Carnegie Mellon University

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January 31, 2011

Students Helping Students

Academic Development Enhances Collaborative Learning Culture

By Abby Houck

The basement of Cyert Hall is not a typical destination for most faculty or staff, but it’s worth a visit in the late afternoon or evening, especially during finals week.     

Visitors will see Academic Development’s classrooms, offices and hallways filled with students engaging in experiences that reinforce classroom learning and encourage positive study skills.

 “We offer a variety of programs for students who are facing academic challenges, as well as those who want to improve their performance,” said Linda Hooper, director of Academic Development.

Academic Development’s programs are prime examples of how Carnegie Mellon students are taking ownership of their learning experiences, not only by improving their own academic performance, but also by enabling the success of others.

The office has experienced significant growth over the past decade — a clear indication that Hooper and her four full-time staff members have made Academic Development a place where students feel comfortable seeking help. During the 2009–2010 academic year, Academic Development logged 10,885 student contacts (students are counted each time they attend a session), nearly a 38 percent increase over student contacts for 2000-2001.

The team trains and supervises about 140 undergraduate and graduate students who support one of four programs: Academic Counseling, Supplemental Instruction (SI), EXCEL Groups and Peer Tutoring. Students must have an overall QPA of 3.5 and As in the courses they support. They take a semester-long course that covers teaching concepts like multiple intelligence theory and collaborative learning techniques.

“The students are very real about what it takes to succeed in a course,” Hooper said. “Their peers listen because they’ve ‘been there, done that.’”

Student employees take away skills that are attractive to graduate programs and employers. “We write a lot of recommendations for students applying for teaching assistantships during graduate school, and other students have talked about their experiences during medical school interviews,” Hooper said.

Academic Counseling

Jessica Owens coordinates the Academic Counseling program, which focuses on academic skill development. The student Academic Counselors (ACs) lead group workshops covering topics such as succeeding in the freshman year, managing time, citing sources, preparing for exams and combating stress. In addition to workshops,  ACs provide one-on-one sessions for those interested in developing a personalized plan for academic success. A similar program is being developed at the Qatar campus’ Academic Resource Center, and several of the ACs helped to create YouTube videos of individual sessions for training new student employees this fall.

Students enrolled in traditionally difficult courses are encouraged to attend optional, one-hour SI sessions offered twice each week. Chad Pysher, SI/EXCEL program coordinator, reports 76 percent of students enrolled in the seven courses supported by SI this fall attended at least one session.

Supplemental Instruction

Ming-Yang Hung, a senior mechanical engineering major, is the SI instructor for physiology. Two years ago, Hung was enrolled in the same course and regularly attended SI sessions led by Raphael Bertrand.

“Rafael was patient with us,” Hung said. “His dedication really moved me, and I wanted to give back a little.”

Hung’s SI students will tell you that he’s gone above and beyond his job description. Nearly 97 percent of physiology students attended at least one of his sessions last semester. He’s even answered emails from students at 5 a.m. the day of a test.

Hung meets weekly with faculty member Phil Campbell to discuss what course content is likely to be the most challenging. Student instructors appreciate the ability to better prepare for sessions when faculty submit syllabi or homework sets in advance, although it’s not required. Some faculty members also provide access to course content on Blackboard. 


While SI typically supports large, introductory courses, EXCEL Groups work well for major-specific courses with smaller enrollments. Up to six students meet with an EXCEL leader each week.

Weronika Balewski, a junior flute performance major, is the College of Fine Arts’ first EXCEL leader and supports courses in harmony and solfege.

“Chad Pysher has given me the support and structure to come up with new solutions to support music courses, which focus on skill development,” she said.

Faculty members invite Balewski to visit their classes at the beginning of each semester.

“Professor Whipple, in particular, has been very supportive,” Balewski said. “He even told me that several of his students raised their grade by a whole letter after getting involved in EXCEL.”

Peer Tutoring

Tutoring, coordinated by John Lanyon, is Academic Development’s largest program with approximately 100 tutors supporting 20 courses.

Orathai Sukwong has been a peer tutor for nearly eight years and was named the 2010 Graduate Student Employee of the Year. She completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering at Carnegie Mellon and is pursuing a doctorate.

“Some students come to tutoring sessions and really need help connecting the pieces. Others have mastered a concept but just need confirmation that they are using the right process,” Sukwong said. “One of the most rewarding experiences is when I see one of my ‘tutees’ make a connection.”

Walk-in tutoring is the most popular option, although students may request weekly standing appointments. Tutors offer late afternoon walk-in sessions at the Academic Development office, as well as evening sessions in Mudge, Donner and West Wing residence halls. The Engineering and Science Library has been added to the list of walk-in locations for the spring semester.

“We’re thankful for the extra space,” Lanyon said. “In the past, we’ve had to contact housefellows to add chairs in popular tutoring locations. In one instance, our administrative assistant, Donora Craighead, carried a folding table over to Donner House, because so many students showed up.”