IST Peer Tutoring Program goes 'above and beyond'

Katie LaMarca
November 10, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The term “tutoring” often has a negative connotation — students, especially at the college level, can be embarrassed to seek academic help because of what their fellow classmates might think. Penn State students Amanda Mahon and Aaron Stricker, co-coordinators of the Peer Tutoring Program in the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), want to change that perception.

The program provides one-on-one coaching to help students practice and reinforce concepts in the IST curriculum. Tutors work closely with faculty to understand what is being taught and assigned in their classes, and then work directly with students to clarify concepts. They’re also working to serve a broader range of student needs.

“Dr. Lisa Lenze [director of graduate and undergraduate academic affairs for IST and the tutoring program’s supervisor] told us that she asked her introductory class if any of the students had gone to a tutoring session,” said Stricker. “A few hesitantly raised their hands.”

They quickly realized that the approach of the program needed to be improved. “That is partly why we are expanding on what we do as a group,” continued Stricker, “with our initiatives of helping to reinforce previous learning and the learning of new interests.”

With Mahon and Stricker leading the student-run organization, the Peer Tutoring Program takes a two-fold approach to student support. Mahon is the residential coordinator, while Stricker is in charge of maintaining the online platform for virtual sessions. And while the program supports many undergraduate courses that the college offers, most students come with questions from introductory-level classes that provide the foundation for the curriculum.

“A lot of classes within IST are continuations of previous courses,” said Stricker. “Once you learn the fundamentals, you can go above and beyond.”

Tutors are required to be proficient in the computing programs and platforms that students will have inquiries about, typically having earned at least an A- in the classes that are supported. The program prides itself on having a diverse set of students with varying skills; if one tutor can’t help the student, there is certainly another peer tutor who can.

For students who aren’t on campus or can’t make it to scheduled sessions, they can arrange meetings through the program’s virtual platform. Once a meeting time is confirmed, the student and tutor connect in an online chatroom. Though virtual meetings are far less common than the traditional setting, they serve a wider range of students.

“It’s typically World Campus students [we get] online,” said Stricker, “and their needs are more diverse. I talked to a woman recently who has worked for a company for 20 years and just wanted to learn a new skill. It’s a different group of people we’re helping out, and it’s really cool.”

As the program grows, the philosophy remains the same: put the learning in the students’ hands.

“We try not to sit there and give you the answer — we want to see those 'aha!' moments,” Mahon said.

Stricker and Mahon hope students see their work as not just a tutoring service, but a program that can be expanded to serve more students in a variety of ways.

One idea they are exploring is refresher sessions for students who are taking higher level courses but need to review foundational concepts from a previous course. Stricker and Mahon hope to hold these sessions once a month once the initiative is up and running. 

This semester, the program piloted the idea of refresher sessions for the tutors themselves. Tutors felt rusty in their knowledge of PHP, a scripting language often used in the Organization of Data course, IST 210. When program leaders conveyed how many students were seeking help on assignments that required knowledge of PHP, Lenze suggested inviting instructor Jian Wu to present an interactive review session for the tutors. When Wu agreed to help, Lenze invited tutors and IST 210 learning assistants (LAs).

“Over the course of two one-hour sessions, the tutors and LAs reactivated knowledge that they had learned two years prior, and gained confidence in their ability to assist students,” Lenze said. Post-session feedback indicated that those who attended said it was just the right amount of review. “We will definitely expand this idea in the coming months to include more review for tutors and then pay it forward such that tutors will offer sessions for students who need to review certain languages or platforms for their junior and senior courses.”

The program leaders expressed that being a peer tutor helps reinforce material they learned years ago, and enables them to have greater confidence in their abilities. They say, however, that their influence on students is the most rewarding.

“It’s cool to see students you’ve tutored wanting to become learning assistants or peer tutors just because they had been helped,” Stricker said. “If everyone helped each other out, we’d be in a much better place.”

Mahon and Stricker emphasized the importance of the peer tutoring, not only to help with course work, but to aid students once they have careers.

“IST is this nice bridge between technology and business,” Stricker said. “You might not be the person developing software, but you’re the person that can understand the problem, find the answer and take charge. That’s almost exactly what we’re doing in tutoring.”

Mahon regards asking for help as one of the most important steps someone can take, both academically and in their careers. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” she said. “It builds your character, as well as your knowledge.”

IST’s Peer Tutoring Program offers sessions from 7 to 10 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in room E165 Westgate Building. For more information on the program, visit the Peer Tutoring Program website.

Last Updated November 10, 2017