Students Teach Students Under Pilot Program to Improve Student Success Rates
Teaching + Learning Commons launches peer-facilitated study groups to boost achievement in historically challenging lower-division courses
UC San Diego student Kate Schneiderman faces the white board and hesitates as she works on a calculus formula. With leader Jivani Gengatharran offering an encouraging “be confident in your answer,” Kate smiles as she writes the correct solution. This isn’t a UC San Diego classroom or even a traditional tutoring session; it is a Supplemental Instruction pilot program where students teach students, launched this fall under the Teaching + Learning Commons.
UC San Diego is one of the first University of California campuses to embrace peer-facilitated study groups to improve student success rates. The Center for Engaged Learning, a unit within The Teaching + Learning Commons, introduced the new program this fall to help students earn better grades in historically challenging lower-division courses. The Supplemental Instruction (SI) program complements Math 10 and Math 20, courses that a majority of students must pass. Undergraduates, most of whom have already taken the class, are trained to be peer leaders to guide students currently in the class.
The Teaching + Learning Commons (The Commons) was established to further UC San Diego’s Strategic Plan goal to become a more student-centered university. “We are committed to student success,” emphasized Gabriele Wienhausen, faculty director for The Commons. “We admit smart students, and now we are building a support structure for student success. Embracing the Supplemental Instruction model is critical to developing students who will have the skills to become independent learners.”
In partnership with Peter Ebenfelt, chair of UC San Diego’s Department of Math, and Jeff Orgera, AVC in the new Student Retention and Success office, Supplemental Instruction targets difficult courses rather than struggling students. The Commons is tracking attendance, but it’s anonymous—professors don’t know who is attending the supplemental study sessions.
Jenny Herndon, a lecturer in Biological Sciences, was recruited to be the coordinator of the pilot program. “Calculus is required for biology majors—but can prove to be a difficult subject for most students. The course creates a bottleneck to get students to graduate on time. We want them to be successful the first time they take it.”
Herndon added, “The SI program can help students become more confident and introduces them to the concept of a learning community. Previously, they could ask a TA or go to tutoring—but either can sometimes be ineffective. Here, student leaders are interacting and encouraging participation from the students in the session, and through this process the material becomes more meaningful. They go voluntarily, take responsibility for participation, and hopefully will become lifelong learners as a result.”
For undergraduate Hsuan-Hsin (Yoyo) Chen, she realized that going through math textbook practice problems on her own wasn’t enough. “For me, doing well in math class requires a lot of practice. So I thought going to the SI session could help me get more practice and strengthen my knowledge in all the mathematical concepts. What stood out to me from all the sessions were how to tackle the problems presented to me in the simplest way, but even those ways require solid understanding of the concepts behind each process of the work.”
She added, “I think this is a great model that could be applied to many lower-division courses that incoming freshmen normally take. Coming into a quarter system really requires a buffer period to get used to the fast pace where professors or instructors no longer walk each student through the concept and make sure everyone understands before moving on to new topics.”
But what do student leaders get out of the program? According to Wienhausen, in addition to compensation, they learn to communicate and listen; they also develop leadership and social skills. Leaders are helping students learn by talking about the subject matter, and then by explaining it to each other.
“There are small techniques that my calculus teacher taught me on how to solve certain calculus problems,” said Jivani Gengatharan, a student leader who was trained by a Supplemental Instruction facilitator in a two-day session provided by the Teaching + Learning Commons. “The Math 20A class is pretty fast-paced, so as a leader, I can break down those lectures and guide them towards thinking about what’s going on conceptually. Just doing problems out of routine won’t help them understand the big picture and won’t help them solve all the problems thrown their way. I definitely have seen progress with my mentees.”
As a bioengineering/biotechnology major, her passion and goal is to work in a biotech or pharmaceutical company as part of the drug development process. “Before I started this job, I was interested in teaching, and now that I really enjoy what I do, I might consider it for the future,” she said.
UC San Diego is investing $8 million to create a new physical space for the Teaching + Learning Commons as part of the Geisel Library Revitalization Initiative. The Commons will receive $1 million this year for programming and services for undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral scholars and faculty to enhance teaching and learning at UC San Diego.
For more information about the Teaching + Learning Commons, including the Supplemental Instruction program, visit commons.ucsd.edu.