Miscommunication in Learning Studio?

By BenitaZepeda

Complaints from faculty and staff continue to surround Columbia’s new tutoring initiative after many thought the initial growing pains would subside.

The Learning Studio, an initiative that provides a central location where students can receive tutoring assistance in various subjects, opened January 2009 and is located on the first floor of the 618 S.  Michigan Ave. Building. Some faculty, staff and students have voiced the opinion that the new model of tutoring services has much room for improvement.

As The Chronicle reported last year on Feb. 2, just a month after the Learning Studio’s  opening, some faculty, staff and students expressed concerns about putting all of the departments under one roof.

The Learning Studio now houses the Science and Math Learning Center, the Writing Center, accounting tutors and the Foreign Language Lab, as well as The Conaway Achievement Project, Supplemental Instruction Program and placement testing.

The biggest concern that many faculty and staff members have raised, including science and math tutors, is the feeling that there is a lack of communication between management of the Learning Studio and various academic departments, including confusion about particular policies.

Student satisfaction surveys were conducted by the Learning Studio late last year. Of 871 students who visited the Learning Studio between Nov. 7 – 9,  2009 and Dec. 14 – 19, a total of 294 students took the survey.

The survey is broken down into various categories. In one category, 54.7 percent of those surveyed strongly agreed that scheduling an appointment was easy and convenient.  In another, 64.4 percent of the students strongly agreed that their tutoring sessions at the Science and Math Learning Center exceeded their expectations.    “They were very, very positive last fall,” said Julie Redmond, assistant vice president of Academic Affairs.

However, an additional survey of tutors was conducted by the Learning Studio, and showed more dissatisfaction in areas such as TimeTrade, an online scheduling system, and the Learning Studio’s environment that allows them to efficiently tutor students.

A total of 24 percent of the Learning Studio tutors strongly disagree that the Learning Studio environment enables them to efficiently tutor students, while 32 percent stated they strongly agree with that statement.

As far as Timetable scheduling increasing efficiency as a tutor, 29.2 percent strongly disagree, while 20.8 percent agreed that it did.

Despite the divide in the tutor survey numbers, several faculty and staff members in Columbia’s Science and Math Department said they preferred the previous model of the Science and Math Learning Center, formerly located on the fifth floor of the Wabash Campus Building, 623 S. Wabash Ave.

Gerald Adams, associate professor in the Science and Math Department, said he is upset and feels very strongly about the way the Learning Studio is managed.

“It started off sounding like a good idea,” Adams said. “The problem arose and I became aware of this because of having a pretty close relationship with several of the tutors, and also the director of [the] Science and Math Learning Center. They were starting to encounter problems that were mostly related to the management of the overall Learning Studio.”

According to Adams, policies at the center have changed since the combination of various tutoring centers, including the way students can make appointments and take advantage of the services available.

He also said changes in the policies have inhibited the satisfaction of the Learning Studio.

Adams said one of the tutors in the Science and Math Department was disciplined for volunteering her time, unpaid, for an “informal” tutoring session with a student once the 50 minutes had ended because she violated the policy of staying in the Learning Studio past the allotted time.

However, Redmond stated she had no knowledge of a tutor being disciplined for extending a tutoring session.

“No one would ever be written up for something like that,” Redmond said.

Adams also stated that he has heard of cases in which students are no longer allowed to make walk-in appointments; they are required to make appointments on Timetrade. Each session is 50 minutes and cannot exceed that time, and each student is also allotted only one session per day.

“Even if a tutor was available, the scheduling software that they are using to combine students with tutors is not particularly flexible,” Adams said. “Students were getting turned away even if tutors were available.”

Adams said that in the case of the Basic Math Skills class, students are required to put in three hours of tutoring services if they miss a three-hour class. That means students need to come in three separate days for one hour at a time, rather than making up the class in one sitting like the course.

“That was a matter of concern to the Learning Studio staff, the people who are actually doing the tutorial services,” Adams said.

He said there is also a policy that doesn’t allow students to swap tutors even if they need to. Adams said that a Basic Math tutor might be paired with a student looking for help with the Sound of Acoustics course, which has physics components. That student would not be allowed to swap with a different tutor.

“All the Science and Math tutors are instructors in our department part time, and most of them have been doing both teaching and tutoring for on the order of 10 years,” Adams said. “They have a lot of experience in doing things that are a little more flexible like group tutorial session, like having extended sessions for people that need it and switching. These were more commonplace when it was [the Learning Center] that have since been prohibited.”

Karen Royster-James, director of the Science and Math Learning Center at the Learning Studio, said she “was not comfortable in her position to be answering questions regarding the subject” and directed inquiries to Redmond.

Redmond said accusations of these policies are “absolutely not true.”

“Last semester we added TimeTrade, which means students can make appointments online,” Redmond said. “We will be adding placement appointment setting as well for placement testing.  However, students can come in to the Learning Studio and make an appointment, or they can drop in.”

She also said that the Science and Math Learning Center has walk-in appointments, as well as the Writing Center.

In a response to various faculty and staff members stating their dissatisfaction on certain policies at the Learning Studio, Redmond said “it’s all been fixed.”

“In large change processes such as this, it’s a normal part of the change process to go back and revisit things that work and don’t work,” Redmond said. “One of the things that we have looked at with the tutors in Science and Math and the director of the Science and Math Learning Center was what was and wasn’t working.  So we have had a series of sessions with them and the result of that is modifying and enhancing some of the ways students can come in and see them.”

Pangratios Papacosta, associate professor in the Science and Math Department, said he thinks that the Learning Studio has good intentions, but there is room for improvement and that these concerns from faculty, staff and students should be looked at constructively.

“A working Learning Studio is essential for who we are as a college,” Papacosta said. “It will help students that come less prepared here to catch up, whether it is in writing or in mathematics.”

Papacosta said that it is also important to have a Learning Studio to help increase retention, or the number of students that remain in the college.

“Unfortunately, I have heard that the so-called friendliness of the Learning Studio has lost something in this new structure and process,” Papacosta said. “We want to make sure that it is run efficiently, but also with the caring and humanity that we are proud to say we offer to our students.”

Papacosta said even though he isn’t in a position to comment on the structure of the Learning Studio, as a faculty member that sends his students there he is a “stakeholder” in the department, and he thinks that communication needs to be more transparent.

“Certainly, it would be nice to have it assessed,” Papacosta said. “Many of us that are stakeholders need to know how it’s working, what is going on and also have the chance to provide feedback.”

He said that he has had a couple of first-hand experiences with students he has sent to the Learning Studio.

“I am pointing out what I think qualities of the Learning Studio need to be top priority,” Papacosta said. “Service, accessibility and friendliness of environment and caring need to be put as our top priority.”

Redmond reiterated that even though things aren’t perfect yet, they are working towards fixing any inconsistencies.

“Change is a long process of learning and refining and continuing to grow.  For the benefit of the students at the college, students are very satisfied with what we are doing,” Redmond said. “We will continue to work and enhance, but we’re on the right path.”