Sept 28, 2009
Media contact: Anne Russell
Supported Learning Group project named Outstanding Initiative at UFV for 2009
It’s one thing to welcome students to the door of university. It’s another to help ensure that once they’re through the door they make it successfully up the first few steps. The University of the Fraser Valley is committed to helping first-year students succeed, so it’s fitting that a project aimed at that goal is this year’s winner of the UFV Outstanding Initiatives award.
This award is given annually to groups or individuals within UFV who have made an extraordinary contribution to advance the mission of the university in the community.
UFV is known as the kind of place where you can come and try your hand at post-secondary education, to take a few courses and see what you’re interested in and get a feel for university studies. But with a relatively open access policy comes a high attrition rate. Many students who start first year end up dropping out, sometimes because they are struggling with what are known as historically difficult first-year courses.
The Supported Learning Group project, a new initiative at UFV based on long-established practices at other universities, is aimed at reducing that attrition rate by helping first-year students clear the hurdles of those difficult courses. It does so through peer-facilitated groups led by upper-level students who have succeeded in the course earlier in their studies.
“It’s based on the notion that a student who has already succeeded in the same course, and who has been trained in leadership skills, is well qualified to help their fellow students,” notes UFV director of enrolment management Donna Alary, who is part of the committee overseeing the project.
The two-year pilot project is entering its second year. It is guided by an organizing committee consisting of UFV employees, and staffed by enthusiastic upper-level students who want to help other students while honing their leadership skills.
Each supported learning group focuses on a course that has proven to be difficult for first-year students. The groups meet regularly outside of class time to discuss the course under the guidance of a senior student leader who has already taken the course, and to apply newly learned study skills and strategies to course content. It’s not a tutoring service, but rather a place where peers come together to inspire and help one another.
UFV’s experiment with supported learning groups started when library director Kim Isaac and assessment services director Wendy Watson attended a conference in Guelph and saw the groups in action. They were smitten by the concept and saw it as a good fit with the “learning commons” approach that UFV is taking to supporting student success.
Watson and Isaac enlisted UFV director of enrolment management Donna Alary and counsellor Najmi Alibhai to form a subcommittee to steer the pilot project.
Last year eight student leaders led a number of supported learning groups for 17 individual sections of seven courses in the disciplines of mathematics, computing, statistics, geography, psychology, and computer information systems. Almost 37 percent of the students enrolled in these courses chose to take part in the supported learning groups.
This year the program is expanding to 12 student leaders, who will lead 20 sections of supported learning groups for the fall semester and a similar number for the winter semester. Groups for kinesiology, history, and business courses are being added this year.
Several of last year’s student leaders are returning for a second year, and one will be acting as a mentor for the project. The student leaders are paid for their time through UFV’s work-study program.
Ben Dippenaar is a fourth-year computing student who led a supported learning group for Computing 150, an introductory programming course. He took on the challenge because he wanted to help other students, but also to help develop his leadership skills, which will serve him well as he pursues a career focused on project management in the IT sector.
“Leading one of these groups is a good way to refine and affirm my own abilities in the topic area, and also beneficial in that it gives me more experience in dealing with people and communicating effectively,” he notes. “It was also interesting because as the students I was helping struggled with this class, I was having some concerns in the math course I was taking, so I could see shades of myself in my students. We were having a similar experience in a different setting.”
John Fronek is a fourth-year business student who has also taken sciences, and who plans to pursue a career in health management. Last year he led groups for two statistics courses — one for business students and the other for science students.
“I found that the science students didn’t know how to work with statistics and apply them to science very well, but they were very eager to learn. Our sessions made them even more receptive to learning,” he said.
He was well suited for the job because of his infectious enthusiasm.
“I love public speaking and if I know something I want to share it. I want to make a difference on campus and this is a fun way to do so because I love teaching and helping to stimulate creative thinking.”
Cody Marbach is a senior-level computing student who wants first-year students to experience the camaraderie that older students enjoy simply because of having been at UFV long enough to establish networks. That’s what’s motivating him to get involved as a supported learning group leader.
“First-year students just don’t have the same kind of networks and connections that people who have been here for longer have. The supported learning group is a good way to reach out and help the new students make those connections so they can build their own community of learners.”
For Wendy Watson, UFV’s director of assessment services, the Supported Learning Group project hearkens back to a time when the university was much smaller and students were able to get to know one another more easily.
“People who’ve worked here for a long time know that we have a tradition of being very supportive and nurturing, and this project continues the tradition of fostering a community of learners,” she said. “We’re also delighted that the faculty members have given this project their enthusiastic and essential support.”
Students who took part in the first year of the Supported Learning Group project found them useful, for the most part.
“I’ve never done so well in math. Without SLG I’m certain I would have failed or just scrimped by. Now I’m getting my first A in math in my whole life,” said a Math105 student.
“SLG really helped me to solidify my understanding about the concepts and theories of this course. Without SLG, I don’t believe I would pass this course,” commented a Math 104 (Stats) student.
“They are a great way to study for exams, review information, ask and clarify questions, and bounce ideas off of your peers. I think it’s a great study tool, and wish more classes offered them!” noted a Psychology 101 student.
And the statistics back up the anecdotal evidence.
“Those who attended SLGs received higher course grades than those who did not. And students who regularly attend SLGs receive higher grades than those who attend only one session,” notes Donna Alary. “When students learn and achieve higher course grades for their learning, particularly in first year courses, we know that they tend to stay in higher education at a higher rate, thus affecting retention on campus.”
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