Supplemental Instruction Program Helps UCR Students Excel in Tough Classes

Report from Office of Undergraduate Education shows program is beneficial to students who participate regularly

student at the board as class looks on

A student works a chemistry problem out on the white board during a Supplemental Instruction course at the Academic Resource Center at the University of California, Riverside. Photo by Ross French

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — When then-first-year student Karen Escobedo received a failing grade on her first general chemistry midterm, she knew she was going to need a little help if she was going to pass the class. Fortunately, the help she needed was as close as the University of California, Riverside’s Academic Resource Center’s Supplemental Instruction (SI) program, which helps students earn better grades in historically challenging lower-division courses.

“I knew I needed to change my study habits, and attending SI was my first step,” Escobedo recalled. “The SI leader posed questions during the sessions that made me think outside the box and I began to understand the material better.”

With the extra help, Escobedo did pass her chemistry class and few months later, she herself became an SI leader, working with students who were struggling with math.

A recent report from the UCR Office of Undergraduate Education confirms that Escobedo’s experience is not unique. Every year, hundreds of UCR students are earning better grades with the assistance of the SI program.

students raising hands

Students work out a chemistry problem during a Supplemental Instruction Program class. Photo by Ross French

The results showed that supplemental instruction  had a positive impact on grades in a variety of historically challenging courses – that is classes that historically have large numbers of students who receive D or F grades or who withdraw from the course.  Students who attended SI had a mean course grade of 2.65, compared to 2.43 for students who did not attend the program.  The improvement was regardless of ethnicity, sex, class standing, income status or whether the student was a first-generation college-goer.

“It is not always clear how intervention programs have an impact on student performance, so it is encouraging to see that SI does,” said Interim Director of Evaluation and Assessment Gary Coyne, who analyzed the data from the 2011-12 academic year with Ph.D. student Michaela Curran of the Office of Undergraduate Education.  “It is particularly encouraging to see the positive impact of SI in many of the comparisons that control for factors that one might expect would affect course grades, like when we match students with similar high school GPAs.”

In 2011-12, 4,289 students participated in SI courses, which accounts for 24% of all enrolled UCR students. SI was shown to have a positive impact for students both in and out of learning communities, with both heavy users (more than 10 visits) and occasional users (two-to-nine visits) seeing improvements.

“The model of SI requires students to be a pro-active learner, rather than sitting in their seat and watching someone else going over the concepts, students are encouraged to form small groups and work collectively on the given assignment,” said Ali Saadat, coordinator of the Supplemental Instruction program.

Students participating in First-Year Learning Communities in the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences and the Bourns College of Engineering are required to attend 20 hours of SI sessions each quarter as part of a in which students take a common sequence of classes to build an academic community and promote academic success and retention.  All other SI participation is optional.

“Some students attend only one one-hour session, but our evaluation suggests that attending just once is not often enough,” said Steven Brint, vice provost for Undergraduate Education. “Students who attend SI at least several times in the quarter are more likely to receive full benefit in terms of improved grades.”

Brint added that the fact that as many as 20% of first-year students have sub-2.0 GPAs at the end of their first quarter is indicative that they aren’t adequately prepared by their high school experience to succeed in college-level courses.

“The data shows that some students in engineering and science earn poor grades during the first quarter of their freshmen year,” Brint said. “The reasons vary from a lack of preparation to a deficiency in the study skills that are necessary to flourish at a university. In both of these cases, SI can help these students elevate their learning skills.”

woman at white board

Supplemental Instruction leader Swathi Narayanan, a junior chemistry major from Irvine, Calif., demonstrates the formula for converting temperature in Celsius to Fahrenheit during a recent class for Chemistry 1A students at the University of California, Riverside. Photo by Ross French

SI sessions are led by undergraduate students who have previously taken the same course and performed well, with a minimum grade of B+ or A-, depending on the program. Applicants go through five days of intensive training prior to the start of the academic year, including SI session simulations and role playing.

Saadat said that the SI leaders attend the classes along with their students, but they do not just reteach the content during their 50-to-60 minute review sessions. “Their role is to highlight the main topics and concepts that were covered in the lecture and connect these concepts,” he said.  “They become a facilitator who would go around each group and check the students’ understanding. An ideal SI session is the one that if someone enters the room, cannot tell who the SI leader is.”

“One of the secrets of the success of SI is that many students feel more comfortable asking questions to peer educators than to professors or even to teaching assistants,” Brint said. “This is natural enough.  Peers are easier to relate to and less likely to raise anxieties among students.  Many students don’t want to appear confused or in need of help when they talk to professors, even when they are confused and in need of help.”

The SI program faces some challenges, including limited room availability during daylight hours that don’t conflict with lecture, discussion or office hours. But despite these, Brint said that he would like to see the program expand, both within CNAS and BCoE as well as to the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Science.

“We would like to expand the Supplemental Instruction program and I hope more faculty will want to get on-board with it,” Brint said. “UC Riverside has a reputation for taking average students and making them elite learners, and it is programs such as this one that allow that to happen.”

Sophomore Ana Sevilla thinks that more faculty members should consider adding SI to their classes.

“I would encourage them to add an SI session to a course because it is also a great way to demonstrate to the students that professors/TA’s care about the students,” she said. “The faculty member would see a raise in test scores and would be able to know which students are truly passionate and/or trying in that certain subject.”

Escobedo agreed.

“I believe in the SI program and that it really has helped students excel in their classes. I have seen it myself when I hold my sessions,” she said. “I’ve received emails from students letting me know that SI helped them and I know the SI program will only continue to do so.”

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