With Decrease in Bio1 Tutors, Students Wonder How to Demonstrate Need

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Several students enrolled in Cellular and Molecular Biology, or Bio1, this year experienced difficulty in securing tutors, a service guaranteed by the Dean’s Office for Swarthmore students who demonstrate academic need. Administrative Assistant Ruthanne Krauss, who oversees the budget for tutoring in the Dean’s Office, said there has been a drop in tutoring in the Biology Department from 2010 to 2011. “I believe students are being encouraged to use the clinics more,” said Krauss. “As for the Dean’s Office, we never deny [a student a tutor] if there’s a demonstrated need.”However, two students, who wished to remain anonymous, stated they requested a tutor a month before the help was assigned. The students were encouraged by professors to make use of the other resources available to them. “I was told [by a lab instructor] you had to go to a certain number of SGMs [or study group meetings] before you could be considered for tutoring, that you had to show you were using the other resources,” said one student.

The Biology department provides a variety of resources for students in Bio1, which is consistently one of the largest courses on campus, in order to supplement their understanding of the course material. Study Group Meetings (SGMs), office hours, and potential tutoring are presented as viable options for individuals desiring additional support throughout the course of the class. According to Professor Nicholas Kaplinsky, the faculty course coordinator for Bio1, “We talk about meeting with instructors and getting help in the very first lecture of the course and reinforce this message in the first lab section and throughout the semester as we identify students who are struggling.”

Professor Kaplinsky, however, stated that SGM attendance is not a prerequisite for an assignment to a tutor. “SGMs are not necessarily the best way for all of our students to learn in the course and we try to help students to find individualized modes of learning that work for them. We encourage all students to meet with instructors if they have any questions or concerns in the course regardless of whether students are attending SGMs,” wrote Kaplinsky in an email.

Diane Anderson, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, emphasized that it is the department, not the Dean’s Office, which ultimately delineates what constitutes “demonstrated need”. “The department is in charge of tutoring assignments and criteria for tutoring, for resource reasons and pedagogical reasons,” said Dean Anderson. “The departments know their disciplines and have their own resources they expect students to access.”The SGMs are weekly student-led study sessions directed by Science Associates (SAs), upperclassmen who completed Bio1 in previous years and who sit in on the course’s current lectures. John Henry Ignatiev ‘13, who has served as an SA for Bio1 this past year, emphasized the role of the SAs was not that of a lecturer or a professor. “We are not teachers, we’re students. We don’t know everything. [Many of us took] Bio1 last year and still need to go to class to learn. We have no formal training in teaching—we’re not there to give a second lecture.” He noted that a tutor’s role is much more individualized, and “can more accurately address individual needs of students.”

Junior Harry Wang, who has been involved with the SGM program for the past two years, expressed similar sentiment. “The SGMs get very congested, especially right before a quiz or a test. If there’s a topic that’s confusing a lot of students, we’ll gather into groups and try to review it, but it’s hard with that many people.”

While the SGMs are helpful for working out the weekly assigned “Challenge Problems”, students who feel they need a broader review of subject material sometimes feel deterred by the structure of the group. “I just needed a more general review, and the SAs get pretty crowded. They aren’t really there for that,” said one anonymous student.

Kaplinsky emphasized that attending SGMs isn’t the only way a student can demonstrate need. “We would like to see students who request a tutor meet with their instructors at a minimum—often we can provide simple tips for note-taking, studying, and taking the quizzes that significantly improves student performance without the need for a tutor (better to teach someone how to fish than to give them a fish),” wrote Kaplinsky. “All students who demonstrate that they are trying at least some of these strategies and are still not performing well in the course are offered tutors.”

One of the two anonymous students spoke with a professor and found that the study tips were not helping as much as s/he would like. “Tutoring was brought up by one of us, but [the professor] said, ‘Wait and see how you do.’ […] I understand they want to see how students are doing, but it’s really dangerous with the cut-off grades,” said the student. “[The professors] talk about students coming from different backgrounds, but I think [the system] is overlooking not just backgrounds but different learning styles, and how people process information.” This student said that s/he has been videotaping and reviewing lectures for several weeks to try to better grasp the subject material.

The SAs, who serve as tutors, also noticed a decrease in the allocation of tutors. “The main difference I see [between last year and this year] is that they changed the eligibility requirement for getting a tutor. This year, it’s a lot more stringent because it seemed like last year there were a lot more students asking for tutors, students who were probably doing OK in the class but wanted a better grade. That might be the reason they’ve sort of capped the number of tutors that will be available. [This year] students have to be borderline failing, have to have attended the SGMs and gone to office hours, to show they are utilizing the department’s resources,” said Wang.

According to Wang, there were more tutors available in the past who were involved beyond the scope of the SGM and SA programs. “I do remember last year the Dean’s Office hired a lot more senior Biology majors, because we did get a lot more tutees last year. Almost every science associate had two or more tutees.”

While there appears to be a cutting back of tutors, there has been an increase in other available resources. “I know for sure there has been a trend for increasing the number of SAs,” said Ignatiev, who indicated this year’s eight SAs number two more than last year.

For the tutors, the observed changes in requirements within the Biology department make sense in some ways based on past workings of the program. Said Wang, “Tutors shouldn’t be there to teach the material. Students should be going to lecture. We’re not there to teach, we’re there to reinforce, to clear up any questions they have. [Last year], one thing I saw was some tutoring sessions became more of a post-lecture review session. You need to review prior to seeing a tutor.”

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