLCC) as well.

At LLCC we found that many criminal justice students were not completing degrees. As our criminal justice faculty noted, there are several things that impact student completion in criminal justice. First, depending on job placement goals, a degree may not be required. Second, students can transfer without completing a degree. And third, many students get caught in the repeating cycle of trying to complete and move up the developmental education ladder. Students often find the developmental coursework disconnected from their career interests and, as a result, may elect to take developmental education at or near the end of their program coursework, despite evidence that notes the value and importance of taking developmental course work in the beginning of the students’ college work. Allen, DeLauro, Perry and Carman (2017) suggest the higher the level of English courses a student completes the more successful they will be in a content course that requires those skills.

In reviewing data for LLCC students who identified criminal justice as their program of study and who were also enrolled in FY 15 and FY 16, nearly 80% of the students needed some type of English/reading developmental education. In some instances, students waited until the end of their program to start developmental education, and in other instances students started with developmental education. In both instances the need to take developmental courses created a barrier preventing students from moving forward or completing their degree. As our team was discussing developmental education, we decided that though this is a problem campus wide we could not make changes at that level just yet, so we decided to focus just on the criminal justice program and see what kind of impact we could have at that level.

We approached this project by asking, how can we help students see the value of completing their developmental reading and writing courses early in their college plan? It does not take long for a student who is not college ready in both reading and writing to consume 2-3 semesters of developmental coursework. Also, many times these two courses are delivered independent of each other and cause a “disconnect” between two skills that are dependent upon one another. So how can you bring these two subjects together and provide relevance to the student? The answer is contextualization. Perin (2011) defines contextualization as an instructional approach connecting foundational skills and college-level content. Contextualization is a promising practice for students who are not college ready and can motivate students and support the ability to transfer skills from conceptual frameworks through application (Perin, 2011). Levin and Koski (1998) suggest there are two successful interventions [EG1] for improving developmental completion: substance and connectedness. Substance is building a course with substantive context as opposed to abstract content, and connectedness emphasizes links and relevance to the real world.

Our team, consisting of the Dean, Arts and Humanities; the Dean, Social Sciences; and one faculty member each from criminal justice, developmental reading, and developmental writing, decided to combine the highest-level developmental courses from reading and English into a single, co-requisite course. The English faculty are supportive of creating opportunities to reduce the length of time in developmental education. Faculty recognized the value to the student in taking developmental education early in the program in order to be successful in subsequent course work. The criminal justice faculty realized developmental education is a barrier to completion and wanted to work with reading and writing faculty to provide opportunities for students to learn skills that will be delivered in a contextualized format and in a shorter time requirement (four credit hours instead of eight). The academic advisor assigned to the criminal justice program is the connection to communicate with students enrolling in the combined developmental course. The shorter time requirement will also reduce the cost to students. In the future, with the implementation of the co-requisite developmental reading and writing course, LLCC would like to see the students register for the course early in their program, preferably during their first semester. The LLCC Pathways to Results team has developed a pilot course that combines developmental reading and writing courses with a focus on criminal justice content. This pilot is being implemented this spring 2017 semester. The instructor has selected the book The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore, as the reading text, and students will have writing assignments associated with the readings and criminal justice content.


  • Allen, N., DeLauro, K., Perry, J., & Carman, C. (2017). Does literacy skill level predict performance in community college courses: A replication and extension. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 41(3), 203-216.
  • American Association of Community Colleges. (2016, October). Completing remedial courses. Data Points, 4(21).
  • Chen, X. & Simone, S. (2016, September). Remedial Coursetaking at U.S. Public 2- and 4-Year Institutions: Scope, Experiences, and Outcomes (NCES 2016-405). Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute for Education Statistics.
  • Koski, W. & Levin, H. (1998). Replacing remediation with acceleration in higher education: Preliminary report on literature review and initial interviews. Stanford, CA: National Center for Postsecondary Improvement.
  • Levin, H. & Koski, W. (1998, Fall). Administrative approaches to education productivity. New Directions for Higher Education, 103, 9-21.
  • Perin, D. (2011). Facilitating student learning through contextualization: A review of evidence. Community College Review, 39(3), 268-295.