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Tutoring to grow, go online at UA

Unit key to boosting graduation rate by Jaime Adame | December 25, 2015 at 3:02 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Rare is the college student who enjoys finals week.

But in his role as a tutor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, the work Alex Khang does with fellow students becomes especially meaningful at the end of the semester.

"At the end, it's just that final push," said Khang, a senior studying biomedical engineering. "You can just help them get over the hill and finish their courses strong. I definitely do get some satisfaction beyond a paycheck."

Expanded tutoring and other academic support are in the works for UA's Center for Learning and Student Success, said Charlotte Lee, the center's director.

Two full-time assistant directors will be hired soon to help manage and train students like Khang to help their peers. This spring, a pilot program will begin offering online tutoring support for online classes, Lee said.

The university may also expand academic coaching, which involves one-on-one sessions between students and professional staff members to improve study habits and deal with anxiety. Currently, the center employs two part-time academic coaches, Lee said.

Already, the center has expanded the number of campus sites offering help with writing and tutoring in other subjects, with four locations now regularly offering such support.

Trevor Francis, an associate vice provost in UA's Office of Graduation and Retention, wrote in an email to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the center is a "key retention initiative" for the university, which is working to improve its student graduation rate.

Among first-time, full-time, degree-seeking freshmen who enrolled in 2009, the six-year graduation rate was 62.5 percent -- a number that fell short of a goal for a 66 percent graduation rate by 2015. Joseph Steinmetz, set to take over as chancellor Jan. 1, has said UA's graduation rate is "way too low."

A restructuring in October led to the formal creation of the center, sometimes referred to as CLASS+, which now combines what was formerly known as the Enhanced Learning Center and some services, like academic coaching, previously offered through other offices.

But Lee has helped oversee tutoring and other academic support efforts for about 10 years at UA. During that time, the number of students helped has grown from under 2,500 in the fall of 2005 to more than 7,300 this fall, according to data provided by Lee.

"A lot of that growth was in supplemental instruction," Lee said, referring to weekly 50-minute sections supporting a specific class.

Each section is led by a student hired by the center, which generally pays a $1,500 stipend per semester. Tutors generally earn from $8.25 to $12 per hour, Lee said.

Student section leaders are expected to devote about 10 hours to their jobs for 15 weeks, time that includes attending the class they are supporting. In the most recent fall semester, 455 supplemental instruction sections were held every week, said Anne Raines, the center's senior associate director. UA's enrollment has grown to more than 22,000 undergraduates, however, so the sections supported only nine distinct courses this past semester, Raines said.

Courses with supplemental instruction included principles of biology, fundamental chemistry, and accounting principles, according to UA's website.

Lee said the center reviews student outcomes for those participating in supplemental instruction, with the average outcomes showing a difference on the basis of attendance.

"If a student goes 10 or more times, their grade will be higher than a student who goes one to five times or four to nine," said Lee.

The addition of two full-time staff members -- each set to earn about $42,00 yearly, according to a job advertisement -- are needed to better manage the desired expansion of services, Lee said.

"We have a call for certain things right now that we can't physically manage," Lee said.

Along with existing programs, "we are looking at some other services that are provided at other institutions that appear to have promise," Lee said. In particular, academic coaches, who may have a professional counseling or related background, could play an expanded role at UA, she said.

Only about 300 student sessions with coaches took place this fall, the voluntary meetings typically taking place after a referral from a student's academic adviser or instructor.

"Faculty know about the coaching program, and if they have a student that's really struggling, they'll recommend they make an appointment with a coach," Lee said. "Whether they do or not is up to the student."

Students helping other students remains the heart of services offered by the center, however.

Ashley Perkins, a social work major, on a recent December morning arrived at the center's main office in Gregson Hall to get help with writing a research proposal.

The one-on-one session with another student offered a less intimidating environment than a meeting with a professor, said Perkins.

"I really had a good experience the last time I came here," she said.

In another room, Lauren Guilette, a freshman, received tutoring help for a math class. UA has a separate math-laboratory center devoted to helping students, but Guilette said she appreciated being able to work one-on-one with a tutor.

Lee said data on students kept by the center may become part of a larger data-analytics initiative set to begin soon after the approval this fall of an approximately $396,000 contract with Austin-based Civitas Learning.

"We're planning on it if we can make it happen," Lee said of the data sharing. University leaders have said that having more data on students can help pinpoint where and when to provide support. Lee said she plans on attending a training session this summer to learn more about Civitas Learning.

The center already works with faculty members to try to pinpoint how to best help students, Lee said, describing how one faculty member teaching a business course this fall called the center after realizing that students were struggling in the class. The center was able to link a tutor to the course, Lee said.

"If we're not collaborating, we're going to use our resources badly. And that's something we work very hard not to do," Lee said.

Metro on 12/25/2015

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