17 Mar 2015

The fast track to college readiness

The fast track to college readiness

Author: Wings  /  Categories: Campus, Education  / 

Heritage freshman Nereida Pena has a very clear picture of where her education will take her. The biomedical sciences major plans on a career saving lives as either a surgeon or an anesthesiologist. That is, of course, after she graduates from Heritage and then the University of Washington School of Medicine. 

Pena started her educational journey, however, needing to take a math class that was below college level. The same is unfortunately true for many students at Heritage and at colleges and universities around the country, especially in the areas of math and English. But a program at Heritage called Fast Track is giving these students a means of moving through these developmental courses quickly without eating up time and financial resources.

“We know that students who do not have solid competency in mathematics are less likely to persist through to graduation,” said Richard Swearingen, chair of the Mathematics Program and the Computer Science Program. “Not only is pre-algebra a foundational course that all future math courses build upon, but students who start below college level spend valuable time and eat up limited financial aid resources taking courses that don’t count toward their degree.”

The same is true of students who enter college and have to take lower-level English courses, said Paula Collucci, director of the Writing Center and assistant professor of English and humanities.

“Many of our students (in Fast Track) are on the tipping point. They are bright and capable, and just need a little extra support from other writers to bring them up to the 101 level,” she said.

Swearingen points to students like Pena as the perfect example of why Fast Track is such an invaluable tool for student success. Ever since she was young, Pena has dreamed of a career in medicine. When she moved to the Yakima Valley from her native Mexico, she was excited to learn that a college existed in her new hometown and that it offered the premed program that would set her toward her future medical career. She was enrolled at Heritage in spring semester 2014 and taking the university’s entry-level course, Math 95, when she learned about the Fast Track program. She decided to try the program over the summer to see if she could advance enough to start taking courses that would apply toward her degree.

Math Fast Track is a self-paced program that uses ALEKS, an online tool that supports the university’s math curriculum. Utilizing artificial intelligence, ALEKS moves students through math concepts until they demonstrate mastery. Once a student correctly completes a set number of questions about one concept, he or she moves on to the next concept and continues until completing the final assessment. Peer tutors and math faculty assist students who are having difficulty. The math Fast Track program is designed to be competed in six weeks, but students can finish early or take additional time to master the concepts, if necessary. For Pena, two weeks was all she needed.

“I was so excited,” said Pena. “It was quite a lot to learn—four-to-five months’ worth of studying—in a very short time. It saved me so much time and so much money.”

Like its mathematics counterpart, the English Fast Track program provides students with intensive support over a short six weeks, and students can also advance through the program more quickly. It functions more like a traditional small-group classroom, with instructors, lessons and assignments. The program is writing intensive. Students write two four-page papers each week along with reading essays and participating in class discussions. At the end of every week, they retake the Compass placement test in order to track their progress. Once their test results place them in English 101, students are done and can enroll in the credit-bearing course the next semester.

For students like freshman and business administration major Kristale Treece, the English Fast Track program did more than just prepare her for success in a college-level English course; it also helped her acclimate to the expectations of college life.

“I was really nervous about going to college. I didn’t know what to expect,” said Treece. “This (Fast Track) was such a great experience because I was able to do well and had a lot more confidence when I started my actual classes.”

Treece’s reaction is exactly what Heritage hopes students will take with them, said Collucci.

“Writing is more than just grammar,” she said. “It’s personal and it can be very intimidating because writing is thinking. Often we have students who’ve been told they are poor writers, and they feel like their thinking in inadequate when, really, it is just that there is a better way to express their thoughts,” she said. “Giving students a safe environment to make mistakes, to learn from those mistakes, and to be successful so that they become comfortable with themselves and have confidence in their abilities is all part of the educational package.” 

But, in the long run, is the program successful? Yes, says Swearingen. While the English program is still in its infancy, the mathematics program has been going strong for seven years. The data provide overwhelming evidence on the importance of early mathematics intervention on student success. The further a student progresses in Fast Track before enrolling in a credit-bearing math course at Heritage, the better he or she does in the regular math classes. This fall, students who completed the summer Fast Track passed their math courses at a higher rate than those who did not participate in the program.

Treece and Pena, however, don’t need statistics to tell them the program was well worth their time and effort. Both women completed fall semester with high marks. Pena even made the Dean’s List, and they are both moving forward with their goals, taking a full load of courses this spring.



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