The University Tutorial Center (UTC) is all about helping students comprehend the material they learn in the classroom. But this spring, the UTC staff comprised of 150 tutors and supplemental instruction (SI) leaders have been learning how to learn online along with everyone else.
“When spring break was extended and we figured out everything was going online, all of our tutors had to learn very quickly how to shift to online tutoring sessions,” said Barbara “Barbie” Windom, director of the UTC. “Our SI leaders, in particular, had the big responsibility of figuring out how to conduct online tutoring sessions and manage large groups of students in a virtual setting. They deserve a lot of credit for taking that on.”
All UTC sessions have moved to online platforms, with chemistry, math, and physics sessions being held on Zoom and writing workshops and other appointments on Google Hangouts. The UTC has also added the option to book appointments online.
“We’ve basically removed all the barriers,” Windom said. “They don’t have to fill out an application, they don’t have to commit to a certain number of hours to work with a tutor, and they can book their own appointments. I think those are all selling points for students taking online classes in the future, too.”
Now that spring classes have ended and finals are underway, the UTC is starting to look ahead to the summer and fall semesters. SI sessions will continue this summer with the addition of a new course—Chemistry 223—making all four chemistry courses supported. Also in the chemistry field, Chemistry 101 will be broken into two sections this summer, with tutoring support offered for both.
During the summer, Windom noted that UTC services are available to both traditional and non-traditional students, meaning that students from other institutions who are taking online summer courses at NC State can also benefit.
“Navigating college classes can be difficult at any time, but especially right now,” Windom said. “University Tutorial Center resources are there to have a fellow peer help support you and navigate your way through challenging gateway classes.”
Below are three of the SIs who have led the UTC’s efforts to help students succeed in the new normal:
Jessica Chestnut is a senior majoring in materials science engineering with a minor in statistics. She first became a SI leader in 2015 after working for the UTC as a chemistry and math tutor for one semester. Now, she is a chemistry SI peer supervisor.
“I loved the one-on-one interactions with students, but wanted to work with a more collaborative group to try to maximize the amount of help I could provide to undergraduates at NC State,” Chestnut said. “Chemistry is a difficult topic and the SI program does an excellent job of presenting the course content and resources to the students so they can become independent learners.”
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Chestnut has seen a substantial increase in attendance at her SI sessions. Many students particularly sought help immediately after spring break, when all classes moved online. She has also been learning many new things herself.
“I am not the most technologically advanced, so it has been a steep learning curve to try to find the best online resources so we can still maintain a collaborative approach to SI sessions,” Chestnut said. “The SI staff routinely shares ideas about activities, websites, and online components that have worked well for session plans. SI has certainly become more challenging, yet more rewarding as well. It’s great to still be able to connect with students and effectively work together through such a difficult circumstance.”
Chestnut believes relating to students and showing empathy are her greatest strengths as a SI leader, and she views herself as more of a mentor than a tutor.
“A lot of students that use the UTC services just need someone to help encourage and nudge them in the right direction,” she said. “I firmly believe that tutoring is about showing the student how to unlock their own hidden potential and sometimes the best way to do this is to listen and be compassionate. Productive and meaningful learning really stems from the connection and trust you build with a student.”
One of the ways Chestnut bonds with the students she tutors is by having discussions about animals.
“I volunteer with ferret rescues and have adopted quite a few of my own,” Chestnut said. “For the first five minutes of my SI sessions, I’ve been having ferret introductions to help make the sessions more lively. I find it helpful to have icebreakers and help lighten the mood so students can feel more comfortable to speak up and ask questions. So far, it really seems to help the sessions become more productive, although I do suspect some of the students think I’m a crazy ferret lady—and they wouldn’t really be wrong.”
One of the things Chestnut enjoys most about being an SI is witnessing students have breakthroughs on subjects with which they’ve struggled.
“SI provides a safe and non-judgmental space for students to make mistakes and work through the course material in their own way,” she said. “It’s through this hands-on approach that students are able to make connections between the problems they’re solving and the content they’ve heard in a lecture. It’s great to be able to cheer them on and celebrate the academic successes of each student.”
Lindsay Strickland is a rising junior majoring in biological sciences with a concentration on molecular, cellular, and developmental biology. She is also majoring in genetics and biomanufacturing. This spring was Strickland’s second semester as an SI and her third with the UTC.
“I wasn’t really sure about doing SI at first,” Strickland said. “I was interested in learning more about it so I ended up going and watching an SI session! I really loved all the collaboration that was happening, and I really liked the idea of getting to work with a larger group of students.”
Since all classes went online, Strickland’s SI session times have remained the same, but sessions have been extended by a full hour to mitigate any technical issues that may arise. She has also seen a slight dip in attendance at some of her sessions; however, there have been many new attendees as well.
“My job as a SI leader has mostly stayed the same as usual—creating a comfortable, group-collaborative setting where students can work through difficult material,” Strickland said. “The main difference is that it’s now through a different platform, Zoom. In training we describe our roles as ‘glorified time-keepers,’ and I think that this role has remained the same.”
Strickland’s tutoring philosophy is all about practice makes perfect. For her sessions, she encourages lots of group collaboration and discussions. She also shares helpful resources that students might not have known about or thought to use before. She’s become well versed in all of the tools at her fingertips as well.
“I think during the COVID-19 online setting, I have become a lot more organized for my students,” Strickland said. “I have created a lot more worksheets so that they have something tangible to look back through when they’re studying on their own. I’ve also started using Google Slides to give the students a platform to work collaboratively to build ‘summary corner’ slides with important equations, tips, and tricks. I’ve also gotten pretty creative using all of the Zoom features like polling, the whiteboard, and the reactions feature.”
One of the things Strickland has enjoyed most about being a SI leader during COVID-19 is having regularly scheduled time to socialize with other students.
“It’s so nice during this quarantine to be able to see them three times a week—even if it is online!” Strickland said. “I also love seeing them succeed. The ‘aha moments’ are the best. I’ve also had students come up and thank me before/after sessions about how much their grades have improved after coming to SI. It’s a really rewarding program to be a part of.”
Britney Rajamanickam is a human biology major and music performance minor in the Class of 2022. She became a SI leader in 2019.
“The biggest reason I decided to be a SI leader is because I wanted to learn how to facilitate a group of students through planned activities,” she said. “I also like how SI requires the SI leaders to attend class! I plan to take the MCAT in the future and retaking classes like Chemistry 221 really helps me refresh my memory on the material.”
For Rajamanickam, SI sessions have changed drastically since the outbreak of COVID-19. But in some ways, the experience has actually been beneficial.
“Normally in SI sessions, students would write down notes about the session on a whiteboard; we called it a summary corner,” Rajamanickam explained. “Since spring break, all of my summary corners have been Google PowerPoint presentations, which have been great because it’s very easy to write and edit notes. Another bonus is that students can access the material whenever they want!”
In her SI sessions, Rajamanickam has her students review the material, explain it to her or other students, and apply that knowledge to either real-life situations or practice problems.
“A common activity in my sessions is to have the students fill out an incomplete outline that I made myself,” Rajamanickam said. “However, during COVID-19, I decided to have the students create their own incomplete outline. The students were surprised by this change, but they enjoyed the activity and felt like they had a greater understanding of the material because of it. I’ve also tried using a program called Kahoot during a session, which had mixed results, but I think it could be a great session activity once all the kinks are smoothed out.”
Like Strickland, Rajamanickam’s greatest joy as a tutor is seeing students experience “aha moments.”
“I really enjoy bonding with the students who come to my sessions and slowly seeing each of them understand the material better throughout the semester.”
To book an appointment or learn more about the University Tutorial Center, visit https://tutorial.dasa.ncsu.edu/.