Developmental Education from the Student's Perspective

by Dr. Chauntee Thrill / Aug 20, 2020

In recent years there has been an increased focus on developmental education and the ways in which student outcomes are impacted by enrollment in such courses. In addressing issues related to student placement and achievement in developmental education, policy initiatives related to testing, curriculum, and pathways have been implemented as a means to move students through the developmental course sequence.

For example, organizations such as the Education Commission of the States (ECS), Complete College America, the Dana Center Mathematics Pathways, and the United States Department of Education have outlined various strategies, policies, as well as practices that institutions can implement to strengthen their developmental education programming. 

While these strategies and practices are successful in their own ways, they focus heavily on outcomes and do not offer a picture of what students are actually experiencing in the developmental classroom. "Why Don’t We Talk about Race in Developmental Education?" is a 2018 blog by Dr. Erin Doran that highlights one major flaw in our research efforts around developmental education, one that I want to focus on in this blog. That is, the absence of student voice in empirical research.

So, how can we better support our students in achieving success in developmental coursework? And how can we do this if we don't know what they're experiencing from their perspectives in such courses? My answer is we cannot. 

I offer my own research as an example of how we can center students and their experiences in research. In a study conducted at an Illinois community college (Thrill, 2019), I explored the experiences of nine Black and Latinx students who were required to complete two or more developmental mathematics courses. The objective was to understand, from their perspectives, how they experienced developmental mathematics and how they attained success in completing such classes. I utilized narrative inquiry (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000) to focus on their stories as a way of honoring and validating their experiences.

So, what did this look like in practice? I conducted three separate interviews with each student, which allowed time for myself and the students to reflect on past responses and identify points for clarification. In writing the students’ narratives, I took on the role of co-creator, facilitating a dialogic relationship that required student input and approval. This resulted in nine student narratives that not only explored their experiences navigating through developmental mathematics, but also highlighted their relationships with mathematics prior to entering the community college and their ability to be successful in college-level mathematics.

The information gleaned from the students' experiences can be used to inform practice, policy, and support.

The information gleaned from these students’ experiences can be used to inform practice, policy, and support. This data can complement quantitative data and provide a more complete picture that will lead to better informed decisions. This is just one way we can include student experiences in our research efforts. I want to leave readers with the following question to consider: How can you center student experiences in your research or teaching in a way that highlights their voice?



Clandinin, D.J., & Connelly, F.M. (2000). Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Doran, E. (2018, August). Why don’t we talk about race in developmental education? Office of Community College Research and Leadership, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Thrill, C. (2019). Moving in, through, and out: Black and Latinx community college student success in developmental math education. [Dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign].


Dr. Thrill is an assistant professor of higher education at Appalachian State University. She can be reached at