Pre-College Instruction: Protecting Academic Integrity and Meeting Students' Needs

Pre-College Instruction: Protecting Academic Integrity and Meeting Students' Needs

Jacob R. Russell (Shawangunk Correctional Facility, USA) and Dani V. McMay (State University of New York at Fredonia, USA)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 30
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3056-6.ch007


Instructors at prison-based college programs face many challenges not encountered on traditional college campuses. Instructors used to conventional campus-based students and teaching environments often find themselves unprepared or overwhelmed because prison-based programs differ in many ways from traditional college classrooms. Many incarcerated students lack the necessary fundamental academic writing and communication skills to succeed in college-level courses but not the intelligence and dedication. Instructors often find themselves unprepared for and inexperienced in teaching remedial-level writing and grammar skills, especially to non-traditional adult learners. This chapter discusses the differences between campus and prison classrooms, incarcerated students' academic backgrounds and needs, and the instructional limitations of teaching in prisons. This chapter provides instructional methodology tailored to the unique needs of incarcerated students, as well as examples of syllabi, worksheets, and practice exercises.
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Prison-based college programs are a growing and unconventional academic frontier. Incarcerated college students are a subsection of non-traditional adult learners for whom most colleges and universities are unaccustomed to providing instruction. Prison-based college instructors face a new academic environment and a unique population of non-traditional adult learners. Prison-based college programs’ academic success and sustainability require an academic infrastructure designed to meet their students’ academic needs. While not lacking the intelligence, motivation, and self-discipline needed for college-level success, many incarcerated students lack the fundamental academic skills required for post-secondary academic success. These students require instruction in basic academic writing and verbal communication skills to prepare them for college-level courses before enrolling in credited courses. The academic needs characteristic of many incarcerated students are unfamiliar to most traditional post-secondary institutions; therefore, many incarcerated students enroll in college courses unprepared and unable to meet the academic standards. This is in part due to the fact that most incarcerated college students earned their GEDs while incarcerated. The academic reality is that a GED is not a true educational equivalent of a high school diploma and does not adequately prepare most students for college-level academics (Greene, Schrager, Eden, & Donald, 2019). Another factor requiring consideration is the trend in many prison systems to allow students to earn GEDs via an all-Spanish curriculum. New York State is one such state (New York State Department of Education, 2020). A GED qualifies ESL learners to apply for college programs in prison, even if they know little or no written or spoken English. This academic unpreparedness results in students underperforming and dropping or failing out. In other cases, prison-based college programs lower their academic standards.

Diagnostic tests and pre-college preparatory courses are beneficial for incarcerated students’ academic success, as well as protecting the academic integrity of prison based college programs. A substantial majority of incarcerated students require some level of pre-college instruction in the fundamental elements of academic writing and related concepts, even students who pass entrance exams. There is a difference between being able to write a complete sentence and knowing the mechanics of why that sentence is grammatically correct. This knowledge is essential for academic success, especially in writing-intensive liberal arts programs. Since college instructors typically expect their students to possess a certain level of academic proficiency, they do not expect to teach remedial English in addition to their regular curricula. This unexpected teaching demand puts a greater burden on instructors and can prevent them from teaching their intended curricula because time is spent teaching remedial English skills. Not only are many instructors unprepared to teach basic writing and language skills, many lack experience teaching these subjects, especially to non-traditional adult learners.

Many of the obstacles can be overcome with realistic expectations and preparedness, which include understanding and planning for the instructional limitations within prisons. The unique perspective of this chapter is that both authors have taught courses inside prison. In addition, the first author has years of pre-college course experience, first as an incarcerated student and then as a creator and instructor of multiple types of pre-college courses. This chapter discusses the typical challenges instructors encounter when teaching incarcerated college students. Also explained are the specific and often unforeseen academic needs of incarcerated students, and practical solutions for addressing them. This chapter serves as a pre-college course template by first explaining how to use specifically designed diagnostic tests to determine students’ academic abilities and needs, and then how to design the appropriate level of pre-college instructional courses in prison settings. The objective of this chapter is to provide prison-based college instructors with a realistic understanding of the challenges and limitations they will face. By anticipating and preparing for the unique challenges of teaching prison-based college courses, instructors maximize their students’ collective potential for academic success.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Fundamental Academic Skills: The basic academic concepts and principles in which beginning college students are expected to be proficient.

Pre-College Course: A non-credit preparatory course taken before beginning college courses.

Non-Traditional: Adult Learner: Unconventional adult students in an unconventional learning environment.

Incarcerated Student: A person taking college courses while incarcerated in jail or prison.

ESL Students: Any students for whom English is not the first or primary language.

Prison-Based College Program: A program operating within a prison that provides college courses to incarcerated persons.

Assessment Test: A standardized format by which to test a student’s knowledge of specific academic concepts.

Micro-Concepts: The individual and easier to understand elements that form a larger, more complicated concept.

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