Voices and Viewpoints

A New Vision for Community College Developmental Mathematics in California

by Dr. Anne Cawley / Jul 20, 2020

Why is math such a barrier for students? How can we help transition students’ experiences into positive and enriching learning environments?

One particular hurdle for students at community colleges is being placed into developmental mathematics (DM). There are two camps in the mathematics world with varying viewpoints of the value of DM to a student’s college experience. First, there are folks who consider DM necessary for students to continue to higher-level mathematics courses. Mathematics is a unique subject in that it requires students to rely on previously learned knowledge in order to advance into more sophisticated levels of understanding, and thus, to higher levels of mathematics courses. Missing or misunderstanding vital pieces of information can greatly impact the learning trajectory down the road, which makes the learning process more challenging. Given that, some faculty believe that it is necessary for a student to enroll in DM as a way to scaffold and support their learning.

On the other hand, there are individuals who consider DM to be a problem of equity—a barrier to students’ persistence and success in higher education. Research has shown that DM can impede students’ success in postsecondary education. Not only are most courses non-credit-bearing (not counting toward degree completion or transfer; Larnell, 2013), but the success rates for developmental mathematics have shown to be low, especially for underrepresented and minoritized students (Bahr, 2010).

Black and Latinx students are disproportionately placed in lower-level developmental mathematics sequences than their White or Asian peers (Bahr, 2010). Further, because some students could be expected to take up to five developmental math courses, students incur more costs to complete the coursework and it takes much longer to complete a degree or transfer (Larnell, 2013). Forty percent of students who enroll into developmental courses actually complete a degree or transfer within six years compared to 70% of students who are allowed to enroll directly into college-level courses (Assembly Bill No. 705, 2017). These courses can act as gatekeepers for students and often lead to them selecting alternative paths outside of higher education.

So, what do we do? Many policy conversations have focused on how to support students in completing their educational goals while providing the academic support they need for success. In 2017, California Assembly Bill No. 705 (AB 705) was approved, sparking a catalyst for change for community college students. Data showed that more than 75% of California community college students were identified as “underprepared,” assigning these students to developmental courses.

Additionally, placement practices had serious implications for equity because more students of color were likely to be placed into developmental courses. The state argued that students were more likely to complete their coursework if they were instead placed directly into college-level mathematics courses. The bill AB 705 provided directives for community colleges to support student success. A main component of the bill was to eliminate developmental courses in all community colleges so that these institutions could maximize the probability of students completing a transfer-level course in mathematics within a one-year timeframe. The bill prohibits the requirement for students to enroll in developmental mathematics coursework that would lengthen the time to complete a degree.

One way many colleges saw as a meaningful approach was through the co-requisite course model.

As the largest community college system in the nation, many California community colleges discussed viable options to address these changes. One way many colleges saw as a meaningful approach was through the co-requisite course model. A co-requisite course is defined as a set of courses that co-enroll students in a remedial and college-level course simultaneously (Smith, 2017), ultimately earning college-level mathematics credit in one term. The “parent” course is the college-level mathematics course, and the “support” course provides the remediation needed to succeed in the parent course. Promising data shows that when students are provided opportunities such as co-requisite courses, they can approach their academic goals in a timely manner.

So, what has happened? California community colleges were expected to fully implement their changes by the fall of 2019, and the following anecdotal lessons have been learned from implementing co-requisite math courses during that period.

  1. Students want transparency. Most co-requisite courses carry a high unit load, often six units for one course. Students want clarity on course expectations and want to know how the parent and support course are linked to one another. Explicit conversations with students about the course structure help them understand how to benefit most from the class.

  2. Faculty members should communicate with each other. While one of the unique features of postsecondary education is the freedom faculty members have to plan and prepare their courses, co-requisite courses should have some level of coordination to ensure that all faculty have a common understanding on how to use class time in productive ways to support student learning. For example, some faculty have indicated using the support course as an extended lecture from the parent course, without doing any remediation. At some campuses different faculty teach the parent course and support course; without regular communication, this process can lead to a disjointed learning experience. Clarity in expectations and outcomes are particularly helpful for adjunct faculty who may be teaching across various campuses and need to keep in mind how each campus is implementing change.

  3. The support course should be connected to the parent course. Remedial content is often based in algebra and is material found in an Algebra 2 high school course. It is easy for the support course to become a review of mathematics material that may not relate fully to the parent course (for example, in a statistics class). While much of this content may seem obviously necessary to the instructor, students are not always aware of why they are learning the material. They want clear connections as to how the support course is helping them achieve their goal of completing college-level mathematics.

Recent data have revealed that co-requisite courses have in fact shown increases in student completion of college-level mathematics courses. While we are only in the beginning stages, we continue to learn from experience to understand best practices for instructors, as well as the best ways to support students.

Dr. Cawley is an assistant professor of mathematics at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona. She can be reached at acawley@cpp.edu.



Assembly Bill No. 705. (2017, October 13). Retrieved October 22, 2019.

Bahr, P. R. (2010). Preparing the underprepared: An analysis of racial disparities in postsecondary mathematics remediation. The Journal of Education, 81(2), 209-237.

Larnell, G. (2013). Toward reforming non-credit-bearing remedial mathematics courses in four- year universities. UIC research on urban education policy initiative policy brief, 2(2), 1- 11.

Smith, D. (2017). An Examination of Resources That Impact the Learning Experience of Underprepared Community College Students in a Redesigned Co-Requisite Statistics Course. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.

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