Building bridges with developmental education


The challenges that many community college students face are most of the time connected to the lack of academic preparation to endure college-level content thus making it difficult for faculty to achieve the learning outcomes desired. In reading Mellow and Heelan (2015), I deepened my understanding about developmental and remedial studies. To start, community colleges are the institutions that invest the most in this area because, and not surprisingly, they welcome students with varying academic needs. One point that resonates with me is that an ideal developmental program must be embraced by all faculty and administration. But why would it not? If developmental education exists to help students make it to graduation, why would a faculty member not support it? I pose this questions to myself as I acknowledge the reality that not all faculty share the same goals and perspective about teaching developmental courses, and some are not even aware of how it works.

In my work at LaGuardia, I am involved in professional development initiatives for faculty from a wide range of disciplines, from first year seminar to capstone courses. In these contexts, there have been two aspects that have always caught my attention--the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration and the complexities of teaching and learning with a focus on the needs of our students. Teaching the First Year Seminar course at LaGuardia requires faculty to have a global understanding of who the student is and what the needs are. In this context, one aspect that has become recurrent in all cohorts of faculty thus far (since we started in 2014) is the lack of familiarity to addressing the needs of students with developmental needs. What Mellow and Heelan (2015) describe is a reality in community colleges across the country. Students have to take a placement test in order to be 'classified' and placed into a course that determines the starting point and sequencing in the curriculum. But after reading Mellow and Heelan (2015) and Bailey (2009), I think of developmental education as preparation beyond the academics and more closely related to helping the student develop a set of habit of minds for success. This is something more fundamental that must be at the core of the discussion.

But before focusing on a global understanding of what developmental courses are and how these differ from remedial coursework, Mellow and Heelan (2015) point out important aspects of students in this group. First, these students tend to be those who have the biggest gap between high school and college. Second, students in this group tend to be “at-risk” academically. These two aspects only bring incredible challenges to both faculty and the institution itself. Structurally, the institution must consider ways to offer services that complement the needs of these students (e.g., tutoring, advisement, etc), and second, the institution must also provide a curriculum structure that enables students to move along in their programs and graduate. For faculty, it is imperative that they develop best practices to scaffold their lessons and to provide support where needed. It is common for faculty to believe that students must be proactive to seek support when they need it but this is particularly challenging for a student with developmental needs. Mellow and Heelan (2015) point out that community colleges are called to developing and sustaining a solid structure of developmental education for students because they educate the masses and are open-admissions, too. Other institutions, however, like Harvard and Yale tend to be more selective when they admit students and tend to select only those who are most prepared academically.

Another important aspect that Mellow and Heelan (2015) touched on is that the goal of developmental education is to foster academic preparation that, in most cases, is the weak legacy from the k-12 system. In most cases, adults who are returning to college struggle the most in adjusting to the learning environment. Thus, community colleges work on developing programs that are particularly targeted to help students in this group. At LaGuardia, for example, I've had the opportunity to work with staff in the Pre-College Academic Programming (PCAP) where they strive to prepare students academically and help them make the jump to college. One thing I have learned from their work is their intentionality in helping students make a choice and attend college right after they finish their programs. Thus, it is clear that these programs aren't just designed to help students achieve one milestone but rather create the bridge for them to continue towards a college degree.

Mellow and Heelan (2015) provided me with a global perspective and understanding about developmental education that connects in many ways to Bailey's (2009) recommendations to implement around this topic. First, he asserts that it is critical to focus on assessing what students need as they enter the college rather than 'placing' them in the correct developmental course. Second, he recommends to abandon the dichotomy of developmental and college-ready student and instead focus on implementing initiatives to offer academic support into the college-level courses. And third, he recommends to work with students who have a higher need to take a developmental course and minimize the time to start taking college-level courses. The last two recommendations are connected to two initiatives I am aware of on my campus. First, the Academic Peer Instruction (API) at LaGuardia places peer tutors in different courses (many of them developmental courses) with the goal of providing supplemental support to students. The individualized support that students taking these courses have access to can make a difference in helping them develop skills that they otherwise may not be able to develop by simply attending the class. And second, and during our last Opening Sessions at the College last week on Thursday, faculty presented on their initiatives to design courses aimed at helping minimizing the time students take in completing developmental courses.

In sum, developmental education is complex and requires the administration to develop a system in order to prepare student academically and help them succeed. This in turn requires faculty and staff to work collaboratively to serve students and make their college education a more meaningful experience.


Mellow, G. O., & Heelan, C. M. (2015). Minding the dream: the process and practice of the American Community College (2nd ed.). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Bailey, T. (2009). Challenge and Opportunity: Rethinking the Role and Function of Developmental Education in Community College, New Directions for Community College (pp. 11-30). Wiley Periodicals.