New strategies, rigorous evaluation needed to improve literacy skills of postsecondary students
Low literacy levels are not only an impediment to success in higher education; Canadian adults with lower literacy levels have significantly lower employment rates and incomes, higher rates of unemployment and are less likely to be engaged in their community.
While colleges and universities are using a wide range of initiatives to address the remedial language needs of students, there has been little rigorous research evaluating their effectiveness. A pilot project by George Brown College in its practical nursing program is evaluated in a new study from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO).
Like many public colleges, George Brown College is committed to equity and accessibility, and reports that about one-third of its accepted students require remediation in literacy and numeracy. The college is not alone in facing literacy challenges. While the incidence of true illiteracy is very low in Canada, statistics show that roughly 48 per cent of Canadian adults lack the language proficiency needed to successfully function in today’s society.
The study, The Communications Adjunct Model: An Innovative Approach to Language and Literacy Remediation for Adult Learners , assesses the impact of a remediation pilot initiated by George Brown College in 2008. The pilot targeted reading, writing, speaking and listening skills of practical nursing students with diverse remedial English language needs. Termed the Communications Adjunct Model (CAM), the pilot project also integrated content from select core courses.
To assess the program’s effectiveness, the academic performance of students placed in CAM was examined in relation to two comparison groups — students in the same cohort who were not placed in CAM; and students from two academic years prior to the introduction of CAM who fell below the entrance score cut-offs for selection into the adjunct program. A series of evaluations was administered at admission, consisting of 12 assessments in key areas such as oral and written communication, reading and critical thinking.
The study found that CAM did not have a strong effect on overall grade point average (GPA). While two out of the four evaluations showed that CAM had a positive effect on students’ GPA, the results were weak and did not prove to be reliable across comparison groups. Although the analysis assessed the impact of CAM solely on GPA performance, CAM has a number of additional objectives, such as general language skill development, that would require additional data collection and analysis to better determine the effectiveness of the program.
Among challenges with administering the initiative: the time required for initial development of the curriculum; logistical problems; relevance of various elements of the adjunct curriculum to students; and student resistance to participating in the pilot. Given the challenges with administering the initiative, the cost of administering it, and the absence of a demonstrable significant, consistent benefit to the students, George Brown College is phasing out CAM from the practical nursing program. The importance of strong communication skills remains a challenge for many of the practical nursing students, however. Alternative strategies to strengthen these skills to support success both within their program and in the nursing profession will need to be further explored for greater effectiveness and viability than this CAM model has demonstrated.
The Communications Adjunct Model: An Innovative Approach to Language and Literacy Remediation for Adult Learners was produced by George Brown College’s Office of Institutional Research and Communication Working Group in collaboration with Academica Group Inc.