Peer-led Supplemental Instruction program aids student success in historically tough courses

SI leaders during a session

Professor David Bridges starts each of his biology lectures the same way.

Before launching into the particulars of human anatomy and physiology, he reminds students of Purdue’s Supplemental Instruction (SI) sessions, where they can get extra help four days a week.

He then glances around the room to find the three SI leaders—students who have already successfully completed the course—and asks them to give a little wave. That way, the rest of his class (about 700 students total) can see who they are.

The routine may seem repetitive; however, Bridges says the daily reminder is crucial because it nudges students to seek help beyond what’s available during lecture, lab and office hours. And while the peer-led program is intended to supplement the aforementioned resources, Bridges says SI has become essential to his teaching mission. After all, most of the students in his two-semester 4-credit course are freshmen, and many of them are seeking additional academic support and mentorship.

“The students in my class today will be tomorrow’s nurses, physicians and medical laboratory assistants, and we want to give them the best training we can,” Bridges says. “This is one of the main reasons I regard SI as an integral part of my course.”

SI sessions are offered for 28 courses and led by 42 student SI leaders, numbers that have more than doubled in the last five years. The program, housed within Student Success at Purdue, promotes active, collaborative learning and is geared toward students enrolled in historically challenging courses.

In addition to becoming more familiar with course content and developing stronger academic confidence, many students report a positive correlation between regular SI attendance (eight or more times in a semester) and their final course grade.

What makes the SI program so effective? Bridges has a few ideas. For one thing, he says the students selected to lead SI sessions are creative in their teaching approach.

“One former SI leader drew a beautiful diagram of the body’s metabolism, which explained it with such clarity beyond what I could describe,” Bridges says. “I put her name at the bottom of the illustration, and I still use that diagram today.”

Secondly, Bridges says SI sessions provide a relaxed environment where students can ask thoughtful questions, engage with their peers and form study groups.

“I think the neat thing is that although I have frequent contacts with the SI leaders and give them guidance on those sections of the course that are difficult and need emphasizing, the SI leaders use methods that are different from mine, yet complement what I do,” Bridges says. “My students get a different angle on the same material, they get it from our young SI leaders who are their peers, and they also have numerous opportunities to interact among each other in group settings.”

Megan Broecker, a senior in Movement and Sports Science and SI leader in Bridges’ class, agrees that group dialog is one aspect many of her students find appealing.

“In the traditional lecture and lab setting, course information is for the most part presented to the student,” Broecker says. “We flip that in SI by asking students to do activities and present information to one another. It gives them an opportunity to take the lead and test their knowledge.”

Broecker remembers one SI participant in particular who showed up to her very first office hour in a panic.

“She was a freshman hoping to get into Purdue’s athletic training program, which can be really competitive, and she knew she had to do well in Dr. Bridges’ course to be considered,” Broecker says. “I could understand all the pressure she was feeling, especially after she didn’t do well on the first exam. But she ended up coming to almost every office hour and SI session after that, and she made dramatic improvements over the course of the semester.”

That student’s hard work paid off—she was accepted into the athletic training program and went to see Broecker in person to share the good news.

“It was a great moment,” Broecker says. “I saw her at her lowest point at the beginning of the year when she was so stressed and didn’t think she could do it, and now she’s come full circle to become one of the top students in the program.”

Ethel Swartzendruber, senior assistant director and coordinator of Supplemental Instruction, says the award-winning program is on track to see more student participation in fall 2016 than ever before. Although academic confidence is difficult to quantify, Swartzendruber says students’ ability to verbally and visually demonstrate solutions to their peers are positive indicators.  

“It’s really all about students and helping them become more confident in their approach to tough course material,” Swartzendruber says. “While the practice that homework provides is certainly important, understanding the how and why of things is the key to applying that knowledge to new but similar problems on exams. Meeting and interacting with other students who are taking the same course, who share some of the same struggles but really want to grasp the subject, can be rewarding for SI participants as well.”

Faculty and academic advisors who would like to learn more about Purdue’s SI program may contact Swartzendruber.

Writer: Andrea Thomas, Communications Director for Student Success at Purdue, 765-496-3754, thomas78@purdue.edu

Sources: David Bridges, 765-494-8153, bridgesc@purdue.edu

Megan Broecker, mbroeck@purdue.edu

Ethel Swartzendruber, 765-494-8507, swartzen@purdue.edu

Last updated: Aug. 11, 2016