A ‘secret’ resource for boosting grades

Shedner Agenor in January made a resolution to improve his GPA. The sophomore pre-med student in past semesters had “decent” grades, but he recognized that academically he was “not where I wanted to be.” His challenging classes occasionally put him in a bit of a panic. “It’s just so much information,” he says, “and sometimes you can’t absorb all of it.”

So now Agenor is taking advantage of the University Learning Center, a place on campus that offers free one-on-one tutoring as well as small-group workshops. He comes regularly for help with trigonometry and chemistry—just going over it a second time with someone outside of class helps, he says—and has taken a huge step toward avoiding the dreaded last-minute cramming. “I come here consistently,” he states, “and I’m definitely a lot better.”

The steady stream of students walking through the door—more than 10,000 visits took place during the fall 2017 semester—proves he’s not alone.

Math coordinator Michael Carey, in gray shirt, works with a student.

Open to all

With locations at both MMC and BBC, the University Learning Center aims to serve every student who wants help with any of more than 60 undergraduate courses in math, statistics, biology, chemistry and physics. One does not need to be failing class or staring down straight Fs to take advantage of high-quality assistance.

“We can see anybody from the student that comes in two hours before the test, unfortunately, and says, ‘I don’t know anything,’ to students that are high-achieving, the ones that would have gotten an A and are looking at the difference between a 93 and a 98,” tutor Asier Bracho says.

Bracho, like most of the nearly 50 tutors on staff, is a current student who has passed certain benchmark courses within his program—he is a senior double majoring in chemistry and biology—and undergone between 24 and 40 hours of specialized training. He works up to 20 hours per week, one on one, with individuals looking to get over a hurdle.

“The majority of the time they’ll come with a specific issue,” Bracho says, such as “‘I don’t know how to use molality in Chemistry II’ or ‘I’m not understanding the concept of stability of a molecule in orgo.’ Usually we’ll try to narrow down where there are issues and take them through a few practice sessions.”

Often having completed the same courses as the students he tutors, sometimes even with the same professors, Bracho can provide some “insider” knowledge to soothe concerns. “I can tell them the test is going to look a little bit like this, and you don’t have to stress this so much.”

What he does not do is complete students’ assignments or run through more than one or two equations before making them give it a try on their own. “Our role is academic support,” he says. “We can help students understand the material. We can give them a framework. If they ran into a problem, we can get them unstuck, but it’s up to them to go home and study. As a general trend, the more they do and the more they see us, the likelier they are to get a better grade.”

Grad student Farnaz Kachelo leads a biology workshop.

Beyond traditional tutoring

In addition to personalized tutoring, the center offers small-group workshops geared to improving students’ literacy in select subject areas. The five-week workshops focus on developing critical thinking and study skills.

Data supports that workshop attendance boosts the passing rates of students enrolled in so-called gateway courses, those lower-division courses that are predictors of future success. One example: Eighty-four percent of students who participated in a biology workshop while taking General Biology I in spring of 2017 passed the class, while only 67 percent of those who did not participate passed.

Vicenta Shepard is the center’s director. She explains that some instruction applies across disciplines, such as encouraging students to preview lessons so as to get more out of lectures, or to constantly be looking for relationships between primary and secondary concepts while reading or studying. Those commonalities aside, however, breaking out workshops by subject matter allows for different emphases, she says. For example, the chemistry workshop places greater attention on understanding symbols and visuals than does, say, the biology workshop. Workshops are also offered to help students get started on writing scientific papers by covering topics such as source selection, proper footnoting and citing and how to avoid plagiarizing.

Freshman psych major Lakisha Alcenor took the biology workshop after enrolling in a general biology course. Coming to the center once a week with other students has made a difference in how she approaches lectures and course readings. “It’s teaching me how to study so I can be better equipped,” she says. The takeaways for her include various organizational tools, among them Cornell Notes, one of several note-taking methods introduced to help students condense and order information.

Keeping up

Most, if not all, universities — even Harvard and Yale — offer peer-tutoring services because, well, courses can be hard. The decidedly low-tech enhancement (people helping people) is one way to keep undergrads from giving up in frustration so that they stay in school and continue on the path to graduation.

At FIU, students seek tutoring for a number of reasons, Shepard explains. First-generation students, for example, might not have someone at home whom they can turn to for study tips and the like. Another difficulty stems simply from the differences between how high school and college courses are taught and what is expected of the student.

“They’ve had to memorize their way through tests,” Shepard says of recent high school graduates’ experience with standardized exams, particularly in the state of Florida. Once they arrive at the university, however, students encounter professors who require them to go deeper, to understand context and see the big picture. “They have to build relationships,” Shepard says of the students’ new knowledge. “How does what I learned in chapter eight relate to what I read in chapter three?”

Professor James M. Quirke encourages his chemistry students to visit the tutoring center. He believes that many have a hard time with classes because they hold jobs at which they work long hours to make ends meet. “It’s not a fair situation,” he says. “They don’t perform partly because of circumstances. They don’t have time to study.”

Quirke holds his own review sessions, but he recognizes that peer tutors can provide a bit of inspiration for those who are struggling. “When they can relate to a full-time student, this could be a very good thing,” he says. And getting chemistry majors off to a good start makes the center especially important for lower-division students.

“It’s essential that you understand what you’re doing as you go,” he says of chemistry courses that build upon one another. “If you don’t keep on top of the material, the result is that you fail. It’s important that you put these things right early.”  

The University Learning Center accepts reservations as well as walk-ins for individual meetings. Help is available on the hour during posted operating hours, Monday through Friday. Students are allowed up to two 50-minute sessions per day, per subject. Workshops are run on a schedule. See the website for additional information.