Prior to arriving on campus, Tompkins Cortland Community College students take placement tests. Typically about 60% of Tompkins Cortland students and about 60% (and higher) of students nationwide are determined to need developmental coursework. This often involves a pre-college writing class (ENGL 99 at Tompkins Cortland), remedial reading (RDNG99), and one or more Math courses (beginning at MATH 90). The classes provide necessary development work, but typically do not count for official college credits (and thus do not provide transfer credits to other colleges), and often are prerequisites to core courses in students' degree programs. Many students coming to college take primarily these developmental courses in their first semester, leaving untapped the passion for their subject area that brought them to the College in the first place.
It is a complicated matter. The students are deemed to need the skills work in order to succeed, yet the very acquisition of those skills can reduce their chances for success. Fail ENG 99 and the second semester is a virtual wash. Fail it twice and success in the long run gets more difficult and more expensive.
In the past few years, a number of staff and faculty have begun to make strides in addressing this disparity.
One of the more successful has been the ENGL 98 curriculum developed by the College's English department.
The 98 section essentially combines ENGL 99 and ENGL 100 into one longer class that covers all of the essential skills-based material of ENGL 99 while expanding the application of those skills to the essay- and research-based curriculum of ENGL 100. The sessions open with a full 100-level class (typically about 20 students). Then, about 10 students remain for the second hour, focused on 99.
"It's working," says English Professor Bruce Need. "The success rate, and we define that by a student passing English 100, is 75%. That's a very good success rate for an English class."
Instructors are not held to the traditional 99 curriculum in the second hour, and can preview upcoming 100-level assignments or address other needs specific to the 99 group. In short, it allows students to remain on track for their overall academic plan while completing ENGL 100 and getting the tailored help they need – help they would have gotten in a full semester of ENGL 99.
"The one thing I did not see coming," says Need, "was the way in which students are thriving. You don't see this very much, students jumping from doing C+ work to A- work. They're getting the support they need and they're writing, writing, writing. They're absolutely thriving."