University students ace tests, improve grades with help from peer tutors

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Katie O'Gorman says one of her biggest rewards for the hours she spends preparing review sessions for University of North Texas math students "is when a student comes up to me after a test and says, ‘I got an A' or even ‘I passed.'"

"It's all attitude," O'Gorman says. "Some of them are pretty good at math, but they hate it so much that they're sure they won't do well."

O'Gorman sounds like a dedicated professor -- but she's a UNT undergraduate like the students she teaches. The junior interdisciplinary studies major from Keller is one of 45 student leaders in UNT's Supplemental Instruction Program, a peer tutoring program designed to have students help each other with classes.

Students who have performed well in courses that are traditionally difficult are nominated by the faculty members who teach the courses to be SI tutors. After being approved by the directors of the Supplemental Instruction Program, the SI tutors are paid to attend all class sessions and lead two to three free study sessions outside of class each week.

Designed by researchers at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, SI is used by more than 600 colleges and universities throughout the world. UNT is the first university in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to use the program, joining Stephen F. Austin University, the University of Texas at San Antonio, Texas State University, Baylor University, Texas A&M University at Commerce, St. Edward's University in Austin and Angelo State University in San Angelo in using it.

When SI began at UNT in the summer of 1999, only five classes used it. For the 2006 spring semester, SI is being used with more than 50 classes, including 19 classes of Math 1010. The course, Fundamentals of Algebra, is a prerequisite for Math 1100, College Algebra -- a required course for all undergraduates under UNT's core curriculum.

"We are the first program in Texas to use the program for every single section of Math 1010, and we were the first to develop tutoring sessions for developmental algebra that actually worked," says

Katy Lee Goolsby, who coordinates the program in UNT's Learning Center.

Goolsby says instructors of core curriculum courses that have failure rates of 30 percent or higher are invited to participate in SI, adding that the low grades in these courses usually have nothing to do with class instruction.

"Liberal arts majors tend to struggle in math and science, while math and science majors struggle in history and English," she says.

Other UNT core curriculum courses that use SI are English 2210, World Literature; Biology 1110, Contemporary Biology; History 2610-2620, U.S. History; and Political Science 1040-1050, American Government.

Goolsby says the SI program has several advantages over other programs to improve students' academic performance, such as traditional tutoring.

"The SI leader is in class every day and knows exactly what the professor expects of that class. In math class, there are several different methods of working the same problem, and a professor may prefer one over the other," she says. "The professors review any worksheets that the SI leader has created for the study sessions."

Other tutors, who are hired to meet with students outside of class, "may not be familiar with what the professor wants," Goolsby says.

Students do not have to be a major in a subject to become a SI leader in the subject, she says.

"We select students with good personalities who are well rounded and have the ability to explain complex concepts," she says. "It usually boils down to who we think is the best. For example, students tend to relate better to non-math majors than to math majors who are leading SI sessions."

Students selected as SI leaders receive training before the first day of class, and meet every other week for ongoing training.

O'Gorman has led SI sessions for Math 1010 and 1110 since August 2004. She says she always has students who attend her sessions work problems on the dry-erase board.

"To really understand algebra, they need to practice it," she says. "Some students in Math 1010 are mandated to be in the class because they didn't score high enough on placement tests to be in Math 1110, so they get very frustrated."

She says she wanted to become a SI tutor to prepare for her future career as an elementary school teacher.

"For the most part, I'm a fairly successful tutor. More than half of the students in my class attend my sessions, and the other day, someone asked me if I was a math major," she says.

Goolsby says SI has proven to be highly successful during the seven years it has been offered at UNT. During the fall 2005 semester, SI tutors offered 1,890 study sessions. Forty-six percent of the students enrolled in classes using SI attended the sessions -- more than the worldwide average of 30 percent, Goolsby says.

She adds that students who go to SI sessions receive higher letter grades and are not as likely to withdraw from the class than their classmates who do not attend the sessions.

"They also learn valuable study skills that transfer to classes that don't have SI tutors," she says.

Nathan Miller, a senior music and English major and a SI math tutor for two semesters, says students who attend his sessions learn to work together and help each other.

"I redirect a student's question to the other students to get them to demonstrate a math concept," says Miller, who is from Nacogdoches. "Occasionally, I will teach a concept to them, but that's not the norm. When I have students come to the board with questions about a problem, I tell them that I'm not going to work the problem myself."

Lori Kasparek, a sophomore math major from Lindsay, is a tutor for History 2620, U.S. History Since 1865. She was previously a math tutor, and says it's harder to lead sessions on history.

"History is one big long story that you're trying to piece together," she says. "I'm there to not only help the students with questions, but also ask them questions about what they've read."

Kasparek, who plans to be a teacher when she graduates, remembers one student telling her that she had made an "A" on a test, after making an "F" on the previous test.

"The student said it was because she attended my sessions, and she thanked me," Kasparek says. "Knowing that I was there to help was a great feeling."

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108