Next Year's Freshman: How Corequisites Might Help Address COVID-19 Learning Loss


Jul 13, 2021

College students in a lecture hall with face masks, photo by FatCamera/Getty Images

Photo by FatCamera/Getty Images

It's no longer breaking news that millions of students across the United States are likely to suffer COVID-19 school closure–induced learning loss in key subjects like math and English language arts. Many K–12 school districts are already planning how to address the problem: summer programs, tutoring, and parental guidance will likely prove key in the months ahead. But what will colleges do to address learning loss among the many new high school graduates who were affected by school closures?

The good news for these students is that colleges have been hard at work improving the way they provide academic support. In the not-so-distant past, colleges deemed the majority of students “not college ready” and required them to enroll in one or more semesters of noncredit developmental education courses. Studies found that many students were dropping out of these courses before ever making it to entry-level English and math courses.

Now colleges across the country have a new approach: corequisite remediation. Students immediately enter that college-level English or math course and receive some additional, aligned academic support during the same semester. In some cases, this academic support is provided as an extra class session; in others, it might take the form of tutoring or office hours. Our recent work in Texas as well as studies in New York and Tennessee (PDF) have shown that the corequisite approach has a large positive impact on the percentage of students who pass entry-level math and English courses.

But why is it that corequisite remediation is so successful? And could these approaches help to support incoming students suffering learning loss? We collected data on the experiences of students at five Texas community colleges where we randomly assigned students to either corequisite remediation or traditional developmental education coursework in English. Findings suggest that corequisites improve academic support in many ways, suggesting they may be helpful in supporting students with learning loss.

Corequisites are valuable because they ensure students continue to gain momentum toward a college credential in that first semester.

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First, corequisites are valuable because they ensure students continue to gain momentum toward a college credential in that first semester, rather than being required to complete remedial coursework prior to entering college-level courses.

Second, students feel more challenged by their coursework. Students assigned to corequisite remediation in our study were less likely to report that the course was boring or too easy, and less likely to report that it repeated content they had learned in high school. Students and faculty reported that the more challenging coursework motivated students and built their confidence in their ability to succeed in college.

And yet while students in corequisites felt challenged, they didn't feel academically overwhelmed. Students assigned to corequisite remediation received an additional 30 minutes (on average) each week of instruction in reading and writing, and this additional support may have helped students to manage the challenging content.

Third, there was better alignment between the college course and developmental support under corequisites. The corequisites we studied relied on common course materials, and most of the colleges in our study used the same instructor for the course and the academic support.

Fourth, corequisites may also have offered more opportunities for students to learn from peers. This is because some corequisites mixed students at different levels of readiness, and students in the corequisites we examined were less likely to spend time on individual desk work.

Students assigned to corequisites were less likely to report feeling embarrassed.

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And historically, students have felt stigmatized or embarrassed for being assigned to developmental education courses. Students assigned to corequisites in our study were less aware they were enrolled in developmental education and less likely to report feeling embarrassed.

Corequisites show that closely aligning “just-in-time” academic support with college coursework is a much-improved approach to providing academic support for college students. As states and colleges look to support students encountering learning loss, it is important that they not turn to traditional models of remediation that prevent students from directly entering college coursework. Colleges should look to these new, effective models of corequisite support to address learning loss due to COVID-19.

Lindsay Daugherty is an education and workforce policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Trey Miller is an associate professor of economics at the University of Texas at Dallas whose research focuses on postsecondary and career and technical education.