At Martha's request, I have written the following review that I hope proves
useful to all my colleagues.

A Review of Martha Maxwell's Improving Student Learning Skills. A New
Edition. H&H Publishing Company, Inc. Clearwater, Fl., 1997.

If you want a basic education and overview of the history, transformation and
latest developments in developmental education, read Martha Maxwell's latest
book, Improving Student Learning Skills, A New Edition. The title doesn't
sound very exciting and the lack of a subtitle to indicate the range and
depth of the book are deceiving. Inside the book's covers, however Ms.
Maxwell paints a broad outline of the development of learning assistance from
American Revolutionary to modern times. Readers with only a scant background
in the history of developmental education will be particularly interested in
her history sections comparing England's Oxford tutorial system with the
efforts made at Harvard and Princeton to introduce tutoring assistance for
all their students, not those who were under prepared. Moreover, from the
earliest years of the 20th century, colleges and universities introduced
tutoring programs to assist under prepared students.

The book is a new edition of one she published fifteen years ago and is
designed to update the study and include the many changes that have taken
place since she published the earlier edition. Many of the topics covered in
that edition have changed names, such at the Scholastic Aptitude Test to the
Scholastic Assessment Test, Freshman Year Experience has replaced freshman
orientation courses and, of course Supplemental Instruction, is related, she
says, to "adjunct skills classes." In addition, changes in student population
(namely, in its diversity) have resulted in major changes in how instructors
have developed new ways to teach.

The book has thirteen chapters dealing with the background for college skills
programs, assessment, tutoring services, learning centers, learning styles,
successful programs, ESL, reading, math, science, and evaluation. It also has
an extensive appendix containing everything from a "List of frequently used
tests," to "How to study physics. In other words, the book contains something
for everyone in developmental education. It might be considered a one-text
substitute for formal graduate training.

Besides the richness of information in every chapter and the many surprises
that she introduces, one struck me as particularly fascinating. In Chapter 2
she makes some serious charges against required skills courses. She points
out that students who take these courses see themselves as "dumb", as do
their instructors. Moreover, she argues, "requiring students to take special,
unchallenging courses is equivalent to creating an intellectual ghetto for a
subgroup of students and instructors." She notes further that voluntary
programs are more successful than required studies in retaining students --
something I think we all need to hear. Another equally thought provoking
comment is her claim that colleges use multilevel required developmental
courses as a way to filter out only the hardiest of the under prepared

I was fascinated with her account of the "Return of the ‘College-Ready'
Student." All the evidence seems to indicate that an upswing has taken place
in student ability level and as a result colleges once again have their pick
of brighter and better prepared students. Because they do, they are less
interested in the developmental student who is being pushed out of the
four-year schools back into the community colleges. But even here, schools
want to become selective because they too have better prepared students from
whom to choose. Although she doesn't say so, coupled with the fact that
affirmative action is on the ropes in most states, we are in danger of seeing
a resegregation of higher education. A recent article in The Chronicle of
Higher Education made such claims, particularly in states such as California
and Texas, only two of the several that were mentioned as trouble spots.

Despite the fact that perhaps only Martha Maxwell has the depth of experience
and the range of intellect to write such a "comprehensive" text, this
reviewer had problems with several of the early chapters: too much
generalizing without supporting documentation or data.

This deficiency is particularly striking when you know that Martha Maxwell is
one of the most scholarly of all the people in our profession. In addition to
her 150 articles, hardly a week goes by when she doesn't offer someone on the
DE listserve sources for information he or she is seeking. My impression is
that she is a one woman bibliographic service. However, in the first two
chapters she frequently uses terms such as "some," "a few," "many," "most,"
"other," or "others." More precise descriptors coupled with data and
identified sources would have been better.

This quirk should not discourage anyone from reading the book. It is doubtful
that anyone could find a more information rich and comprehensive analysis of
developmental education. As a single volume of information it belongs on
every developmental educator's desk.