Supplemental Instruction creates the opportunity for students to learn the material and develop study strategies from students who have succeed before them.
Dr. Lucile McCook closed her eyes and let her head fall slightly downward. Everything from her shoulders to her blonde pixie cut began to motion from side to side, as if trying to forget a nightmare she had just awoken from.
“Some of these beginning classes are referred to as “weed out” classes,” said Dr. McCook, forming her own quotation marks with her fingers. The area between her eyebrows crinkled together, her lips pursed, and then, as if expressing defeat, she sighed. “I absolutely hate that term. As a former Biology 160/162 professor, I know that teachers don’t start out by saying this percentage of students is going to fail. If every student made A’s or B’s teachers would love it,” she smiled, grabbing the sides of her face. “It would be the best semester ever.”
Working in the Department of Biology for 15 years and teaching what she says was over 12,000 students, Dr. McCook, the current Director of Health Professions Advising, explained how the 2010 fall semester began in a unique fashion.
“It all started when Dr. Reynolds handed me a book on SI and asked me if I knew anything about it,” said Dr. McCook. “I hadn’t heard of it, but once I read it over I knew it was going to be a great idea.”
Supplemental Instruction, better known as SI, is a series of free weekly study sessions offered to students enrolled in specifically challenging courses that tend to have high percentages of D’s, F’s, or withdrawals.
This fall, the chosen courses included Accountancy 201, Biology 102, Biology 160, Biology 206, Chemistry 101, Chemistry 105, and Physics 213.
“Biology 102 has a track record of being difficult for students, especially the majority of the roster: incoming freshmen,” said Dr. Tiffany Bensen, a Biology 102 professor. “The content tends to be difficult, I think, because it isn’t intuitive and often requires students to think differently than they are used to thinking.”
SI offers students the opportunity to review content deeper, learn study strategies, and do hands-on activities in a peer-structured environment.
“SI has helped me maintain my study habits as well as taught me how to successfully study on my own time,” said Emily Sigler, a regular attendee for the Biology 102 sessions. “The SI Leader helps me better understand difficult material without just giving me the answers, while other students help by contributing their own ideas and understandings.”
Each session is facilitated by an SI Leader who has previously done well in the course. As a leader, one is required to attend class lectures and take notes, as well as plan three sessions per week and an additional review session prior to an exam.
“It takes about 8 to 10 hours to plan for Supplemental Instruction each week,” said Ethan Collier, a Biology 160 Leader. “I spend 3 hours in sessions and 3 hours in lectures, and then I spend anywhere from 2 to 4 hours typing worksheets or planning strategies that I perform in my sessions. Also, there is a required meeting every Wednesday night that Dr. Wiggers holds for all of the leaders.”
The Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning pays the leaders $1,500 for the semester, which includes the training workshop held over the summer.
“To pick SI Leaders I first ask the professors for recommendations,” said Learning Specialist Dr. Nancy Wiggers. “I send the professors applications to give to the selected students, and then I review their grades and overall applications before setting up interviews. Usually ten people are cut, and it kills me because everyone I interview is such a good student. It’s so exciting just to get to talk to them.”
Dr. Wiggers reserves classrooms for each session before the beginning of the semester, in which she coordinates the leaders’ course schedules with available rooms.
“Normally, I give Dr. Wiggers a classroom schedule to work around, and then I contact her and ask what classes she is offering and what times she would like them,” said Sue Gauthier, the coordinator for Residential College South. “A lot of the residents are taking courses offered by SI, and we want them to take advantage of the program. It is to my understanding that students who attend the sessions regularly make about a whole letter grade higher than those students that do not attend.”
In the spring of 2010, Dean Glenn Hopkins, Dr. Holly Reynolds, and Dr. Johnny Lott worked together to propose the pilot program of Supplemental Instruction. The following academic year, SI kick-started with sections of Accountancy 201, Biology 160, and Chemistry 105, interchanging Accountancy 202, Biology 162, and Chemistry 106 for the spring semester.
“I was on the Freshman Retention Committee for three or four years,” said Dr. Holly Reynolds, Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Assistant Professor. “The people on the committee, which was lead by the Provost Scholar Program, wanted to know how we could help make students more successful, as well as target historically difficult classes.
The provost office funds the Supplemental Instruction Program, and every year Dr. Wiggers submits data to represent its effectiveness.
After Supplemental Instruction’s first semester consensus, Biology 160 SI students received a higher grade point average than non-SI students by 0.4 points. Also, Chemistry 105 SI students averaged a 2.4 GPA, whereas non-SI attendees earned a 2.3. However, Accountancy 201 non-SI students were more successful, earning 0.4 more points in comparison to the students who attended SI.
Since 2010, the percentage of D’s, F’s, or withdrawals for non-SI students has continued to remain higher than for students regularly attending SI. For example, 18% of SI students received either a D, F, or withdrew from a targeted class last year, while non-SI students reached a DFW rate of 28%.
Yet, the SI attendance rates for the 2012-2013 academic year shows that several courses have received a lower turnout than the previous 2011-2012 or 2010-2011 school semesters.
To illustrate, Accountancy 201/202 fell from an attendance rate of 32% in 2011-2012 to 27% in 2012-2013. Additionally, Chemistry 105/106 had a 7% decline in the same time frame.
On the other hand, Biology 160/162, Biology 206/207, and Chemistry 101 have continued to have an increase in attendance rates, with Biology 206/207 rising by 9%.
“My observation is that students think that learning occurs only when they are online, with a tutor, or sitting in a classroom,” said Dr. McCook. “This model of a small group working together is something they don’t see as an effective model for learning. However, the data tells us otherwise.”
On a broader scale, the International Center for SI has headquarters at the University of Missouri-Kansas City within the Center for Academic Development.
The center holds regular training conferences, and has currently trained people in over 2,500 institutions in more than 29 countries. Other centers are located in Australia, Canada, South Africa, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, in order to help promote the program nationally.
“It obviously works because it has survived for 40 years and new institutions are constantly being trained,” said Jennifer Beatty, the SI Co-Coordinator for the International Center, via telephone. “It all comes down to the fact that there is a common trend of a half to full letter grade difference between students who attend SI, and students who do not.”
In the future, the University of Mississippi’s Supplemental Instruction Program will offer SI to every section of the targeted course, and hopefully add additional courses to the program.
“Over time we should be able to pick up other courses,” said Dr. Reynolds. “I’m currently in conversation with some chair members about expanding the program even more for next fall. As of right now, though, it has only been 3 full academic years, and still SI has impacted many students and benefitted many class grades.”