Synergy is the national peer-reviewed online journal of the Association for the Coaching & Tutoring Profession published annually in the fall and spring. The primary mission of the journal is to provide an avenue for scholarship and discussion, which furthers the knowledge of learning processes, tutoring practice, and the administration of tutoring services.
When I was a girl, I got a lot of girl gifts: Barbie dolls, baby dolls, plastic jewelry, purses shaped like cartoon animals, and that scary disembodied head with plastic hair that’s meant to help girls learn how to apply makeup. The gifts my big brother received were, in my opinion, far superior: Building gifts. Science gifts. Boy gifts. It was the 1970’s. That’s how things were. One of the things I longed for, but would never receive, was a rock tumbler. You could pick up a rock right off the ground, put it in this magical device, and it would come out shiny and perfect! Who wouldn’t be into that? But in the opinion of my very traditional, 1970’s parents, that was not a toy for girls.
Now I am an aunt to three nieces, all fast approaching the tween years. Every year for Christmas and birthdays, I log on to my favorite online store for educational toys and shop for them in the “recommended for boys” section. My little brother reports that the gifts I give are the only ones the girls keep playing with year after year. This year, they all got rock tumblers. And while I was online trying to figure out how to ship the tumblers in my shopping cart to three girls in two different states, it hit me: I’m a grown woman with a job. Add a fourth rock tumbler to my shopping cart? Yes, please. Check here if shipping address is the same as billing address? Check. Yes. Yes, it is.
Fortunately, most of my vacations are spent in Ontario on a Lake Erie beach, where little round rocks are everywhere. As a result, when my tumbler arrived in the mail, I already had a bunch of rocks ready to tumble. I started my first load right before New Year’s Eve. As a beginner, I’m finding out there’s a lot to learn about this hobby. Surprisingly, a lot of those lessons are also relevant here in the learning center. Here are some of the big ones.
Lesson One: There are no shortcuts. These things take time.
It takes at least three weeks to tumble one load of rocks, give or take, depending on the type of rocks and the shape they were in when you found them. So it is with our students. Not every student comes to us in the same condition and some will make progress faster than others, no matter what, we cannot work miracles overnight. Everybody involved in the process of learning assistance needs to have patience: The tutors, the instructor who teaches the course, the members of the center’s supervisory staff who are under pressure to produce results, the folks at the top who apply that pressure and are under pressure themselves, and, of course, the students. Especially the students.
Lesson Two: All rocks are different, and you can’t treat them all the same way. If you do, not all of them will shine, some of them will even disappear.
This was perhaps the biggest surprise from my first load of rocks: When the tumbler finished its last cycle, some of the rocks were gone! The constant friction had literally ground them down to nothing. Of those that survived, some were definitely shinier than others.
So it is with our students. Some students thrive in college and will graduate with a high polish. Others are ground down by the constant demands of college-level academics. If we don’t provide conditions that are conducive to their success, not only will some of them never find their chance to really shine, some will disappear altogether. Plan carefully. Check in periodically to see how things are going. Make changes when it’s necessary. Don’t assume what you’re doing will impact every student the same way.
Lesson Three: You need to learn a lot about the rocks before you can put them in the tumbler. If you take the time to learn about the rocks and customize the tumbling to fit their needs, your rocks will turn out better.
The solution to the problem of the disappearing rocks is to learn a lot about rocks. Rocks have different origins and different physical properties. They’re not all equally prepared for the rigors of the rock tumbler. A key rock property is Mohs Hardness. Simply put, some rocks are harder than others. If you know what type of rock it is, you can look up its hardness. If you don’t, you can test for hardness using simple tools. Some types of rocks can be tossed right into the tumbler and tumbled at top speed. For others, you may need to use a finer grit or tumble them at a slower speed for a longer time to achieve the desired result.
So it is with our students. A one-size-fits-all approach rarely works. Design your center’s programming to include a mix of different interventions for students with different needs. Develop (and follow!) a rigorous assessment plan that will help you determine what is working and for whom. Look for sources of data to help you decide. Institutional Research can help. The research literature can help. Colleagues you meet at conferences can help. Faculty can help. The students themselves can help. When is a group setting appropriate, and when is one-on-one attention the better choice? What’s the right balance between tutoring student in course content and helping them develop broadly applicable mindsets and study strategies? Learn about your students so you can fit the right program to the right student. This will help them shine.
Lesson Four: Success doesn’t always look the way you think it will. It helps to broaden your definition.
The rocks that survived the tumbler weren’t just smaller and shinier. Some of them looked radically different than I anticipated. In some cases, they were a completely different shape or color. In others, losing some outer layers revealed inner features I couldn’t have guessed were there. But they were all beautiful in their own way.
So it is with our students. Do the students who use your center have higher grades than the students who don’t? Yes? Great. No? Don’t panic—maybe you’re not looking for the right signs of success. If tutoring is voluntary, then tutees are self-selecting. Comparing them to non-tutees is probably not the right way to gauge the success of your program, even if that’s what your boss wants you to do. Are your students learning new study strategies? Have their attitudes and beliefs about their courses and themselves changed for the better? Do they feel a stronger sense of connection to the campus? Are they persisting in challenging majors because help is available? Are they maintaining their eligibility for financial aid or to keep playing their sport? Staying off academic probation? Now, turn your attention from the students to the tutors. How has serving as tutors contributed to their own success?
Lesson Five: It helps to have colleagues. Joining a community of practice and asking for help when you need it can make all the difference.
I bought my rock tumbler from an online toy store. As you can imagine, the instructions in the box were aimed at a young audience and not particularly detailed. Hence, the disappearing rocks. In order to get the hang of this, I needed help. Fortunately, I soon found out that the internet is full of “rockhounds”, and there are lots of people out there ready and willing to help a newbie out. Blogs, Facebook groups, you name it. There’s even a Facebook group for rock identification. You post a photo of your rock and as much detail as you know, and they’ll tell you what they think it is. If your latest batch in the tumbler comes out dull, your fellow tumblers will rally around you, help you figure out where you went wrong, and point you to a dozen resources to help you get it right the next time.
So it is with learning centers. If you’ve never experienced the trove of collective intelligence that is the LRNASST-L listserv, you need to subscribe to it right away! Likewise the annual conferences of the national organizations and their regional affiliates. Try all of the CLADEA-member organizations until you find the best fit for your needs (try ACTP first, of course!). Gather up business cards wherever you go and form your own posse for mutual support. Attend summer institutes, participate in webinars, and pursue national certifications. Call up a learning center on another campus in your region and ask if you can visit to get some new ideas. I bet they will say yes.
Lesson Six: Tumbled rocks are mesmerizing. Put them somewhere where you can see them.
My partner will tell you I am obsessed with my first batch of rocks. I’m proud of them. I want to look at them all the time. I’m constantly pulling my favorite ones out of the jar and showing them to him. He knows it brings me joy to celebrate how great they turned out and showcase the special ones. So it should be with our success stories at work. Find ways to celebrate the success of your students.
Tell others about your obsessions! –ed.
Michele Doney is the Director of the Student Academic Consulting Center and Immersion Program, Baruch College, City University of New York (CUNY). Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
As learning center professionals, daily, we encounter students struggling to succeed in college courses. Neuro-diverse students with traumatic brain injuries, and other learning difficulties, present unique challenges that we may not have appropriate training and experience to address confidently. Finding the Way Back presents contemporary brain function concepts supported by neuroscience research findings. The research is applied to case studies of college students with learning disabilities and traumatic brain injuries such as ADHD, dyslexia, Bi-polar disorder and Schizophrenic Disorder attempting to overcome their unique learning challenges.
Valkenberg’s thesis is that all students can learn because the brain has plasticity. He believes that students with learning disabilities and traumatic brain injury can overcome the unique challenges, particularly with the support of an informed learning professional, who has both knowledge of the science behind the learning challenges as well as a set of tools designed to address the learning challenges. In the first several chapters of the book, Valkenberg describes the research on the brain relevant to overcoming learning disabilities. He leverages the knowledge from the opening chapters via a series of case studies which show the potential impact of learning methods and tools on neuro-diverse students. Although the specific learning tools described are not new, their application in the case studies creates a freshness in the approach. The use of these learning tools by students struggling to learn is described in detail and the case study approach is an effective way to illustrate the application of the tools. This book is timely as more students with learning challenges are entering college today. At the same time, colleges and universities are prioritizing student retention and completion. While the opening chapters on various brain functions and neuroscience research are quite technical, the application of the information via case study is useful for instructors, advisors, and academic coaches.
The author explores several key aspects of neuro-diversity, including aspects of brain function such as memory, language, learning with all the senses, metacognition, and the influence of technology. Many neuroscience researchers – past and present – are cited and quoted throughout the book. As a result, the first four chapters of the book are filled with detailed descriptions and technical information about the brain. For readers with limited knowledge of brain function and research, the information may be overwhelming or difficult to follow and comprehend. The style does not seem to be intended for a casual reader but for an intelligent reader or even a learning specialist with prior knowledge in neuroscience research topics. However, the information seems to be unbiased and the evolution of researchers’ conceptualization of how the brain works is represented in this book. These topics are applied in Chapter 5: Case Studies, which is where the book comes alive for me.
Last semester, I piloted an academic coaching programming in our learningcenter. The Disability Services office referred many students to academic coaching. In the initial meeting with me, those students shared their experiences with similar learning disabilities and traumatic brain injury as described in Valkenberg’s book. As a result, I had a vested interest in reading and learning from the inform ation in this book. In my opinion, the greatest strength of this book is the practical application of the information,methods, and learning tools described in the case studies. When working with students struggling to learn college course material, having tools and techniques to support those students is critically important. I appreciate understanding the rationale for why to use those methods and I recommend this book to my professional learning center colleagues, including academic coaches, tutors, and advisors.
Your Mindful Guide to Academic Success: Beat Burnout (Book Review)
Author: Gayle Kimball, Ph.D.
Reviewed by Jill Oliver, Ph.D.
Kimball’s ebook primer on academic success is an easily read and easily navigated epublication that should be helpful to students and student success centers alike. The breadth of the topics can be found in Chapter headings and show you immediately that the book covers salient topics for all students, especially, first generation and at risk students. While typically covered topics are seen here, think study skills and stress management, but physical vitality, resilience, and metacognition offer something a little out of the ordinary. While I am disappointed that learning styles is still a topic when it is not supported in research, overall, this colorful concise text is a solid manual with very specific pointers. Best, Kimball had students contribute to her book. Biographies are included and they make this manual more poignant to the students looking for help. It feels like a friend.
Exploratory Advising: Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (Full Article)
Cora Dzubak, Margaret Mbindyo, and Nicole Hastings
Millersville University of PA
Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 many colleges and universities continue to report an increase in the number of students identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Working with ASD students requires an individualized approach because their career interests are often narrow and they can be reluctant to explore alternative majors and career options. A traditional career decision making model is sometimes not effective with students who are intent on pursuing a specific major with little interest in exploration. Advisees with ASD can hesitate to explore options that allow them to maximize their academic and career strengths while also minimizing personal, behavioral, or communication characteristics that are not conducive to success in their chosen career (Bissonnette, 2016; Dzubak, 2011). One challenge for advisers is to recognize students with ASD and to assist them in their efforts to identify a major that is compatible with their interests, academic strengths, interpersonal skills, and eventually provide them with a transferable career skill set. Often their interpersonal and social competency skills require as much consideration as choice of major or career.
Cora Dzubak, Ph.D, is an academic advisor and coordinator for the Exploratory Studies Program at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.
Margaret Mbindyo, Ed.D., is an Advisement Coordinator for the Exploratory Studies Program at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.
Nicole Hastings is an instructor in Advisement and Student Development at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.
Learning Support for Students with High Functioning Autism in Post-secondary Learning Communities (Full Article)
Jeanne L. Wiatr, Ed.D.
Collierville Teaching and Learning Consortium
College and university academic support programs are faced with a myriad of student needs. One demographic of students having a big impact on post-secondary learning communities is those diagnosed with high functioning autism, HFA (formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome, AS). The transition from the secondary school settings of students with HFA to college and university learning communities is not seamless. Although there are legal mandates that support rights of challenged individuals to pursue placement in the workforce and further education, the language of this legislation is vague. Post-secondary settings are left with the task of interpreting how these mandates will be addressed to create supportive services responding to the needs of student’s with HFA. The critical importance of development of academic support services is discussed as well as these services offering a pathway for integration of the student with HFA into the post-secondary learning community.
Jeanne Waitr is the Executive Director of the Collierville Teaching and learning Consortium, Collierville, Tennessee.