Learning assistance during the pandemic

In March 2020, as faculty were working to convert in-person classes to an online format, another group in Academic Affairs was working to achieve a similar goal. Learning assistance programs like the Academic Learning Center, Supplemental Instruction, the Math Lab, the Information Technology Lab and the Science Learning Center also needed to figure out how to offer their services online.

The first order of business was determining what services to offer and how to offer them in an online environment. The Academic Learning Center (ALC), which provides students help with writing and study skills, ended up offering services to students in three different ways, said April Trafton, learning lab manager. “We’re doing skills workshops, live, one-on-one interactive sessions with students and asynchronous written feedback,” she said. 

Vanessa Wadlinton

Supplemental Instruction (SI), which provides peer-facilitated study sessions to students in historically difficult courses, didn’t change services much, just the method of delivery. “We are still delivering three to four sessions per week per course section, we’re just doing it online now,” said SI Coordinator Vanessa Wadlington.

“We really had to grow outside of what we had typically been doing,” said Holley Rider, learning lab manager for the Science Learning Center (SLC). “Not only are we providing concept and topic-specific tutoring, we’re doing workshops, and we’re providing embedded tutoring where tutors attend the lectures and then hold tutoring sessions over those topics.”

To prepare their staff for the transition, each area had to provide training and had to do it pretty rapidly to be ready to go once TCC’s extended Spring Break concluded in late March 2020. “We were at an advantage because we’ve been doing online tutoring since 2016,” Trafton said, “but not all our tutors were trained for online, so we expanded that training to make sure everyone was up to speed on things like how to operate the tools and also how to be personable in an online environment.”

The staff in the SLC was also concerned about making personal connections with students. “We had to face the issue of not being able to see our students and sometimes not being able to hear them,” Rider said. “Sometimes we were only able to interact via a text chat with our students.”

April Trafton

The ALC staff learned they needed to work extra hard to overcome this drawback. “You may have to exaggerate your humanness or your friendliness and that might take the form of a quick chat at the beginning of a call,” Trafton said. “In an asynchronous environment, when leaving comments for students on their writing, that might take the form of trying to make written feedback friendly by using contractions in your comments so it doesn’t feel like a sterile, robotic interaction.”

Holley Rider

One strategy the SLC used to make connections with students was to do virtual tours of the center. Rider explained how that worked, “Our students come into a Blackboard Collaborate session, and I share my screen with them and show them our Blackboard page, which has our tutoring schedule and our live chat feature where they can get some quick help from a tutor,” he said. “I also take them over to our LibGuide on the Library’s web page where there is a video that introduces them to our tutors. It’s super cheesy and fun, and it’s just another way to personalize their experience at our center.”

Since SI’s program structure did not change, the biggest adjustment was figuring out what adaptations needed to be made in facilitation strategies and activities for an online environment. “Wait time is now very different,” said Wadlington, describing the length of time SI Leaders are trained to leave open after asking a question, giving students time to think and then respond. “Because a lot of our students don’t want to use their cameras or microphones, they end up typing their answers, which just takes longer. Also, without the non-verbal behaviors that SI leaders were able to see before, sometimes the SI leaders don’t know if their students are confused or just thinking. It’s a different kind of challenge.”

Wadlington said the SI Leaders have figured out how to turn this challenge into a new strategy, utilizing interactive, shareable Google Slides that capitalize on student preferences to type rather than speak. “The students get into the slide and manipulate it together by labeling and manipulating whatever items the SI leader has set up for them to work on,” she said. This gives the students an opportunity to work individually as well as collaboratively, which is central to what makes SI work in the first place.

Despite the challenges inherent in this last year, each of these programs has seen successes in the form of student usage of their services. “Our SI leaders keep pushing through and helping students as best they can,” Wadlington said. “I’ve just been amazed at their perseverance.” 

The SLC not only switched to online delivery of their services, but also took on the task of creating and distributing take-home lab kits to students in courses like Introduction to Biology, Anatomy and Physiology and Microbiology. They made more 900 lab kits for Fall 2020 alone and distributed them via curbside pickup. “Some of the kits had live organisms in them, the biology kits had live plants in them, and we had to make sure we kept those alive,” explained Rider. 

They also had to distribute gloves to students, which was logistically very challenging due to supply chain issues with gloves during the pandemic. “Everyone in America was ordering gloves at the same time,” she said, “so we reached out to our counterparts across the College to work together to secure the supplies we needed for our students.”

As they think about the future, and TCC’s planned return to in-person instruction in Fall 2021, all three of these areas foresee continuing at least some online services.

“We’ve learned that we can do SI online, which we had never done before,” Wadlington said. “We have always struggled with space to have sessions because sometimes we have a great time for a session, but our space is already booked, and we can’t find a classroom for it. As we go back to in-person services, we now have a new option to offer SI sessions online. And, the students like it. So far, the feedback we’re getting from many students is that they really appreciate the convenience of the online sessions.”

Rider said this experience has provided an opportunity for her center to offer multiple modalities of help. “Not every student wants to talk to someone in-person. Maybe they just want a phone call or to interact online in a text chat. We can now provide that opportunity whereas we were not providing that before, and that is a good thing,” she said.

Trafton admitted having had “some kind of a shift in mindset offering the asynchronous tutoring. I know a lot of universities have offered that in the past, but I was reluctant because I didn’t think the students would get the support they needed versus a live, online session. I’ve come around to realize that students will get the help they need the way they need it or they just won’t get it. I’ve realized that it’s not really our job to tell students how they need to get help. It’s our job to offer help in the ways they are best equipped to receive it.”