By Ursula Thomas Miller
Jayma George was nervous. It was her first week of college, and as she stared at her schedule of classes, there, in big, bold letters, was the one word that sent fear scurrying through her body: Biology. Even though she graduated from high school with a 4.0 grade point average, the school was small and didn’t offer advanced placement classes. As a result, she felt like she was already behind most of her classmates.
And it showed.
Recognizing her nervousness, her professor suggested she try Supplemental Instruction, or SI, a specialized student-to-student tutoring program that Xavier has in place for four areas: general chemistry, organic chemistry, general biology, and anatomy and physiology. A trained peer tutor attends each class and then conducts study sessions open to all students afterward. While students can still get personalized attention from the professor or graduate assistant, sometimes having a fellow student explain something makes all the difference.
“I was nervous about it enough,” says George, a sophomore natural sciences major from Pandora, Ohio. “I thought, ‘Free help? Great.’ It’s not worth failing first before getting help.”
SI is an internationally recognized academic support model developed at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Xavier began its formal SI program in 2007 for general biology, general and organic chemistry, and then added anatomy and physiology last spring. Math, accounting and modern languages may soon be next. The reason it’s growing so fast? It works.
Before SI, these über-hard classes averaged drop-fail-withdrawal rates as high as 30 percent. Now the average is in the single digits. In organic chemistry, the rate has dropped to zero.
Stephanie Mosier, assistant director of Xavier’s Learning Assistance Center, which oversees the program, also measures the program’s effectiveness individually by dividing students into three groups—students who attend regularly, student who attend at least once and students who do not attend—and then recording their grades. In one course Mosier surveyed, students who attended SI sessions regularly scored an average 3.02 versus 1.6 for those who never attended.
Mosier works with the professors to create the framework for the study sessions, but gives student leaders a lot of latitude in how they get their tutoring lessons across. Some use online videos, memory games, even skits to help get the material across to their less-experienced counterparts. The positives can also translate into more than just As and Bs, though.
“My SI leader is now one of my best friends,” George says. “She’s going to be a senior in the same major. She helped me figure out what classes to take and how to budget my time. She also helped me with a lot of other things. She’s been a really good mentor.”
Student leaders benefit as well. Not only are they paid for their time, tutoring helps reinforce the material for their own sakes and shows well on résumés and grad school applications.
Mosier says the program has been very well received by everyone involved. There’s only one problem: She now has more prospective student leaders than she has positions available. That, of course, is a good problem to have. And, one of the prospective student leaders is George. “I did well enough that I’m going to be an SI leader for an incoming general biology class,” she says.
For Mosier, that’s what makes all of the work worth it. “The biggest compliment for me is to see a student who wants to be a tutor, who says, ‘I want to be as inspiring to future students who take this course.’”