Monday, 24 April 2017

Is there a benefit to post-16 remedial policies?

Clémentine Van Effenterre, a researcher at the Paris School of Economics and CVER, reviews the impact of remedial interventions for post-16 students

Remedial interventions in tertiary education are under scrutiny in most OECD countries. They are particularly important in a context of increasing demand for skilled workers. However, they are often costly, and their efficiency in boosting student performance has been questioned. This debate has gained particular relevance in England given recent policy changes that require students who do not get at least a grade C in English or maths in GCSE to repeat exams in these subjects. The low pass rate amongst those who re-sit has raised questions about the sustainability of the policy. What can be done to improve mathematics and English attainment to help students achieving these new requirements? What types of remedial interventions are efficient to address the need of students older than 16? In this context, we have reviewed economic literature on the impact of remedial interventions in tertiary education.

Remediation has gained increasing attention in the recent research in the economics of education, especially in the US, where nearly one-third of first-year college students participate in remedial courses in reading, writing, or mathematics. Traditionally, studies have compared students assigned to remediation to their peers who have not been assigned to these courses, and have found a negative association between remediation and students’ future performance. However, it is difficult to infer causality because the characteristics of those who participate in remedial courses are often different to those of individuals who do not participate, and not all of these differences are easy to capture in surveys. The widespread use of rigorous methodologies and access to new datasets have significantly improved our understanding of the impact of remedial programmes on student outcomes. The most recent studies show that remediation programmes can in principle generate positive results, but often do not. Indeed in principle there may be negative effects that offset positive effects. It is not clear what determines whether remediation programmes are effective or not.

Researchers have tried to open up the ‘black-box’ of remediation, and to investigate the impact of various remedial tools, such as mentoring, peer-mediation, and IT-based approaches. New pedagogic approaches designed to boost students’ outcomes deserve a closer look, although there are few rigorous evaluations assessing their impact. Studies that evaluate mentoring approaches have found evidence of positive effects and interestingly find that face-to-face services cannot easily be replaced by low-cost technology such as text messages. Another interesting finding is that combined approaches (such as academic support services and financial incentives) can be more effective than the provision of one of these services in isolation. It is also important to note that even when interventions find positive effects in the short run, they can quickly fade out in later years. Finally, studies often find the impact of remediation to vary according to students’ characteristics. For example, in certain contexts, women, older students and lower-achieving students have been found to benefit more from remediation services. There is a critical need for more research using rigorous methodologies to understand why certain types of students are more (or less) responsive to certain interventions, and to tailor interventions and pedagogies accordingly.

"Post 16 remedial policies: a literature review", CVER Research Paper 005 is available at

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