Southwestern College Power Study Program Closing Achievement Gap

Power Study Program Coordinator Shawna Hutchins-Williams and Learning Assistance Services Coordinator Andrew Rempt.
Power Study Program Coordinator Shawna Hutchins-Williams and Learning Assistance Services Coordinator Andrew Rempt.

Considered largest in the country

Southwestern College is closing the achievement gap and rewriting the rules on student success through a rapidly expanding program that embeds trained tutors in the classroom to provide immediate help when needed and to offer follow-up sessions afterward in a campus study center.

More than 5,000 students have been impacted by the Southwestern College Power Study Program (PSP), the largest of its kind in the country, since its implementation by retired Learning Assistance Services Coordinator Barbara Speidel and District Tutorial Coordinator Elizabeth Kozel in the fall of 2007. When PSP was launched, just six tutors covered 21 course sections of four different classes – Biology 100, Chemistry 100, Chemistry 170, and Chemistry 110. Today 139 tutors–48 of whom are PSP leaders–are ensconced in 120 class sections, and the college’s aim is to have a PSP leader available to work with every student in every class.

“Having access to a tutor every time a class meets is invaluable,” said Mia Roberts who has served as a PSP Leader in a number of English courses over the past four years.

There is no arguing with the data, which shows grade point averages and course completion rates increasing steadily among students utilizing the free service. In several developmental English classes, for example, the average GPA is from a third to a half point higher among students who regularly met with a tutor. And in one developmental math class, students who met with a tutor on five or more occasions had an average GPA of 3.0, more than double the course average.

“If I get behind or don’t understand a particular concept, I can just raise my hand and the tutor will come over and help me out. And it’s helped me out a lot,” said Rodolfo Cardenas, while taking a break between lessons in a Math 70 course. “I probably use the program more than anyone else.”

And it shows. He has scored an A on all but one of his math exams this spring semester. The one in which he scored an 89? “That was the first exam and I didn’t ask for help,” Cardenas said.

PSP is modeled after the Supplemental Instruction program first introduced at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1973 to stem the tide of rising student attrition rates that began after the private – and more selective – University of Kansas City was absorbed by the University of Missouri system. Rather than focusing on developmental – known outside of education circles as remedial – education, UM Kansas City opted to create a more comprehensive Learning Assistance Center staffed with tutors who could provide supplemental instruction to review what was presented in previous class lectures and assigned materials from the textbook. Attrition rates fell, student performance rose, and word soon began to spread, ultimately resulting in the model being adopted by hundreds of universities across the United States and elsewhere.

Nationally, students who attend supplemental instruction sessions regularly earn a final grade in the covered course that is roughly .70 of a grade point average points higher in that course then students who do not attend.

The format here differs from other efforts in that it places the tutor in the classroom and at the Academic Success Center for supplemental instruction. “The tutors are in my classroom, so they know how I teach,” said mathematics Professor Myriam Moody. “They know how I like to present my material. But they may be able to present the material in another way so the student gets it.”

What’s more, students who may otherwise have shied away from the Academic Success Center are now packing its rooms because they know the tutors working there through their interactions in the classroom

PSP is just one of many efforts Southwestern College has embarked on to help students interested in earning a degree, certificate or transferring to a four-year college or university. And the college also has resolved to reevaluate the number of remedial courses students must take to determine if acceleration or compression of classes is possible.

PSP originally focused on high-risk courses that included low levels of student success rates, such as Chemistry, college-level math and introduction to biology. Some $820,000 in Student Equity and various grant funding over the past year has enabled PSP to vastly expand its reach into basic skills courses.

“The number of in-class and out-of-class hours can be distributed according to the needs of the class,” said PSP Coordinator Shawna Hutchins-Williams. “Out-of-class sessions are highly encouraged however, since they are considered extra study hours outside of the class and incorporate what to learn with how to learn. The repetition and collaborative learning that takes place in the session is not commonly found in the classroom and these sessions are what make supplemental instruction a powerful tool.”

Pamela Rose, a retired senior research associate who now serves as a math leader, said being a tutor has been the highlight of a long and varied career. Watching students during their ‘aha’ moments is priceless.

“A lot of students may think they’re not good a math, but in fact, they are. Oftentimes there’s just a gap in a certain skill, so we’re here to fill in that gap. And that helps them gain their confidence. Then we get to watch them soar. It’s a remarkable thing to see.”

Hutchins-Williams was among the first PSP tutors. She had already earned a bachelor’s degree when she enrolled at Southwestern College to take a few requisite courses needed to get into medical school. When PSP was created, she was one of the first people approached about her interest in serving as a tutor in her chemistry class. After a bout of hesitation, she said yes.

It was one of the best decisions she’s made.

“I was getting as much out of it as I was giving,” Hutchins-Williams said. “Just preparing the material and reviewing it for the students I was working with helped me reinforce the information I had learned before.”

Added Hutchins-Williams: “I’ve been working with the program since it began and I have seen the impact it has had on the the students and on the tutors. I decided this was what I wanted to to with my career. It’s something that allows me to help affect people’s lives.

Suganya Sankaranarayanan can vouch for that. Just a few years after moving from India, Sankaranarayanan was struggling to adapt to her new surroundings. So she enrolled at Southwestern College.

“I wanted to improve my skills, get used to the atmosphere here, and I like to keep myself updated,” she said.