by Chris Gasser
For the last few years, I have coordinated the Supplemental Instruction (SI) program, which offers group study table for historically challenging courses. Each SI table is led by an SI Leader, a student who has completed the course and is trained to facilitate collaborative learning. Over the years, I have trained SI Leaders, but for the first time this year, I got to practice what I preach. In winter, I expanded my role to SI Coordinator/SI Leader. Despite having a strong conceptual understanding of SI, I had the privilege of practical learning through leading study tables throughout the term. Here are a few of my takeaways.
Tutoring ≠ teaching (& they satisfy very different needs)
I like to think I’m an ok teacher, somewhere between John Keating and Mrs. Puff on the teacher spectrum. Yet, as I led study tables, I realized that my ability to teach isn’t really important; students already have excellent instructors. The value of SI as a program doesn’t come from the tutor’s knowledge. The value comes from the student’s engagement: getting support, seeking clarification, asking questions, offering explanations, and making mistakes, all in a low-stakes and collaborative environment. I think the big takeaway here is that people often think about tutors as mini-teachers, but in this context, that skillset is secondary to strong collaboration skills
Closely connected with number 1 is the fact that belonging matters, and it is more than just a buzzword. In end of term feedback from students, it’s astounding how many comments highlight the experience of being known, feeling welcome, and creating meaningful connections. The feedback clearly demonstrates that belonging sets a foundation for a positive environment. A positive environment encourages positive engagement, and those two things continually reinforce each other.
Sometimes we have to break the rules
In SI, we use a lot of research and theory to drive our practice. We train on theoretical models, drawing from Vygotsky and constructivists, using Bloom’s Taxonomy, and focusing on the whole person. We also use collaborative strategies like think-pair share and interrogative inquiry. No doubt these are all effective, but I also learned that so too are the intentional decisions that experienced SI Leaders make to at times deviate from these practices. Especially when they are setting their students up for even more effective learning moments. In the past, I’ve treated these moments as missed opportunities to use best practices; I now see how they can also be so much more when done sparingly and intentionally.
Inquiry is often at odds with assessment
In SI, we talk a lot about study skills and learning as an inquiry-based process. We do everything we can to resist binary thought around knowing. Instead, we treat knowledge acquisition as an ongoing and multi-faceted process. Despite this foundation, SI Leaders are always caught between this approach to learning and the question: “will this be on the test?” While I always knew this existed, leading SI tables, this tension feels so much more tangible. At my tables, I found a very real pressure to not approach learning conceptually and instead offer what might most prepare students to pass exams. I can’t help but wonder if many traditional summative assessment practices aren’t hindering the curiosity that precedes conceptual learning.
We can add nuance to language around studying
When asking faculty about the best way to study for class, students are often told: “practice” and “do homework.” When I said those things as a faculty member, I often meant: “apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate every step of your process—until you know what you are doing and why.” SI tables can add nuance to language like “study” and “practice.” By showing the variety of ways to engage with content and naming these as practice and studying, we can help students see how varied and intentional their approaches to learning can be.
While I have ideas on how to address some of these things, both as SI Coordinator and SI Leader, those ideas are by no means complete. I would welcome an invitation to talk with you more about these experiences!