Bakersfield College hosts so many amazing large-scale programs that it’s easy for smaller ones to get lost in the shuffle. As the first manager of an academic support program called Supplemental Instruction, or SI for short, I have come to know its particulars rather well in the five years since its inception. And I have come to believe in it, not just as a job I do every day, but as a personal mission and an integral part of who I am and the values I hold dear.
What makes SI so transformational at Bakersfield College? A brief introduction to our model, which a graduate student at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, developed in the early 1970s, is necessary at this point. In essence, SI is tutoring with two key distinctions: 1. the tutors, called SI Leaders, attend the course along with the students they are helping and 2. the tutoring sessions are group based, comprised of students invited from the course to attend. Of course, to be SI Leaders, students must be recommended by the professor whose class they will attend, and the student must have earned an A or B in the course.
It's the classroom component, the requirement that the SI Leader go to every class meeting, promote upcoming group study sessions, assist the professor with group work, sit in different places in the classroom to mingle with the students, etc. This factor strongly contributes to the building of connections. The students see a successful peer’s face daily in class, they observe the leader and the professor working in tandem and they are invited daily at the start of each class meeting to a group study session after class with a discussion tailored to any areas of difficulty they encountered in class.
The leaders, on the other hand, already have an established relationship with the instructor, know the teaching style and the course content due to having already taken the course and earning the instructor’s recommendation. As part of the model, they meet 30 minutes weekly with the instructor so as to stay connected. The leader often functions as a liaison between the instructor and the students because students will convey their thoughts and feelings more readily to a peer than to an instructor. In this way, the leader can let the instructor know if students are struggling more than they are letting on. However, leaders are trained from the outset to always demonstrate loyalty to their instructors if students express criticism.
Another SI building block that nurtures human fellowship are the SI study group sessions themselves. Keep in mind that students are invited to attend, not forced, and the fact they come voluntarily makes a huge difference in their attitudes as they participate in the sessions. The study groups can be either large or small, ranging from five to 30 or more students, depending on the subject and on whether or not an exam is imminent. The goal of the leader is to function as a facilitator of learning, not to dominate by re-lecturing. Thus, leaders try out innovative ways of promoting interaction within the group and getting students to come up to the whiteboard to demonstrate their knowledge while their peers give feedback. Many times, I have walked past several different SI “cubbies” with simultaneous study sessions in progress, and I have been deeply moved by the joy of learning that I have witnessed.
Perhaps what I delight in the most when it comes to SI is that it is not a remedial program but rather targets challenging courses and then reaches out to all students to come to the table of discussion. All with a desire to “sharpen their irons” are welcome to our study groups. The strong help the weak, and both parties grow. And, in an electronic device inundated society in which many folks do not have much opportunity to talk face-to-face, SI sessions fill a void of loneliness that I believe many students have.
If you’re a BC student or thinking about attending BC, look us up on campus. Most likely, we have an SI session with one empty seat that has your name on it.
Eileen Pierce has run the Supplemental Instruction Program at BC since it began in 2014.