- Turning Math Remediation into “Homeroom:”Contextualization as a Motivational Environment for Community College Students in Remedial Math
Purpose of the Study
Despite the fact that community colleges have long served as a gateway to postsecondary education, many students come through the door academically underprepared, with nearly 60% enrolling in a remedial course (Adelman, 2004; Attewell, Lavin, Domina, & Levey, 2006; Bailey, 2009; Baker, Hope, & Karandjeff, 2009). [End Page 427] Among all remedial subjects, the lack of adequate math skills is particularly troublesome, considering math’s critical role as a cornerstone to future learning and academic success (Calcagno, Crosta, Bailey, & Jenkins, 2007; Melguizo, Bos, & Prather, 2011). Even more concerning is that the large number of community college students who end up in remedial math courses struggle to progress through the sequence and move on to college-level coursework (Adelman, 2004; Attewell et al., 2006; Bailey, 2009; Scott-Clayton & Rodriguez, 2012).
The efficacy of remediation remains one of the thorniest issues in research and practice, with often conflicting empirical evidence (e.g., Attewell et al., 2006; Bahr, 2008; Bailey, 2009; Bettinger & Long, 2005, 2009; Boatman & Long, 2010; Dadgar, 2012; Hodara, 2012; Matorell & McFarlin, 2011; Scott-Clayton & Rodriguez, 2012). Despite the mixed findings in this vein of research, the need to enhance the quality of remedial education is undeniable, particularly in math. Even in studies revealing positive outcomes associated with passing remedial sequences, concrete insights are lacking on what and how specific practices benefit students. Efficacy cannot be determined solely based on outcomes; it is critical to delve into the process leading up to those outcomes. Given the urgent need to improve remedial math practices at community colleges and the gaps in the literature surrounding the issue, in this study, we focus on one particularly promising approach that may offer a solution: contextualization of remedial math instruction.
Contextualization refers to “a diverse family of instructional strategies designed to more seamlessly link the learning of foundational skills and academic or occupational content by focusing teaching and learning squarely on concrete applications in a specific context that is of interest to the student” (Mazzeo, 2008, p. 3). Despite the wide variety of terms in the literature1 that have been adopted to define contextualization, instructional practices drawing upon this approach invariably underscore the coupling of knowledge or skills to be inferred and real world examples or contexts. In practice, contextualization has been operationalized through several [End Page 428] formats of instruction, such as embedding basic skills instruction within subject matter courses, offering a companion course that contextualizes a basic skills course, or simply teaching knowledge and skills with immediate reference to real-life examples.
Contextualization has significant implications for improving remedial math instruction at community colleges. As alluded to previously, among all basic skills, math is arguably the most difficult to master, as it is widely perceived as abstract, detached from daily life, and hard to learn (Grubb, 2001, 2010; Grubb et al., 1999). Responding to these challenges, a contextualized approach, in theory, may help uncover the linkage between abstract math concepts and their practical implications, thus enriching and improving student learning experiences within remedial math classes in notable ways (Perin, 2011). More specifically, contextualization often involves instructional activities in which abstract math concepts are translated into concrete applications, and therefore it helps foster an interactive space where students become more actively engaged with math learning (Baker et al., 2009; Berns & Erickson, 2001; Perin, 2011). In addition to promoting active engagement during the learning process, contextualization may directly facilitate authentic math learning by helping students both retain math knowledge in a meaningful way and extend their newly gained knowledge into other learning settings (Heckman & Weissglass, 1994; Stone, Alfeld, Pearson, Lewis, & Jensen, 2006). In this sense, contextualization may offer far-reaching benefits to multiple aspects of remedial math students’ learning experiences, including both how they engage and their actual learning outcomes.
Contextualization also holds strong promise that may transcend learning experiences in and of themselves by transforming community college remedial math students’ motivational beliefs, particularly self-efficacy beliefs, defined as “students’ beliefs about their abilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over...