(Not just) passing out: An ethnographic evaluation of one small, private, four-year college's developmental English program

Kelly Ann Shea, University of Pennsylvania


To ensure that underprepared undergraduates develop the reading and writing abilities they need to succeed, colleges should evaluate their developmental reading and writing courses. The subject of this study, one small, private, four-year college on the East coast—with an average of 30% of its freshmen taking developmental English courses—had not assessed these courses in the 17 years since they had been instituted. The following questions were studied: How and why are students placed into the courses? What do community members expect students to gain from the courses? Have the courses prepared students for subsequent work? How do persistence and graduation rates of these students compare with other students? What are the recommendations for curricular and/or program change? Conducted by an adjunct instructor of the classes, the research consisted of two parts—an historical review of student placements, enrollments, outcomes, and persistence rates; and a snapshot study, using ethnographic methods, focusing on a sample of current and former developmental English students and on interested and involved faculty and staff. The study found that developmental English students achieved lower grades in certain subsequent courses than did their nondevelopmental. English counterparts, and they persisted and graduated at lower rates. In addition, while students generally felt the courses helped, students, faculty, and staff also generally agreed on potential changes to the program. Some changes were instituted prior to receipt of the researcher's recommendations. In particular, a four-credit, graded course combining developmental reading and writing was approved by the faculty. While its credits will not count toward graduation, this theme-based course will center on the interrelatedness of reading and writing for academic purposes. Other recommendations included reassessing the testing and placement processes, considering faculty coordination of the developmental English program, developing explicitly stated exit criteria for the course, tracking developmental English students' progress, monitoring advising designed for enhanced student success, co-registration in a college literacies class, and providing developmental English opportunities for upperclass students. It is hoped that this evaluation and its recommendations will improve the program and increase the success of these at-risk students at this and other, similar, colleges.

Subject Area

Language arts|Literacy|Reading instruction|Rhetoric|Composition|Higher education

Recommended Citation

Shea, Kelly Ann, "(Not just) passing out: An ethnographic evaluation of one small, private, four-year college's developmental English program" (1999). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9937781.