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Making Sense of Community College and Trade School Instruction

As an educational publisher, I receive many emails asking for assistance with products and/or instruction in a variety of settings. Although most of my business is in the K-12 market, I do get plenty of response from community college and trade school professors. Having taught three years (part time) in that setting, I do understand the challenges and rewards of working with adult learners. Those of us in the K-12 community who complain about how tough it is working with our diverse learners should walk two moons in the moccasins of our colleagues at the community colleges and trade schools before we cry “Woe is me.”

Here’s the email (used with the author’s permission).

Wondering what products you might suggest to me as an adult instructor of students 18 -70+ years old enrolled in a jobs training program.  My adult learners in general do well being highly motivated with strong self-initiative.  However, they have problems taking tests written for the specific class subject matter.  My feeling is that some of the lower achievers bring along a suitcase (even a trunk load) of bad study habits; unresolved conceptual learning issues; and other bad life experiences preventing their higher achievement.  Simple things like reading comprehension of test questions; basic math concepts and practical usage, etc. 

The program consists of technical classes such as 40-hour Hazwoper; Confined Space Entry; Stormwater Managment; Chemical Safety Awareness; Underground Storage Tanks; Mold Inspection & Remediation; Alternate Remediation Technologies.  These classes follow federal and state guidelines thus requiring success at 80% levels.

I work to help each student, but it is difficult to first analyze what is wrong (carrying the ones instead of tens in whole number addition) and then figuring out why they are doing what they are.  In the end we work to try to find solutions which they use to see better results on exams, exercises, etc.

Thank you for your help,

Chris Goodman Lead Instructor

Making Sense of Community College and Trade School Instruction

Chris,

Your email is quite similar to many I’ve received, asking for targeted resources for adult learners. You have a tough, but rewarding job. I’ve been there and done that! I taught part time in a community college setting for three years with a student population quite similar to yours. Entering and re-entering the work force at any age can be difficult. I’ve decided to respond at length to your thoughtful email to both commiserate and offer some solutions to your challenging instructional needs based upon my own experience.

At the community college I taught lecture classes and also served in the Learning Resource Center. In this large complex, professors staffed the Reading Center, Writing Center, and Math Center from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. daily.

The instructional design of each of the Learning Resource Centers had some significant strengths:

  • Diagnostic reading, writing, and math exams were administered and scored in the Counseling Center. “Cut-off” scores were established and students who scored below were assigned to the relevant center for tutorial instruction while concurrently taking required classes in their selected instructional programs. Completion of the tutorial instruction served as prerequisites to certain core classes.
  • Learning was self-paced with the Learning Resource Center open twelve hours a day for student drop-in. So important for working adults.
  • Students completed  individualized learning plans and set their own learning goals.
  • Content professors “bought into” the instructional design and referred students for tutorial assistance.
  • We professors wrote, purchased, or “borrowed” curriculum catered to both student interest and need.
  • Credit was variable and flexible: Students worked on short-term specific learning modules in reading, writing, and math with check-in and review by the professors. Most modules were designed to be completed within 7.5 hours for the average student, and students earned .5 units. Some comprehensive modules were designed to be completed within 45 hours with students earning 3.0 units. Other modules ranged in between these extremes. Many of the learning modules permitted students to work together to complete the learning tasks. This “learning community” was nurtured by caring professors.
  • Much of the generic study skills curriculum was excellent and appropriate for most all students in each of the three centers.

The instructional design of each of the Learning Resource Centers had some significant weaknesses:

As you mentioned in your email, “… it is difficult to first analyze what is wrong.”

Despite the appropriate entry-level reading, writing, and math assessments, no further specific diagnostic assessments were given within the respective centers. Thus, professors knew that the student “had a problem” in reading, writing, or math; however, trial and error via student feedback and completed work was the only means of more refined assessment of student need. Highly inefficient. Plus many students failed in their first learning modules until their completed work was analyzed by a professor; others students completed work on content and skills already mastered.

With no specific diagnostic assessments, the curriculum did not match the diagnosed learning deficits of the individual student. Furthermore, few formative assessments were built into the instructional design of the individual modules. Although student did complete the modules, professors had no vehicle to assess whether the content or skills had been mastered as a whole and no item analysis to be able to refine and assign remedial learning tasks to help students achieve mastery.

In subsequent years I’ve written English-language arts curriculum to address these weaknesses. My credo has been “Help students catch up, while they keep up with age or grade-level

Pennington Publishing's Teaching Reading Strategies

Teaching Reading Strategies

instruction.” Resources include the specific diagnostic resources (simple, short, and comprehensive and administered “whole class,” … not individually) with self-paced curriculum designed to address each diagnostic need. Each targeted worksheet includes definitions, examples, practice, application, and a quick formative assessment. Supplementary resources provide additional practice with unmastered content and skills. Recording matrices help teachers and students track individual progress.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading Strategies. 

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