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Lessons Learned from FIPSE Projects II - September 1993

Salem State College

Improving Teaching and Learning in Introductory Arts and Sciences Courses

Purpose

Disturbed by the frustrations of both faculty and students in certain freshman/sophomore courses that produced high percentages of student failures and withdrawals, the Director of Academic Advisors turned to the Supplemental Instruction (SI) Program model, developed by Deanna Martin of the University of Missouri, Kansas City. The model seemed to hold promise not only for reducing failures in these "high risk" courses, but also as a vehicle for faculty development, making the courses more rewarding for faculty to teach.

The SI program sets up a regular schedule of out-of-class sessions in which groups of students work together to master course content. Leaders for these groups are drawn from among students who have successfully completed the courses that employ this model and have been nominated by faculty to serve in this role. The program thus focuses on the academic content of specific courses, helping students develop learning strategies for that particular content.

Project Activities

Salem State expanded the model by encouraging faculty teaching these courses to help interview, select and train the SI leaders. Faculty also attended monthly seminars where they shared their frustrations and discussed ways of dealing with the classroom problems they faced in common. Sessions ranged in format from guest speakers to seminar members sharing ideas that worked, and at least once each semester the faculty group and the SI leader group met together. Thus faculty became familiar with the program and involved with the leaders as colleagues participating in a common enterprise.

The trained student leaders attended all sessions of their faculty member's course and led voluntary supplemental sessions of two or three hours per week. At first, these sessions were likely to be attended by the better students who wished to improve their course performance, but the more marginal students eventually began to attend. (Faculty never knew until the course was over which students attended these sessions.) Faculty were encouraged to meet with the SI leader once a week to answer questions or work together on instructional problems. Although these meetings were for the express purpose of having faculty help the SI leaders, nearly all faculty found that the leaders' reports on sources of student difficulty helped them adjust their instructional emphasis and strategies.

Innovative Features

While a number of out-of-class group study strategies such as SI have demonstrated their success, the kind of faculty involvement featured in this project is unusual. Faculty participation in training SI leaders and in all-faculty seminars turns an academic support activity for students into a faculty development effort as well. In the process, faculty begin to find solutions to pedagogical problems and to take a new attitude toward teaching courses in which student performance and intellectual challenge are unsatisfying.

Evaluation

Project directors kept detailed records of the course performance of students in all sections that offered SI support over a three-year period. The average grades of students participating in SI instruction were half a grade higher that the average of those not participating.

To address the argument that SI participants might be intrinsically better students than non-participants, grades in sections of the same course that offered no SI support were compared with those of SI participants. The results showed an average grade differential quite similar to that between SI and non-SI students in the same course.

Student attrition in these courses also declined. Thus, between the support provided by the SI leaders and the instructional changes introduced by faculty as a result of their program participation, a significant number of the courses moved out of the "high risk" category.

Faculty reaction to the experience was measured by a questionnaire administered before and after participation and further assessed through voluntary interviews of a half hour to an hour at the conclusion of each year's activities. Results, both statistical and anecdotal, are quite encouraging. Faculty felt inspired by having the SI leader in their classes and found the feedback from the leader helpful. They felt that they had become better teachers as a result of the experience and were most satisfied with teaching introductory courses. They learned a great deal from the seminar about teaching more effectively.

Unanticipated Problems

Student SI leaders sometimes had trouble understanding the difference between tutoring and SI. The purpose of SI is to help students support each other in learning how to learn and in mastering course material, rather than to have the SI leader reteach the material.

Faculty sometimes had the same difficulty. Part of the problem lay in getting faculty to commit the two full days necessary to obtain a thorough understanding of the SI technique, which made for some difficulties in their supervision of the SI leaders in their courses.

Major Insights And Lessons Learned

SI works not only to improve student performance and reduce course attrition, but with the intimate involvement of faculty it can result in greater instructor satisfaction and pedagogical renewal. Faculty discover that their problems are shared by those in a variety of other disciplines and become more willing to work on them with the moral support of others in similar situations.

The experience of being an SI leader can have substantial impact on student development, building leadership skills as well as academic ones. In at least eight cases, the experience resulted in students choosing a teaching career they had not previously considered.

Project Continuation

Despite the unusually large budget reductions experienced by Salem State along with other Massachusetts institutions, campus funding continues and the program is quite active.

Available Information

The project produced several videotapes that will be of interest to others contemplating introduction of such a program. Several small pamphlets summarize the impact of the project on students and faculty.

These items and general information about the program are available from:

Douglas A. Larson
Department of Accounting/Finance
Salem State College
Salem, MA 01970
508-741-6664

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Last Modified: 02/22/2006