Guest Blog: Learning Centers Help Students Get Comfortable with Discomfort

Drone image of the Michigan Tech campus at dawn.
Drone image of the Michigan Tech campus at dawn.
Michigan Tech’s learning centers offer coaching, peer-to-peer learning and support, which are all crucial during the pandemic.

For every hour in class, students are expected to put in three outside the lecture hall and lab. Learning centers are an important part of that time investment.

Students who engage in peer-to-peer learning and studying through Michigan Technological University’s learning centers bump up their grades, find support while navigating difficult subjects, help other students and build communication and group skills they’ll need in their careers.

But gathering around a whiteboard wasn’t an option during the pandemic. In this guest blog, the directors of the Chemistry Learning Center, Michigan Tech Writing Center and Math Learning Center share insights on what worked, what didn’t, how they’ll move forward and why no student needs to struggle on their own.

Chemistry Learning Center Reimagines Class Support

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The pandemic made it impossible to continue our normal modes of academic support services. Students were not able to work together in close proximity, nor were large groups allowed for our Supplemental Instruction (SI) program. We were forced to convert to a virtual paradigm.

One-on-one appointments didn't require much innovation beyond some integration of document cameras and whiteboard apps so coaches could demonstrate chemistry problem-solving processes to the students as they worked through problems. However, the SI program took a bit more thoughtful planning and innovation.

SI is renowned as a highly effective, peer-facilitated group learning program. The SI leader — a student — needs to be able to read the room, check for understanding, lead the group in interactive learning activities to review lecture content and scaffold students to higher levels of understanding. It is imperative that multidirectional dialogue happens throughout the sessions — student to student and student to leader. None of this is particularly easy in Zoom, but we tried our best and encountered some helpful tools along the way.

Leaders were able to get real-time feedback and check for understanding using polling tech such as PollEV, Zoom polls and EasyPoll. They were able to demonstrate work to students using a variety of whiteboard apps. In turn, students were able to collaborate on problems using Google JamBoard, and leaders were able to keep students engaged with some fun review activities using free online platforms like Kahoot and JeopardyLabs.

While it couldn't completely replicate the rich and meaningful learning experience of a well-planned and well-executed in-person SI session, we have plenty of anecdotal evidence that students found the sessions beneficial.

"The student outcomes confirm what we were hearing — regular attendees earned a whole letter grade higher on average than their non-attending counterparts during fall 2020 and spring 2021."Jeremy Brown, undergrad advisor and director of the Chemistry Learning Center

We were so proud of this and grateful to be able to continue to offer one-on-one sessions. We were also immensely grateful that the high standards of excellence we set for ourselves were upheld in these circumstances.

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Like much of the rest of society, we became quite comfortable with the way we had been doing things for years, and hadn't anticipated needing to figure out a drastically different mode of operation. The pandemic forced us to be nimble, adaptive and innovative. We became very good at planning, executing, evaluating, retooling and executing again until we discovered the most effective processes. Our goal now is to embrace a comfortable discomfort, where we live in the mode of evolution and transformation to ensure that we're always providing students with the highest quality of academic support possible.

Writing Center Reopens Coaching

For many years, the Michigan Tech Writing Center has offered online synchronous and asynchronous appointments for students who, for a variety of reasons, aren’t able to make an in-person appointment. It’s never been ideal — more editing than writing tutorial — great for the manuscript, but not as meaningful a learning experience for the writer. For a host of reasons, the technology is unlikely to ever truly be mastered, either. That said, since our online systems were already in place, once the shutdowns took place, we were able to pivot quickly and efficiently to ensure students were able to receive a good measure of our regular Writing Center services without too much interruption.

We’re thrilled to be back to in-person writing coaching this fall. We’ll still have online coaching available for students who need it, but we’ll be back in the Writing Center in 107 Walker, as well as offering a variety of pop-up writing coaching around campus, and an array of in-class services for faculty to help improve students’ grasp on their writing process.

"We’ve been taking advantage of the past year’s closures to renovate the physical Writing Center, update our appointment and management systems and retool our coach training and mentoring practices."M. Bartley Seigel, poet and director of the Michigan Tech Writing Center

Math Learning Center Remakes Digital Walk-ins

When Michigan Tech announced during spring break 2020 that we were moving to a remote format, we reacted quickly to find a way to keep our coaching services available remotely.

The Math Learning Center (MLC) has two main services: walk-ins and weekly appointments. It was easier to adjust weekly appointments to the online format, and the coaches and students simply switched to meeting on Zoom.

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Patrick McFall

Walk-ins are where students swing by the MLC anytime they want during our open hours and ask a question. Sometimes it is buzzing with 15 to 20 students all at once, so this seemed intimidating to adapt to a remote format. But before spring break was over, we had developed an organized way to allow many students to be in a Zoom meeting with our two coaches working with virtual walk-ins. We used Zoom's breakout rooms, organizing the rooms according to the math subjects, and we made a separate breakout room for students to jump into when they had a question, which is analogous to them raising their hand when they are in person. It all worked smoothly and we had this running by the first week after spring break — a big success.

But that's just logistics. Helping someone learn math online is a daunting task, especially when you don't have fancy resources. We were all in the same boat so I think that gave us some hope, as we were learning together how to adjust.

Some people had touchscreens and used online whiteboards. Some used what we call the soup can method: A phone is placed on top of stacked soup cans to be used as a homemade document camera.

"I think this challenge has made us better communicators, like sharpening our minds on a sharpening stone. I hope that we have become better listeners and explainers."Patrick McFall, mathematician and director of the Math Learning Center

Overall, coaches got the job done, but it's no secret that remote communication is lower quality than when you are sitting next to the person. So, we are also looking forward to returning to our usual in-person services.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.