'Storifying’ the Remedial Undergraduate Student Experience: How One Class Inspired an Information Literacy Research Agenda

By Shelley Blundell

May 1, 2015

Where the story begins

I never intended to teach.

My dream was to be a music journalist who traveled the world meeting my music idols and write for a world-renowned music magazine like Mojo or Rolling Stone.

However, as my favorite musician John Lennon once sung, based on a similar quote from cartoonist Allen Saunders: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

During the spring of 2010, while working as a part-time librarian for a newspaper in Akron, Ohio, I was asked to teach a class for my alma mater, Kent State University, entitled “Swift Kick: Study Skills.”  The class had been designed as an ‘academic refresher’ course for those currently placed on academic probation, i.e. those students whose grades were consistently poor to failing, and who were being given a last chance to improve academically or be dismissed from the university.

The person originally scheduled to teach the class had to cancel at the last minute and I was asked to fill in.  Having had a positive experience teaching freshman orientation in the previous semester, I said yes and was subsequently given the course materials prepared by the previous instructor so I could hit the ground running when the course started the following week.

However, during the first class period it quickly became apparent to me that the materials I was given wouldn’t help me address what I saw in front of me: 10 very bewildered, frustrated, and anxious students who weren’t really paying attention to what I was saying.  Rather than become frustrated myself, I took the opportunity to do something I often wished faculty members would have done in my undergraduate classes: I asked the students to tell me what it was they thought they needed to learn.

That first class period was spent discussing the students’ academic goals and aspirations, as well as asking them to describe specific reasons why they believed they were not doing as well as they had hoped in their studies.  Having already completed my master’s degree in library and information science (with an eye toward transitioning from music journalist to music librarian), I began to recognize a lot of the ‘gaps’ students described as being gaps in a critical understanding of information literacy: “the ability to recognize when information is needed and hav[ing] the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information” (ACRL 2).

Specifically, most students shared that they didn’t know what their professors meant when they told them to perform academic research, i.e. information written or designed with an academic audience in mind, and which is typically founded in scientific study or principle/s, or how to go about finding and citing ‘academic research articles.’  Those who stumbled upon academic research articles during a Google search didn’t know what to do with them in the context of assignment requirements, nor did they understand what they were reading.  Perhaps the most disheartening thing to hear was that most of the students didn’t understand the difference between popular writing and academic research sources and resources, and indeed, why academic research was important to their studies at all.

Finally, almost all of the students in that class and in the next section of the class I taught later that semester shared with me that they had started their college experience by being placed in ‘remedial’ courses.  They explained that although advisors had told them that the remedial courses would prepare them for college-level coursework, they felt not only under-prepared by these courses, but patronized and frustrated by the idea of being ‘remedial’ as well.

Remedial courses are a national feature in the U.S. higher education system.  There were originally developed to help imbue in students who tested below college-level standards on college entrance exams the skills academia believed they would need before they could take and successfully engage in college-level coursework.  Numerous studies indicate that U.S. remedial education enrollment, typically between 25 and 50 percent, is on the rise and has been for the last decade (Sparks and Malkus), even while other studies indicate that remedial courses are not as effective as higher education would have them be (Bailey, Jaggars, and Scott-Clayton; Hamilton; Merisotis and Phipps; Stuart).  Indeed, perhaps because of the increasingly low persistence and graduation rates of students who begin their college careers in remedial coursework (Sparks and Malkus), some have opined that “the nation’s remedial education system is broken” (Mangan 2).

Because I wanted the students in the “Swift Kick” class to succeed and find a way to shake off the ‘remedial’ moniker that appeared to plague them so much, I spent most of that semester working with them to re-orient them to the higher education experience of which they felt deprived  This included exposing students to academic support services like writing and math tutors in a constructive way, and discussing practical strategies for studying effectiveness based on their own learning styles, which we worked to uncover through exercises and learning style assessments.

Pivotally, I also collaborated with an academic librarian to team-teach key information literacy concepts and skills to students, and the librarian and I provided them with an opportunity to perform hands-on exercises which reinforced these skills during class.  During these sessions, the librarian and I worked continually with students, helping them develop an understanding of the difference between academic research and popular writing, and how they could use each for specific purposes and to meet different academic needs.

Unlike some other remedial course instructors I spoke with during this time, I believed in my heart that all of my “Swift Kick” students had the ability to be engaged and academically successful from the first day of class.  Convincing the students of this, however, was an entirely different challenge.  I didn’t really understand how much these students believed they had been deprived of the ability to progress academically until after a particularly in-depth library resource session, when one of the students shared with me that “I really wish I had known about this stuff before.  All this time I’ve felt so stupid, and now I don’t.  I feel like I can really do well now.”

I learned two major things from working with my “Swift Kick” students: One, being labeled ‘remedial’ from day one of the higher education experience has a lasting impact on students’ academic development, and two, if collaborative information literacy skill development makes students feel like they have a better handle on their academic work, why aren’t more remedial instructors collaborating with academic librarians?  Dreams of music journalism diminished, and I entered a Ph.D. program in August, 2010, intent on answering this question.

How “Swift Kick” inspired my information literacy research agenda

My experiences teaching “Swift Kick” drew into sharp perspective for me that I had to do something to share the experience of my students with others.  After reading through many research studies and prognostications about the future of remedial education, it quickly became apparent that many people creating said education programs in the United States cannot see the ‘student wood’ for the ‘remedial education’ trees.  Rather than dissuade me, I felt even more driven to learn as much as I could about students who were labeled remedial, and share what I learned with those involved in the creation of remedial education.

It is now five years later, and I have just completed my Ph.D., focusing my dissertation study on an in-depth and participant-led understanding of the information needs and academic information search process experience of remedial undergraduate students.  My work with the “Swift Kick” students had indicated that there was a possible connection between remedial undergraduate students’ poor information literacy skills and their continued academic progress.  I wanted to find out what that connection was so I could collaborate with others to create targeted information literacy instruction addressing these students’ poor information literacy skills, and consequently increase their chances of persisting toward graduation.

My dissertation study qualitatively investigated the academic information search process experience of six undergraduate students enrolled in a remedial English class, and did indeed reveal tangible connections between these students’ lack of information literacy skills and their performance on a research assignment.  The assignment required the application of these skills to an information-seeking endeavor and the use of retrieved academic information sources in an academic research paper.  Despite the fact that most of the study’s participants expressed confidence in the strength of their information literacy skills, the actual weakness of their skills emerged in how they conducted their academic information-seeking and in their completed research assignments.

I spent almost two months listening to the information literacy instruction study participants received, and then watching how they engaged in academic information-seeking to find information to complete their research assignments.  I also spoke with participants at length about their academic information search process experience, as well as their previous academic experiences, their feelings toward the remedial class in which they were enrolled, and their predictions for their academic futures.  I learned a great deal about the disconnect between what students believed information literacy and academic research to be and what academia as a whole believes these things are, but I learned something much more revelatory as well.

Disconnects aside, most participants also expressed extreme doubt and anxiety that their academic futures would be anything but extremely difficult, if they existed at all.  These statements and sentiments emerged in my research as a theme I titled ‘academic hopelessness.’

Of the many things I discovered in my study, it is academic hopelessness I believe deserves the most attention and investigation going forward, not only by library and information science practitioners, but also by those performing research in higher education.  The collected and analyzed data of the participant experience examined in my study made quite clear that it is academic hopelessness that provides the biggest barrier between participants and their continued academic progress and ultimately, their persistence toward graduation.  I have an ‘intellectual hunch’ this might be true of other remedial undergraduate students, as well.

How an information literacy instruction research agenda may lead to a ‘happy ending’

The Information Age workplace demands a specific type of employee: One who reflects critically on information and can process and apply that information quickly to their work, and one who is able to produce thorough, solid information at sometimes lightning speed.

Many faculty members have acknowledged that instilling these traits in their college-ready students is becoming increasingly more challenging with each new ‘Millennial’ student cycle.  Somehow, in the midst of the push for continual assessment of undergraduate student learning at the national level, students in remedial undergraduate courses have become secondary considerations.  At 25 to 40% of the national undergraduate student body: They should not be.

I believe firmly that undergraduate students in remedial classes are no less capable than their peers already enrolled in college-level course.  This will require researchers invested in revealing these capabilities, and practitioners invested in creating effective, targeted instruction.  In short, remedial undergraduate students need storytellers invested in their happy endings.  I hope that I am the first of many.

Works Cited

Association of College and Research Libraries. Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Chicago, IL: ACRL, 2000. Print.

Bailey, Thomas R., Shanna Jaggars, and Judith E. Scott-Clayton. “Characterizing the effectiveness of developmental education: A response to recent criticism.” Community College Research Center (2013): 2-16. Web.

Buglear, John. “Logging in and Dropping out: Exploring Student Noncompletion in Higher Education Using Electronic Footprint Analysis.” Journal of Further and Higher Education 33 (2009): 381–393. Web.

Di Tommaso, Kathrynn. “Developmental Students: The Challenge of Peer Relationships.” Community College Journal of Research and Practice 36 (2012): 941–954. Web.

Hamilton, David W. “Contextualized Learning May Redefine Remedial Education.” Community College Journal of Research and Practice 37 (2013): 1016–1020. Web.

Mangan, Katherine. “National Groups Call for Big Changes in Remedial Education.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. N.p., 2012. Web.

Merisotis, Jamie P, and Ronald a Phipps. “Remedial Education in Colleges and Universities: What’s Really Going On?” The Review of Higher Education 24.1 (2000): 67–85. Web.

Mulvey, Mary Ellen. “Characteristics of Under-Prepared Students : Who Are ‘The Under-Prepared’?” Research and Teaching in Developmental Education 25.2 (2009): 29 – 58. Print.

Roselle, Ann. “Preparing the Underprepared : Current Academic Library Practices in Developmental Education.” College & Research Libraries (2009): 142–156. Print.

Stuart, Reginald. “Reinventing Remedial Education.” Diverse: Issues in Higher Education 26.18 (2009): 14-17. Web.

Author Biography

Shelley Blundell is the instructional design and education librarian for the University of Akron in Akron, Ohio, and recently completed her PhD at Kent State University.  Originally from Durban, South Africa, she has lived in the United States with her family since 2000.  She has produced both national and international publications discussing her primary research, which explores information anxiety and behaviors in U.S. college-ready and remedial undergraduate students, as well as publications on archival literacy, censorship in U.S. scholastic journalism publications, and presentations on the impact of media coverage framing on societal attitudes toward the crime of sexual assault.  She plans to continue her research with remedial undergraduate students, and hopes that at least one remedial undergraduate student’s academic experience will improve because of it.

Contact information

Email: sblundell@uakron.edu; blundell.shelley@gmail.com