Remedial education, especially for adult learners in community college and trade school programs, has been a fixture for years and one that has been well-studied over the past couple of decades.

Because the pandemic has caused academic deficiencies for many high school students who found distance education less effective, colleges will likely be dealing with knowledge gaps and underprepared students for the next couple of years. Using the approaches and methods tested in community colleges on remedial education, we can formulate some ideas for successfully integrating forms of gap-closing educational initiatives into higher education institutions, including both 2- and 4-year colleges. These ideas may also help students meet the expectations of advanced coursework for higher-level and graduate courses where online college learning in the past two years has left them unprepared.


Assessing for Learning Gaps

Tests to assess the need for remedial education are commonly used to predict a student’s need for pre-requisite learning and potential for success in regular college-level classes. Studies have shown a more effective practice is using self-reported high school grade point average as a tool, yet it is only somewhat more accurate than the tests alone. Some schools have tried using a more holistic assessment, including test scores, GPAs, and other factors, which is more time-consuming but potentially has higher accuracy placements.

Institutions are increasingly using algorithms and research findings of outcomes from remediation placement to determine what works best for their programs. The use of algorithms has resulted in fewer students being placed in remedial courses and perhaps more accurate assessments. However, with the unprecedented shifts of the pandemic learning patterns, this will take some work to find applicable data models to use when deciding how to assess for remediation.


Pandemic Learning Assessment

Assessing students for gaps caused by the disruptions of learning during Covid is a more complex challenge, and it is not clear that the regular assessments will prove successful. The best outcome we could hope for is that most knowledge gaps are small enough to be picked up during college classes, and teachers and students themselves will fill in the missing parts of their training. However, this will likely only work for small gaps. In addition, the overall drops in math and reading skills will affect coursework across the university and may need broad measures to correct. Therefore, assessing the general educational drops in level will be critical if colleges wish to keep their offerings at pre-pandemic difficulty levels.


The Problem of Remedial Classes

If a student is not prepared for a college-level course, requiring them to first enroll in a remedial class to bring their skills and knowledge up to the level for success in a college course seems like a logical way to fill the gaps. However, without actually gaining college credits, the extra cost becomes an extra expense for the high percentage of community college students who are forced to enroll in these classes. These programs have shown to increase rates of non-completion of degrees. Students may end up in debt for these classes without ever obtaining a certificate or degree that would help them advance their job prospects. They may also be demoralized by the lack of progress towards their goals and frustrated by taking remedial English or math classes rather than the career-focused, degree-directed curriculum they want to take.

Adding to costs, slowing progress towards degrees, and potentially discouraging many students seems risky during the stressful period of the pandemic and its aftermath. Instead, institutions dealing with pandemic-caused learning gaps may want to heed the problems researchers found in the requirements for remedial classes for students in community colleges.


Experimental Models Show Promise

Some of the experiments at the community college level have been around placing fewer students in remedial education. Studies found that a large percentage of students sent to remedial classes drop out entirely. Also, many of those students would have succeeded, though perhaps struggled, in college-level courses. Therefore, many institutions had to rethink the cut-offs for remedial education or their assessment methods to reduce the number of students tracked into remedial classes. As this has shown a certain amount of success for 2-year colleges, this has promise for the pandemic-related learning gaps being somewhat naturally ironed out by students and faculty as they work through classes.

Requiring students to register for remedial courses may continue to be an option. Still, the drawbacks of cost to the student, stigma of the designation, and the blow to students’ confidence make this a less than perfect choice for schools. Some form of co-requisite teaching and individual tutoring may be enough to fill the gaps in learning that so many students will experience. But in addition to the academic support students will need, there are psychological impediments to learning that will require campus support, as students reported feeling unmotivated and anxious about being behind in their studies. Inter-departmental supports involving collaboration between academics and student services can help any of these initiatives keep students on track towards their desired degree.


The Upshot

While the skill and knowledge gaps resulting from disrupted education during Covid may differ from the usual causes, they are likely similar to previous ones. Underfunded school districts, low-income students, and non-traditional learners without recent classroom experience were leading causes before the pandemic. They continue to factor into the problems institutions face in addressing discrepancies between what students know and what they need to know for their college courses. Applying some of the ideas from experiments and studies on community college initiatives can give institutions just a little jump on trying to assess, place, plan, and remediate the gaps today’s students may possess.