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As soon as she saw the grade on her first Spanish 101 quiz, Maria Piscitelli '12 knew she was in trouble. "I'm used to getting Bs, and I got a C minus," she said. "I was not happy with that, so I worked with Justin very hard to bring my grades up. I ended up getting As on a lot of the homework assignments after that."
Justin is Justin Mogilski '11, who's worked as a tutor in Albright's Academic Learning Center (ALC) since he was a sophomore. The two worked together for three semesters, as Piscitelli progressed from Spanish 101 to 102 to 201.
By the time she reached Spanish 201, Piscitelli had become much more proficient, but she still lacked confidence. "I thought I knew the material," said Piscitelli, who's majoring in English, "but I didn't know it as convincingly as I wanted. I wasn't able to relay the material to the professor, so Justin became more of a support system. If I wasn't 100 percent confident he might say, 'You know this.'"
It's a scenario that's repeated in one form or another hundreds of times each semester, as students turn to the ALC's tutors for help mastering material they may not have been able to grasp in class, either because they lack studying or notetaking skills, they have a learning disability, or they missed classes due to a family or medical situation beyond their control. Some students also request tutors to help them boost their confidence or to review course content.
Erin Evans, assistant dean of academic affairs and director of the ALC, arrived at Albright in the fall of 2009. Since then she's made the tutoring program not only more effective, but also more visible and accessible for the students it serves. The impetus for many of the improvements was the prospect of international certification by the College Reading and Learning Association, a group of student-oriented professionals active in the fields of reading, learning assistance, developmental education, tutoring and mentoring at the college level. The program received CRLA certification in July 2010.
Since the tutoring program depends on the tutors themselves, Evans developed more selective criteria for screening and accepting students interested in becoming tutors. "I explain to them the philosophy, the vision of the program, the results we want and the type of fit we seek," she explained. "And that's somebody who is a student first and a tutor second. So the process itself selects the very best and motivated students."
". . .the student's grades go up and their confidence skyrockets."
According to Evans, students who are interested in becoming tutors are usually also interested in making a difference in someone else's life. "Either they've had experience doing that already, or they've been the recipient of that type of support," she said.
Evans also instituted a tutor training program that includes peer observation, where new tutors observe more experienced ones to learn about such things as positive reinforcement techniques and how to accommodate different learning styles. Tutors also complete specialized training in communication skills and crosscultural differences.
Evans also created the position of tutor manager to help her manage the 83 tutors on staff and to develop learning communities within the tutoring staff. One tutor manager oversees each of the four discipline teams of math and science, accounting and economics, humanities, and foreign languages. There are 12 to 25 tutors on each team. (Mogilski, who's majoring in psychobiology and Spanish with a minor in evolutionary studies, is the tutor manager for the foreign languages team.) Tutors and tutor managers are paid by the College, but there's no charge for the services they provide.
And demand for those services has grown steadily since Evans arrived at Albright. "So far this semester we've had 426 requests for tutors," she said. "Of those, 350 are active, which means they're getting tutored weekly or every other week. Inactive means they no longer need a tutor, either because they dropped the class or their tutor facilitated their independent learning skills." Evans says the increased demand for tutors can be attributed in part to greater awareness among students that the ALC's services are available.
Having improved the hiring and training process, Evans went about perfecting the process of pairing tutors with tutees. "We try to match a tutee with a tutor who has had the same professor," she said."If a student is an athlete we try to match them with an athlete. And if the student is on academic probation and they're a freshman, we try to give them an upper class student to be a role model and teach them study skills."
In accordance with Albright's academic policies, students are placed on academic probation when they do not maintain the prescribed minimum cumulative GPA. Students who have been on probation for two consecutive semesters and do not attain the required GPA will be dismissed.
Tutoring is fundamental to many students' improved grades and their success at getting off academic probation, and Evans is proud of her tutors and the ALC's renewed efforts to"save" other students by helping them stay in school. "We have saved many students who wouldn't have been saved before," she said.
While Albright's retention rates are important, the big winners are the students themselves. Take Piscitelli, for example. She was placed on academic probation her first semester but was able to pull herself up with Mogilski's help. And the improvements she saw went far beyond Spanish.
" It's the reward of knowing that you're helping someone else, that you are making that difference."
"My grades in most of my other classes improved," she said, "because I wasn't worried about Spanish as much. I thought, 'I understand this information, so I can apply more time to other subjects.' The only subject my grades didn't improve in, because they were already in the A range, was English."
Evans said that improved grades are a natural —but not assumed—result of tutoring. "We don't guarantee that tutoring increases grades," she said, "but we do guarantee that the learning process will be enhanced. An outcome of that is that the student's grades go up and their confidence skyrockets."
Mogilski, who has also tutored in psychology and biology, says that serving as a tutor comes with its own rewards. "The biggest thing is that if you teach something you comprehend it more," he said. "You learn something in class; you understand it enough for the test. But if you have to recapitulate it to someone else and get them to understand it, it really tests how much you know.
"Otherwise," Mogilski continued, "it's the reward of knowing that you're helping someone else, that you are making that difference. It's really awesome to think that they might not have graduated if you hadn't helped them and that you were that important to them.
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