Helping students overcome academic challenges
Contributed by: Gabe LaHue
This week our Graduate Teaching Community members had the chance to speak with Sara Hawkes, Inez Anders, and Kevin Sitz of the Student Academic Success Center (SASC) and ask questions about how best to help students overcome academic challenges. Sara, Inez, and Kevin are the Assistant Directors for Academic Assistance and Tutoring in charge of math and science, tutoring, and writing, respectively. The Student Academic Success Center serves over 9,000 individual students each year, or about 35% of the undergraduate student body, which highlights one of their main points: the center is a resource for all students regardless of how they are performing academically.
Kevin started us off by talking about writing assistance, which includes one-on-one appointments with writing specialists or tutors, as well as a writing studio for drop-in consultations with tutors. There is an approximately equal split in the clients of the writing assistance program between domestic and international students. The types of advice the specialists and tutors provide ranges from reviewing grammar to helping students break apart essay prompts prior to starting the essay. Building on this last point, Kevin suggested that teaching assistants (TAs) encourage students to schedule consultations early in the quarter (rather than the day an assignment is due), that they bring a hard copy of the assignment, and that they bring any additional resources such as reference books, TA feedback, etc. The point about coming early in the quarter (and often) is particularly important, as there is research to show that the writing assistance program improves students’ GPAs with each additional consultation, but only after several initial consultations.
The math and science assistance program that Sara Hawkes leads has a similarly impressive track-record. The program offers drop-in tutoring, either with undergraduate student tutors or math specialists, in addition to drop-in content reviews, workshops, online tutoring, and online resources. Inez spearheads the coordination of all the undergraduate tutors, who are union employees and receive rigorous training prior to working with SASC. She is also coordinating a pilot program for online tutoring, which is just in its first year. Tutors generally focus on large enrollment undergraduate classes, but they can help students in other classes think through a problem-solving approach, especially if the students bring in enough resources from the class. All three of the speakers stressed that tutors are trained so that they don’t give students the correct answers, rather they help them think through the process that leads them to the answer; students should be informed ahead of time about what to expect from the tutors and this way they are less likely to be frustrated with tutors who won’t confirm whether an answer is correct or not. Like for the writing assistance program, students should bring in all the materials and resources they can, including their notes, their textbook, past assignments and assessments, etc.
The most important thing we can do as TAs is be aware of the resources that SASC offers ourselves and make all our students aware of them at the beginning of the quarter, rather than just referring particular students later in the quarter (although recommending it to individual students again can also be beneficial). Sara even showed us a handout that she helped an instructor create, which lists supplementary resources available to the students for that class, including all the resources at the Student Academic Success Center. University courses can be extremely challenging for our students, and neither ourselves as TAs nor our students should have to overcome these academic challenges alone – the Student Academic Success Center is there to help.