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April 2004 Issue

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Management Strategies & Tips

By Jan Norton, Missouri Western State College

Email: norton@mwsc.edu

Principles for Effective Learning Centers

Sometimes, good information for learning assistance centers comes from sources that seem to apply only to developmental coursework. Such is the case with a recent article by Dr. Patricia Smittle: “Principles for Effective Teaching in Developmental Education” in the Spring 2003 issue of the Journal of Developmental Education, pp. 10-16. Smittle established her six principles by drawing upon both research in developmental education and general characteristics of effective teaching, citing a number of studies by some familiar & famous duos in the field: Boylan & Bonham, Rouche & Rouche, Chickering & Reisser. She states, “The key to teaching developmental students successfully is to assure that teaching practices are consistent with the characteristics of successful programs and the principles of effective teaching” (11). With her permission, I offer the following interpretation for learning centers and tutoring programs.

Principle # 1: Commit to Teaching Underprepared Students
Smittle writes, “teachers who choose to teach developmental students must have visions for those students, know they can make a difference, and be willing to work hard to help students succeed.” (11) The same is true of the tutors and professionals who work in learning centers. Of course there is pleasure in the stimulating world of people who know and love what you know and love, but there is far more to education. Imparting a new vision, genuinely wanting what is best for another person’s intellectual growth, and believing in what you do are all important characteristics for successful tutors and learning center professionals. These characteristics may be primarily internal, something that you seek when you initially hire someone, but they are characteristics that can fade or darken: such commitment deserves attention and solid leadership if it is to be maintained. 

Principle # 2: Demonstrate Good Command of the Subject Matter and the Ability to Teach a Diverse Student Population.
Understanding the subject matter at hand is obviously critical, but it is only the beginning: “Effective developmental teachers must be able to present the subject matter in different ways, requiring teachers to have in-depth knowledge of the concepts and skills they’re teaching as well as higher level content knowledge in the field.” (11) Tutors need a perspective from beyond the class in order to lead students effectively. Good training and development programs should help peer tutors and learning center professionals provide structured learning experiences that present information in small organized chunks, respond to students’ learning styles, offer frequent feedback about their learning, and relate information to the students’ lives and interests. 

Principle # 3: Address Noncognitive Issues that Affect Learning
Instruction and discussion about students’ noncognitive issues are standard fare for most tutor training programs. Anyone who works only with the content itself is missing key opportunities to bolster the students’ self-esteem, help them overcome procrastination, provide strategies for self-regulation, and set goals. Peer tutors and learning center professionals can also be an important source of motivation for students: “It is, indeed, the responsibility of developmental education and all education to help students sustain the motivation that led them to enroll in courses at the beginning of the semester and strengthen that motivation as the term progresses.” (12)

Principle # 4: Provide Open and Responsive Learning Environments
“Humans need some way to feel that they belong.” (12) Compared to the relative anonymity of large lecture classes, the college’s learning center can usually provide much more personal attention during the one-on-one or small group learning experiences that occur in tutoring, Supplemental Instruction (SI), mentoring, and other academic support programs. Knowing the students’ names and creating a personalized learning environment becomes easier when students meet regularly with a specific tutor, so make sure that such familiarity is possible within your program. Take a look at the physical environment as well, which can combine personal warmth and quiet professionalism.

Principle # 5: Communicate High Standards
It is important that any training programs for peer tutors or professionals balance the desire to support students’ immediate grade concerns and satisfaction with services with the desire to generate unquestionable success and complete mastery of a subject matter. Students who seek help from a learning center program, whether they are teetering on the edge of failure or seeking one more 4.0 semester, deserve to be held to high standards while they are being encouraged to reach them. Smittle writes, “One measure of a successful developmental education program is the success of the students in subsequent courses, data used by administrators and system evaluators as well.” (14) Learning assistance programs need to support high standards for students’ learning throughout the curriculum and be prepared to study the program’s effectiveness accordingly.

Principle # 6: Engage in On-Going Evaluation and Professional Development
Conscientious, regular evaluation of academic employees, including both professionals and student tutors, is a critical element of successful learning assistance centers. Opportunities to build employee skills are equally critical. For tutorial staff, create – or enhance – the training program, perhaps seeking models such as those certified by the College Reading and Learning Association’s standards. The National Association for Developmental Education also has a set of standards relevant for tutoring programs; these can provide guidelines for evaluation and improvement even if formal certification is not a goal. For professional staff members, learning assistance center managers must systematically decide to invest in conference attendance, research, coursework, resources, and other opportunities for growth and improvement, both for themselves as well as for their employees.

If these ideas sound interesting, I’d encourage you to read the original article. While I do realize that it might be best to extract principles from research and practice specific to tutoring and learning centers, these six guidelines about quality are worthy of consideration in any educational context.


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