Improving academic performance and retention among remedial students

Improving academic performance and retention among remedial students

Rochford, Regina A

As the number of incoming college freshmen needing remedial education has multiplied in recent years, educators have struggled to prepare these learners for collegelevel courses and to keep them enrolled in college. While many traditional techniques have been employed, only focus on students’ learning styles has increased academic performance and retention. The current article discusses an experiment that compares the use of a learning-style methodology with a traditional classroom approach to prepare remedial writing students at an urban community college for the ACT Writing Sample Assessment test. Results indicate that the learning-style approach significantly increased student achievement, curiosity, grade-point-overages and retention rates.


According to Tinto (1993), more students leave colleges prior to graduation than stay, and the problem is even more pronounced at the community college level due to students’ inadequate preparation for college courses. Consequently, many community colleges must invest substantial financial and physical resources in remedial/developmental programs to assist students in acquiring the skills needed to survive in college and graduate.

In the fall of 2000, the City University of New York (CUNY) introduced the American College Test (ACT) to assess student ability to write before entering college-credit courses. At Queensborough Community College (QCC)-part of the 19-college CUNY system-in the fall of 2001, nearly 61% of incoming freshmen were placed in remedial-writing courses, and 43.9% of these incoming freshmen were from non-English speaking countries (Queensborough Community College/CUNY Fact Book 2002, 2002). Before the students could register for most credit courses, they were required to complete the remedial writing courses and pass the ACT Writing Sample Assessment test.

Although many students pass the remedial writing courses, they are unable to earn the minimum passing score of seven on the ACT Writing Sample Assessment. As a consequence, they cannot enter credit courses and are at risk of dropping out of college. Despite college efforts to improve scores, many students fail repeatedly. Furthermore, even after students have met the requirements, they frequently postpone enrolling in writing intensive courses such as English composition. Queensborough Community College sought an approach to improve student performance on the ACT Writing Sample Assessment so students could continue in college instead of dropping out in frustration.

Traditional remedial college programs

Traditionally, college instructors have tried to prepare remedial students through lectures supplemented with notes on a chalkboard, overhead projector or PowerPoint presentation. Although the approach is beneficial to some learners, it does not help others. Research has demonstrated that the less academically successful students are, the more important it is to accommodate their learning-style preferences (Dunn, 2003) if these learners are to advance into college-credit courses (Lenehan, Dunn, Ingham, Murray, & Signer, 1994; Ingham, 2003; Miller, 1998; Nelson, Dunn, Griggs, Primavera, Fitzpatrick, Bacillious, & Miller, 1993; Rochford, 2003, 2004a, 2004b).

Several researchers have demonstrated that improving academic performance in college requires more than a traditional, remedial study-skills orientation (Biggs, 1978; Derry &. Murphy, 1986; Ford, 1981). In fact, Claxton and Murrell (1987) report that students’ mere knowledge of learning styles increased academic success in college courses. Other researchers report significantly higher achievement when study strategies are congruent with students’ learning styles across subject matter (Clark-Thayer, 1987; Dunn, Deckinger, Withers, & Katzenstein, 1990; Ingham, 2003; Lenehan et al., 1994; Miller, 1998; Rochford, 2003, 2004a, 2004b). Of greater consequence, Nelson et al. (1993) and Ingham (2003) found college students’ knowledge of learning-style preferences increased achievement and reduced the dropout rate.

Learning styles

Learning style is the way students begin to concentrate on, process, internalize and remember new and difficult information (Dunn & Dunn, 1993). Most people have learning-style preferences, but individual preferences differ significantly and the stronger the preference, the more critical it is to provide compatible instructional strategies (Braio, Dunn, Beasley, Quinn, & Buchanan, 1997). Many instructors do not realize that thirty percent or more of their students are unable to recall at least three-fourths of what they hear or see (Dunn, 2003). Although many pupils remember well when they learn factually by using their hands or kinesthetically through whole body movement, they cannot succeed academically when they must sit passively and listen in a traditional classroom environment.

The Dunn and Dunn Learning-style Model specifies 21 elements that influence the way in which a person learns new and difficult material (Dunn & Dunn, 1992, 1993; Dunn, Dunn, & Perrin, 1994). These 21 elements are divided into five stimuli (a) environmental, (b) emotional, (c) sociological, (d) physiological and (e) psychological. If students’ styles are addressed by accommodating their preferences for these elements, significant improvement in achievement can be obtained (Carbo, 1980; Ingham, 1990; Kroon, 1985; Lenehan et al., 1994; Martini, 1986; Nelson et al., 1993; Wheeler, 1983). Therefore, these stimuli should be considered carefully when introducing new and difficult material.

Student preference for environmental stimulus refers to instruction (a) with or without sound, (b) in bright or dim light, (c) in a warm or cool room and (d) in a room with either a formal or informal design. Emotional stimulus includes four elements that specify whether a person is (a) motivated, (b) persistent, (c) in the need of more or less structure and (d) responsible, which actually refers to whether a person is conforming or non-conforming.

Preference for sociological stimulus specifies whether a person learns best (a) alone, (b) in a pair, (c) with peers, (d) in a team, (e) with an adult or authority figure present or (f) in varied ways. The first and most important element of the physiological stimulus is perceptual preferences-auditory, visual, tactual or kinesthetic. For instance, when auditory learners encounter new and difficult material, they benefit from listening to a lecture or an audiotape when the material is first introduced. However, someone who prefers to learn by reading new information or seeing a video is a visual learner. A third type of student, categorized as a tactual, hands-on learner, might benefit from manipulating materials or taking notes. Finally, kinesthetic learners favor activities that require whole body movement. When students are taught new and difficult material through their perceptual preferences, they recall significantly more than when they are taught through their least preferred modality. Gains have been reported in elementary schools (Roberts, 1998-1999; Santana, 1999; Schiering, 1999; Schiering &. Dunn, 2001; Searson, Dunn, Denig, Pierson, & Solemn, 2001; Sullivan, 1999); middle schools (Roberts, 1999; Gremli, 2001); secondary schools (Brand, 1999; Merckling, 1999); higher education (Given, Knight, Patrick, &. McGuire, 1999-2000; Dunham & Lewthwaite, 2000; Boyle & Dolle, 2000; Lefkowitz, 2001; Russo, 2002; Rochford, 2003, 2004a, 2004b); and in staff development (Hamlin, 2002-2003; Raupers, 2000; Taylor, 1999; Taylor, Dunn, Dunn, Klavas, &. Montgomery, 1999-2000).

Other elements of the physiological stimulus specify (a) whether a person requires food or drink while learning, (b) the best time of day for a person to learn or study most efficiently and (c) whether mobility is needed while learning. Finally, the psychological stimulus describes a person as a global or analytic learner. Global pupils learn most readily when they understand the concept being taught first and then concentrate on details, whereas analytic students prefer to begin learning through details, so they learn step-by-step in a sequential manner that gradually builds toward a broad conceptual understanding. Global and analytic learners also have different environmental needs (Dunn, Bruno, et al., 1990). Many analytics prefer to learn persistently in a traditional classroom setting that is quiet, wellilluminated and formal, and they typically work without breaks or intake. Conversely, global learners prefer to work with sound, such as music or background conversation, dim lighting, informal seating arrangements, some food or beverages and frequent breaks. Many global learners also prefer to learn with peers rather than alone or with teachers. Both analytic and global learners can master material if they learn through instructional methods that complement their optimum learning style.

Learning styles and test anxiety

According to Spielberger and Vagg (1995), the emphasis on testing has increased as educational institutions and employers have begun to use aptitude- and achievement-test scores to determine the fate of prospective students and employees. As a consequence, highstakes testing has provoked anger, frustration, and anxiety among many learners, and has resulted in a “substantial underestimation of an individual’s ability and reduced access to educational and occupational opportunities” (Robyak, 1986; Spielberger & Vagg, 1995).

Spielberger, Barker, Russell, Crane, Westberry, Knight, et al. (1979, 1995) theorize an increase in anxiety prompts learners to engage in avoidance techniques, whereas an increase in curiosity tends to engender exploration and growth. The relationship between the reduction of anxiety and the increase in curiosity among students was demonstrated when Lenehan et al. (1994) discovered that college-level science students taught to study according to their learning-style homework prescriptions achieved significantly higher test scores, experienced significantly less anxiety and became significantly more curious about science than the learners in the control group who were science majors but had been provided traditional study-skills training.

Despite the evidence, many colleges continue to prepare remedial students with analytic lectures and chalkboard notes. The current study explores the use of learning-style based materials to prepare remedial writing students for retaking the ACT Writing Sample Assessment to (a) improve writing skills; (b) reduce anxiety; (c) increase curiosity and (d) determine the impact on retention rates, Grade Point Averages (GPAs) and grades in English composition. It proposed to answer the following questions:

Will preparing underachievers with learning-style based materials

1. significantly increase their scores on the ACT Writing Sample Assessment?

2. result in a significant difference in students’ State-Anxiety (S-Anxiety) levels?

3. result in a significant difference in students’ State-Curiosity (S-Curiosity) levels?

4. result in higher retention rates, GPAs and grades in English composition?

Summary of participants, materials, and procedures


The subjects for the research were 150 remedial writing students who had passed their remedial writing courses, but failed the ACT Writing Sample Assessment.


The Productivity Environmental Preference Survey (PEPS) developed by Dunn, Dunn and Price (1996) was administered to identify each student’s auditory, visual, tactual, and/or kinesthetic preferences. Students’ levels of anxiety and curiosity were measured by the State-Trait Personality Inventory (STPI) (Spielberger et al., 1979, 1995).

The ACT Writing Sample Assessment was specifically designed to assess the writing ability of students at two-year colleges (CL/NY/ACT Test Administration Manual for the Asset Writing Skills and Reading Skills Assessments and ACT Writing Sample Assessment, 2000). Each ACT Writing Sample Assessment composition was evaluated by two trained raters who independently scored each essay using a six-point holistic scale and final scoring from the two readers was achieved as a result of the combination of graders’ responses. Each score point reflected the student’s ability to: (a) formulate an assertion about a given issue; (b) support the assertion with appropriate evidence; (c) organize and connect the major ideas and (e) express those ideas in clear, effective language. Students were given lower scores for not (a) taking a position on an issue, (b) developing the argument in a logical manner and (c) expressing ideas in clear language.


The researcher created several learning-style materials for the research study: (a) Programmed Learning Sequenced Booklets (PLS), (b) Pic-a-Holes, (c) Composition Electroboards, (d) Composition Puzzle Boards, (e) Written-Composition Handouts and (f) a videotape to explain the organization and development of an ACT composition. A PLS is a highly structured sequential step-by-step method of learning with one item at a time presented in book format. Participants cannot progress until the content on each previous frame has been understood and demonstrated through correct responses on a brief quiz at the bottom of each frame. A PLS can be used by pairs of students or individually or alone, but it appeals most to students who need structure and sequential learning. In addition to the structured, sequential step-by-step material, a PLS also contains (a) periodic tactual review materials, such as Electroboards, Pic-A-Holes, and Task Cards; and (b) an audiocassette tape for auditory students (Dunn 6k Dunn, 1993).

Pic-a-Holes are crafted for tactual students who need to touch and manipulate materials to learn critical information and concepts. Pic-a-Holes is a set of cards that teach concepts and then ask learners multiple-choice questions about the points discussed. Learners can verify their answers by placing a peg in the hole below the correct answer. When the selected response is correct, pupils are able to lift the card out of its case. However, if the answer is incorrect, the card remains in the case (Dunn &. Dunn, 1993).

Large composition puzzle boards were constructed for kinesthetic and tactual students who need to engage in whole body movement and the manipulation of materials while learning. These puzzles were used at many different locations, including walls, tables, floors, or desks. When assembling a puzzle, students had the option to work alone or with a partner.

Composition Electroboards provide tactual learners with general requirements for an essay. Students verify the parts of each body paragraph by lighting up a bulb on a battery-operated continuity tester when a correct answer is chosen. The study materials were presented in two formats (a) a small booklet, and (b) a large piece of oak-tag that could be used by tactual and kinesthetic learners.

For visual learners, a handout was created about the organization and development of an ACT Writing Sample Assessment. Finally, a videotape was produced to explain orally how to write a passing ACT Writing Sample Assessment essay.


After students passed the remedial writing courses, but failed the ACT Writing Sample Assessment, they registered for workshops and, at the same time, completed the PEPS (Dunn, Dunn, & Price, 1996) and the STPI (Spielberger et al., 1979, 1995).

On the first day of the workshop with the experimental group, the instructor explained the concept of learning styles and perceptual preferences. Students were instructed to use materials that matched their strongest perceptual preferences first. After that initial exposure, they were directed to use another set of materials that matched their secondary or tertiary preferences. The instructor also made accommodations for the students’ sociological, emotional, environmental, and psychological needs. After the two initial exposures, students participated in either a Circle of Knowledge (Dunn & Dunn, 1993) or a creative activity during which they designed a song, poem, crossword puzzle or floor game to review the organization and development of a composition.

Finally, students in the experimental group received a list of practice ACT Writing Sample Assessment topics, from which they chose to write as many compositions as they wished. While they were writing, they had the option to work directly with the instructor or tutor and were permitted to review their work with other students.

In the control group, the same instructor provided a lecture for the entire class to explain the organization of an ACT Writing Sample Assessment composition, and the lecture was supplemented by exercises in the handout used by visual learners in the experimental group. Next, these students were assigned specific practice topics. After they wrote their compositions, the instructor corrected and graded them. While these students were writing, the instructor and tutor circulated and provided feedback and direction.

The workshops for both the experimental and control groups were conducted for twenty hours during a four-day period. At the end of each workshop, students in both groups completed the STPI (Spielberger et al., 1979, 1995) a second time. Finally, they retook the ACT Writing Sample Assessment, which was proctored and scored by trained ACT officials from the college.

Discussion of findings

Preparing remedial writing students with learning-style based materials is more effective than a traditional “chalk and talk” method. In both the experimental and control groups, approximately 26 percent of the learners had tactual and kinesthetic perceptual preferences as revealed through administration of the PEPS (Dunn, Dunn, &. Price, 1996). In the experimental group, each pupil was instructed with materials that matched his/ her strongest perceptual modality of auditory, visual, tactual or kinesthetic. That knowledge then was reinforced with another set of materials that matched their secondary or tertiary preferences. However, the control group received a traditional lecture treatment, which was supplemented by exercises in a distributed handout. Because the methodology used in the control group only benefited the participants with auditory and visual strengths, the tactual and kinesthetic students failed to receive instruction congruent with their learning-style preferences. As a result, a t-test of independent means indicates that the experimental group achieved significantly higher scores than the control group on the ACT Writing Sample Assessment test (p

In addition, another t-test of independent means reveals that the learners in the experimental group also exhibited higher levels of S-Curiosity, although no significant difference was detected in their levels of S-Anxiety. Thus, the research suggests that the use of learning-style based materials with underachieving remedial writing students not only improves achievement, but also increases the learners’ curiosity.

In addition to the improvement in S-Curiosity, an unanticipated moderate negative correlation (-.450) was identified between S-Anxiety and S-Curiosity in the control group (p

The enhancement of student curiosity is critical inasmuch as many remedial writing students avoid or postpone writing intensive courses, such as English composition, after they exit remediation. Consequently, these students gradually lose the skills they have worked to acquire, and are at risk of dropping out of college. The delay is not only counterproductive for students, but also for administrators who strive to improve achievement and increase retention rates. Therefore, to ascertain if the learning-style method had any long-term effect on the experimental group, the author conducted a follow-up analysis.

One year after the administration of the learning-style based instruction, an inspection of all the participants’ transcripts revealed that 87.7% of the learners in the experimental group continued to attend college, as opposed to 79.2% of the control group. Moreover, the GPAs in the experimental group were significantly higher (p

A follow-up analysis revealed a moderate correlation of .334 (p

Overall, the initial research and follow-up analysis revealed that the students who were prepared for the ACT with a method that matched their learning-style preferences (a) received significantly higher scores on the ACT Writing Sample Assessment, (b) increased their curiosity to learn, (c) earned significantly higher GPAs, and (d) were more likely to be enrolled in college a year later. The research suggests that college administrators and faculty who want to improve academic performance and retention rates among remedial students should teach using methods congruent with the learning styles of the students so that the colleges not only move students through remediation successfully, but also engender academic growth and achievement, which is the primary goal of higher education.


The current research confirms that college remedial programs can enhance achievement and retention by employing learning-style based approaches. Instructors need to understand the concept of learning styles and perceptual preferences. Students need to be tested for their individual learning styles so that teachers can provide materials-and students can tailor their study habits-to accommodate their learning-style preferences. Furthermore, instructors need to be aware of their own learning-style preferences. Self-knowledge is an essential part of developing flexible, varied approaches to language learning and toward transforming the classroom into a style-diverse community (Oxford, 1989, 1993). Teaching strictly in a style that is compatible with the instructor’s preferences can hinder learning (Galloway & Labarca, 1991; Oxford & Lavine, 1992).

Initially, the instructors must create the learning-style materials. However, after students become more motivated to learn, for assignments or extra-credit, the instructor can enlist students to craft materials for future lessons. By involving the students in the design of materials, the instructor accomplishes two goals. First, the work required to create the materials is reduced, especially when artistic pupils craft creative materials for student use. Next, by designing the instructional materials, learners will participate in independent self-teaching, a critical skill required to survive in college and one that is reinforced by adult learning research.

Since the resources required to produce the learning-style-specific materials consisted of index cards, computer printer ink, typing paper, large sheets of oak tag, brass fasteners, tape and glue, the college supplied these materials. The instructor did, however, have to purchase continuity testers, batteries and Velcro at a cost of approximately $75. In view of the fact that this was a pilot study, at this time it is not feasible to project the costs or time required to implement a learning-style program for an entire department or institution.

As Kroll stated, “To understand how and why our students succeed in their learning requires not only constant willingness to be a pioneer but also ongoing willingness to examine our actions with insight and to maintain openness to change” (2001, p. 15). She calls for teachers to become improvisers who readily try new ideas to improve academic performance. Using Dunn’s learning styles affords educators an innovative research-based approach and has demonstrated improvement in performance and retention rates among learners.


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Regina A. Rochford

Dr. Rochford is an Assistant Professor in the Basic Educational Skills Department of Queensborough Community College, City University of New York, in Bayside, New York.

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