Scale academic support to struggling students

How supplemental instruction can help improve student performance in critical gateway courses

By Ashley Delamater

Students frequently need additional academic support to master critical gateway courses. While most institutions respond through tutoring services, tutoring can be difficult to scale. Additionally, it can sometimes be challenging to get students to take advantage of tutoring. They may be afraid to admit that they are struggling, they may be uncomfortable with the one-on-one attention, or they may be convinced that tutoring will not work for them. Even when students do use tutoring services, many struggle to articulate what they need help with, while tutors are often unfamiliar with the content particular to specific course sections.

Challenges to Scaling Tutoring

Challenges to Scaling Tutoring

To reach a broader set of students in need of targeted academic support, Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) incorporated supplemental instruction to their high enrollment gateway courses. Supplemental instruction is a series of peer-assisted weekly group study sessions for a specific course.

MTSU launched supplemental instruction through a pilot program. After reaching out to deans and chairs about the initiative, faculty were invited to add supplemental instruction to their courses. While they planned to begin with just three to five course sections, they received so much interest from faculty that they launched 21 supplemental instruction sections across three colleges in fall 2016.

Sessions focus on tackling the most difficult concepts in a course through discussion and active learning exercises. In addition, they work to ensure students understand how best to study for the specific course, how to effectively communicate with their professors, and how to approach test taking—setting them up for success in the long run.

Sessions are led by carefully selected peers who previously completed the course with high scores. Leaders are paid and undergo a two-day long training session on the supplemental instruction method.

Sample Training Agenda

Sample Training Agenda

Though session attendance varies, MTSU found that 10-20 students is an ideal size for a session taught by a single leader. Sessions with attendance above 30 students add a second leader to help maintain personal attention with a group study feel. In addition to the cost of peer leader wages, institutions should also consider a small budget for snacks that can be used to entice students to supplemental instruction sessions.

While the impact of supplemental instruction varies from course to course, MTSU reports that students tend to see a half to full letter grade improvement on exams with regular supplemental instruction attendance (that is attending at least once per week). Some courses have seen tremendous improvement in student performance. For example, in Calculus I, students who regularly attended supplemental instruction sessions saw scores on the first calculus exam rise by 22 points on average while the second exam saw a 17 point increase on average.

Supplemental Instruction Demonstrates Measurable Impact at MTSU

Supplemental Instruction Demonstrates Measurable Impact at MTSU

Since its implementation, MTSU’s program has grown from 21 courses to 36, serving a population of over 2,000 students—over 10% of MTSU’s total undergraduate population. And the supplemental instruction team is continuing to connect with faculty interested in adding the program to their courses. In fact, MTSU plans to expand supplemental instruction to nearly 50 sections across four colleges by fall 2017.

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