University News

Peer tutoring program axed, cited as ineffective

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The University-sponsored peer tutoring program has been all but eliminated this semester by administrators, leaving students unable to access one-on-one homework help from fellow undergraduates — and hundreds of former tutors out of a job.

Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron said Thursday that the decision to eliminate the existing tutoring program came from concerns about whether “the one-on-one tutoring model worked in all cases.” She said the change was not a result of attempts to trim spending.

“This was not driven by (the) budget,” she said. “It is about maximizing resources.”

Bergeron said administrators were also concerned about the lack of oversight with the existing program, under which tutors would track their own hours. “Any program that is so distributed like that is going to lack accountability,” she said.

Bergeron said a smaller, more focused program based on “facilitated study groups” would probably be more effective at responding to students’ needs. A new program will feature peer “academic coaches” and organized study groups for select courses, she announced in an e-mail to students Monday afternoon.

The study groups will consist of three to six students and will be led by a peer facilitator, according to Bergeron’s e-mail, and will meet weekly throughout the semester to review important topics covered in class.

Historically, the Curricular Resource Center — part of the Office of the Dean of the College — has provided students with one-on-one tutoring for more than 200 courses, free of charge. The new model — which will also be free to students — will offer facilitated study groups for a select number of classes, Bergeron said.

So far, those include introductory language courses in Arabic, Chinese, French and Spanish, as well as challenging introductory courses in biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics and economics.

In her e-mail to students Monday, Bergeron wrote that individual tutoring will be available “by application on a selective basis.”

She said administrators have already targeted courses in which tutors have traditionally been in high demand. 

“Right now, we’re beginning with setting up things for the heavily impacted classes in the social sciences and the physical sciences,” she said.

Yolanda Rome, director of co-curricular advising and tutoring programs, said Friday that some faculty members have expressed concern about eliminating one-on-one tutoring entirely.

“We’re trying to be responsive to what people have been saying,” Rome said.

At the request of some professors, the select introductory classes will be supported by study groups. More classes may be added to the list later.

Professor of Computer Science Andy Van Dam is one instructor who has expressed his concern about the facilitated study group model.

Van Dam, who teaches CSCI 0150: “Introduction to Object-Oriented Programming and Computer Science,” told The Herald Friday that the new program — as currently outlined — would not effectively support his students.

“It will not be what I need in CS 15,” he said.

The University’s largest introductory computer science course, CSCI 0150 routinely enrolls more than 150 students, Van Dam said. He added that though three head undergraduate TAs and 16 others — paid by the department — offer more than 60 hours of combined weekly support to students, many still require one-on-one tutoring.

“Most of the students have never programmed,” he explained. “They get through the course because they have one-on-one help.”

From one to many
 

But Rome said the facilitated study groups will educate students more efficiently and effectively. “This is more pedagogically sound,” she said. “Research supports it.”

She said the study groups are expected to begin meeting at some point next month.

Rome — who assumed responsibility for the University’s tutoring program after Gretchen Peterson, program coordinator of the Academic Support Center, left to accept a position at Boston University — added that peer “academic coaches,” unlike the limited study groups, will be available to all students for help in all courses. 

But the coaches will not provide support for specific course material. Instead, they will offer individualized suggestions on such topics as time management, exam preparation and note-taking, Rome said.

“We want to help students hone their study habits,” she said.

Rome said that since the first week of school, the University has hired eight academic coaches and nearly 50 study group facilitators — all undergraduates. She said that amid the hiring, members of the Office of the Dean of the College and the Curricular Resource Center have been meeting with faculty members and students to discuss how to staff the new program.

“We’ve been soliciting requests from departments,” she said, adding, “It’s a work in progress, but we know that this is a better model.”

Professor of Chemistry David Cane, who is teaching a section of CHEM 0360: “Organic Chemistry,” said he thought the facilitated study groups were “very good ideas.”

“I think organized group study is an extremely effective way of learning,” he said. “If it’s properly managed, the student can become actively engaged with the material.”

Cane said he regularly encourages students to get together in dorms or libraries to review material on their own, adding that the additional facilitation of a trained group leader might provide additional benefits.

Cane said the Department of Chemistry offers weekly problem sessions led by faculty members as well as undergraduates hired by the department. He said the chemistry department will continue to offer those sessions in addition to any new study groups that are set up.

Van Dam — who has taught at Brown for over 40 years — said that under the old tutoring program, he only allowed former TAs to tutor CSCI 0150 students. Former teaching assistants are familiar with the problems and challenges students face, he said.

Van Dam said the introductory class relies on a “Socratic dialogue,” where students seeking help with projects are often asked questions rather than simply given answers. But this type of instruction would be ineffective in a facilitated study group, he said.

“The Socratic method doesn’t work in a group,” he said.

CSCI 0150 has not been included on the list of classes for which facilitated study groups will be offered.

Van Dam said that though he had spoken with members of the Office of the Dean of the College to discuss his concerns, he had already taken steps to ensure that his students would have support they need.

“Tutoring, to me, is essential as the next step in case teaching assistant office hours aren’t sufficient,” he explained. “I can’t afford to wait until we get this sorted out.”

He said he decided to hire former TAs to begin tutoring current students in the absence of University-paid tutors. The students are currently working as volunteers, but Van Dam said he was willing to pay them out of his own pocket if the University will not pay for them.

“I am so passionate about this that I would subsidize it out of my own pocket,” he said. “If we can save half a dozen kids, that’s money well spent.”