Brain gain: Growing tutor program reaches more students than ever
By Janie Magruder
GCU Today Magazine
As a student at Canby High in northwestern Oregon, Bryce Beatty filled his days with chemistry, honors biology, advanced placement physics and playing shortstop for the baseball team.
But when he came to Grand Canyon University in 2012, Beatty traded his mitt and jersey for latex gloves and an apron. For the then freshman, focusing on his major — biology with an emphasis in pre-med — required protection for his hands and clothing in GCU’s cadaver lab.
Despite his considerable high school science background, Beatty knew he would need some help in chemistry as he pursued a career in spine surgery. As soon as he arrived on campus, he requested tutoring help from the Center for Learning & Advancement (CLA).
Now a junior in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology, Beatty is one of GCU’s top science tutors. He helped inspire University leaders to restructure the tutoring system and is assisting with its success.
There’s extra credit, of course: “If you can teach it, you know it,” he said.
Narrowing the focus
Tutoring has evolved over the past 18 months during a perfect storm of change at GCU. The administration wanted to boost the membership and profile of its Honors Institute and study abroad program, both housed in the CLA, and expand course content on the rapidly growing ground campus.
It became clear that offering tutoring specific to University degree programs was a must, and if it was more fun, interactive and accessible, all the better.
Through their experiences in the CLA last year, Beatty and other tutors had noticed gaps in students’ abilities to complete homework, study for tests and grasp increasingly difficult concepts. With the guidance of Dr. Joe Veres, director of student development and outreach, the tutors began working with GCU faculty on a tiered remediation and enrichment plan.
“We began to look at some classes where students weren’t too successful — freshman math, for example — and said, ‘How can we be more proactive and start building this series?’” Veres said. “The tutors dissected the courses on their own and with faculty.”
They came up with three tiers in four subject areas: math, writing, Excel (primarily for accounting majors) and science, with a focus on anatomy, physiology and physics. The tiers are designed to (1) remove deficiencies, (2) work toward mastery of the material and (3) build concepts and critical thinking. The After Dark Series was launched in January, four nights a week for 15 weeks in two campus locations, no appointments needed.
To gear up for After Dark, Trish Anderson, an alumna who is working on a doctorate in educational leadership at GCU, was hired as program manager of University tutoring.
“We already have established an open-door policy with our faculty, and it’s awesome to have them feeling comfortable to come in and talk with us,” said Anderson, a former high school teacher with a master’s degree in educational administration.
The new system has an early alert component that’s triggered when a student’s work is subpar and tutoring is requested by a professor.
Dr. Mark Wireman, an assistant professor of anatomy and physiology, was among the faculty members who gave the tutors resources such as course review guides and PowerPoints to ensure consistency between classroom learning and tutoring. Wireman also directs students to Science After Dark if they can’t drop by during his office hours or attend study sessions.
“I haven’t seen this type of program before as we have set it up,” he said. “There is more collaboration between the faculty and the student tutors, which I think benefits the students. I feel that it’s successful, too, because students are more available during the evenings.”
Sophomore biology majors Aaron Widger and Brittney Poggiogalle routinely attend the Science After Dark sessions on Wednesdays. Widger prefers large group sessions, while Poggiogalle does better in one-on-one tutoring. Thankfully, both are available now at GCU.
Poggiogalle, like Beatty, sought tutoring as a freshman at the CLA and credits the center for teaching her to study effectively. This year, her classes are more challenging, and she works with Beatty as many as four times a week, gathering up friends to join, too. “We all struggle together,” she said, laughing.
Poggiogalle, 20, is getting the A’s she wants, but that’s not all. Beatty is teaching her to be a tutor.
“If I can tutor Brittney a concept in physics and she can teach it to Aaron, that reinforces the concept for her,” he said.
The bonus: “It definitely is fun,” said Widger, 19, who never imagined physics could be so understandable. “You make friends, they get some music going to keep it light. It’s definitely welcoming.”
Not reinventing the wheel
GCU didn’t have to look far for a successful model on which to base its enhanced tutoring. A successful approach already was raising test scores of a very different clientele right in its own backyard or, more precisely, in Building 16 on campus.
The Learning Lounge, a free afterschool tutoring program for students at nearby Alhambra High, a once underperforming school, was launched by GCU in September 2013. The lounge gave Alhambra students a fun, safe, welcoming place to work on their reading, writing and math skills, one-on-one and in groups with GCU student tutors. The program later was extended to students in the Phoenix Union High and the Alhambra Elementary School Districts.
“The University wanted to create personal connections with its students in a bright environment with snacks and giveaways and have its tutors feel part of a team,” Veres said.
The lounge has no shortage of enticements — free food, T-shirts, mugs and other giveaways — and has grown into a family led by the tutors.
“The Learning Lounge received a lot of recognition because it was different — it’s a public-private partnership and kids showed up and looked forward to being there,” Veres said. “(GCU President/CEO) Brian Mueller wanted all tutoring to look like this, and that didn’t mean a couple of fake plants and couches in a room. The relationships that we built with the high school we wanted our University students to have, too, with their peers in this setting.”
But if the hands-on nature of the lounge was to be preserved, more help would be needed. The student tutors were joined last fall by 675 GCU freshmen who began volunteering at the Learning Lounge as part of their scholarship requirements. They were trained to work with the K-12 students, and the student tutors began teaching their peers.
Building on success
With the launch last fall of GCU’s College of Science, Engineering and Technology, the opening in August of its new Engineering Building and a goal of having 70 percent of GCU’s enrollment in STEM majors by 2020, the Learning Lounge has much to do.
This fall, as many as 85 GCU student tutors and 675 student scholarship recipients will be working in Building 16 and in new outposts in the University’s library and the Engineering Building. A tutoring facility also will be housed in The Grove, a complex of four residence halls for freshmen opening in August, as well as study rooms in those dorms.
“They will carry that ‘family mentality’ over to the University side, where they can maintain the relationship building and customer service that they’ve learned in K-12,” Anderson said.
And they will continue to emphasize the Learning Lounge’s successful teaching mantra of demonstrating a skill, practicing it together and handing it off to the learner — “I do, we do, you do.”
It’s worked for Poggiogalle: “Without tutoring, I would not be where I am now. I didn’t think I could do physics, but now I know I can.”
To obtain tutoring for yourself or your student, drop by the University Learning Lounge in Building 16, visit gcu.edu/bookatutor or call 602-639-8901.
Contact Janie Magruder at 602-639-8018 or firstname.lastname@example.org.