Academic resources encourage students to seek help for classwork

With midterms fast approaching, the many academic resources at the College will likely see increased attendance from students. The Writing Workshop and the Math and Science Resource Center (MSRC) are some of the most frequented resources, but the College offers a host of other resources that students can take advantage of. These include the peer tutor program, the study skills corps and disability support services, among others. As explained on the Academic Resources web page, their services are “designed to help support students’ academic and intellectual engagement and to help them take full advantage of the curriculum … to help students explore and take full advantage of Williams’ educational/intellectual opportunities.”

The Writing Workshop

The Writing Workshop was created a number of years ago by a group of students enrolled in a specific class, who started tutoring students in how to be better writers. The program expanded from there to help students in all classes, with students currently tutoring in Pareksy, Schow and Sawyer from 8 p.m. to midnight. In 2010, Stephanie Dunson came on as Director of Writing Programs. “By the time I came on three years ago, it was a good program,” Dunson said. “A little sprawling for my taste, with 50 students working a range of hours. These were entirely drop-in hours, instead of the scheduled appointments we have now at Schow and Sawyer if students need some extra support. There was also the writing assistant program, which involved students who were attached to particular courses as writing tutors.”

Dunson did a great deal to streamline the program, focusing especially on the training received by new writing tutors before they settled in to work at the Writing Workshop. “Originally, tutors were selected by the faculty’s assessment of strong writers, without any training in addition to that. There was a sense that they were already strong writers, so they should be able to handle everything,” Dunson said. “Instead, I wanted to recruit students based on both faculty recommendation and student interest. In my experience, the students who are the most effective tutors are the ones who themselves haven’t always been the strongest writers. For the students for whom writing is more natural, it’s harder to get inside the mind of someone who’s struggling.” Dunson emphasized that working on a paper at the Writing Workshop should be a collaborative rather than one-sided process, where the tutor merely edits the paper. In addition to reforming the training program for tutors, Dunson has also focused on training tutors to help non-English speakers and to help students avoid plagiarism, an important step in light of the recent rise in honor code violations.

Taylor Bundy ’13, outreach officer and tutor at the Writing Workshop, agreed that collaboration was the most important aspect of working with students. “Students come to the Writing Workshop for a variety of reasons, from wanting to make sure their grammar usage is correct, to getting over a case of writers block mid-assignment to brainstorming essay topics,” Bundy said. “This year, we’ve definitely tried to brand the Writing Workshop as a forum for collaboration in all stages of the writing process.”

Despite the progress that the Writing Workshop has made, Dunson acknowledged that there was still more to be done. “I wish we could reach out to a broader range of tutor applicants,” Dunson explained. “There are many different ways that tutors can develop their expertise, and we’re only reaching those students who identify as strong writers. There are more students who would have something to offer as writing tutors than sometimes realize it. I’m trying to work on making more people feel like they would be viable candidates.” Dunson added that the majority of people who take advantage of the Writing Workshop are the strongest students, with grades in the A to B range. “I wish that more people who are having a difficult time would take advantage of the workshop. Our Writing Partners program tries to make up for that, ideally so that students can express more extreme concern about their writing. The program involves a specific tutor matched with a student who works with them on a prolonged basis. Our hope was that that could help us reach out to students who are less inclined to use the writing workshop,” Dunson said.

The Math and Science Resource Center 

The MSRC, like the Writing Workshop, often involves collaborative work between students. The MSRC website points out that although the tutors are available to help, “You might find your questions answered by another student who has also come to work at the Resource Center. We’re less concerned with who answers your questions than with being sure you get your questions answered.” The MSRC is run by several co-coordinators: Michael Gold ’14, Erica Wu ’13, Alejandro Gimenez ’13, Emma Bick ’15, Emma Rickles ’14 and Ben Augenbraun ’15. Tutors are available for the introductory courses in math, chemistry, biology and physics. Tutors specialize in different classes depending on the course offerings in the fall and in the spring – for example, there are tutors for Biology 101 in the fall, and tutors for Biology 102 in the spring.

Michael Girouard ’13, who has tutored students in chemistry at the MSRC since his sophomore year, emphasized the collaborative process of tutoring. “Many professors, for pedagogical reasons, refuse to supply tutors with solutions to the problem sets. Although this makes the tutor’s job a bit harder, I think it’s really helpful for the student and tutor to work together through the problem instead of the tutor leading the student to a specific answer,” Girouard said. “It helps the student understand the process, and it’s much better preparation for exams and other assignments.”

Augenbraun, a math and physics tutor, agreed that the collaboration between tutor and student, and between students, is a key element of learning at the MSRC. “My absolute favorite thing to see is when people come to the MSRC to work together. I think that any tutoring program is at its best when it provides a resource for people to work together, and not just a place to check answers or get quick solutions,” he said. Augenbraun also admitted that tutors aren’t always able to answer questions, but nevertheless, “Even when the question stumps the tutor, they are able to help the student go through the thought process of solving a problem and demonstrating what to do when the student gets stuck in a way that is more beneficial than simply working through a solutions guide,” he said.

Despite the effectiveness of the MSRC, the tutors do sometimes run into problems. Augenbraun mentioned that during midterms and finals, the MSRC can get especially “crowded and stressful.” Girouard added that “We sometimes have problems with tutors not showing up for their shifts as the semester gets busy and the rooms don’t always get completely picked up by the end of the night, but I think this past semester was actually much better than in previous years.” The main structural problem with the MSRC, Girouard thought, was the lack of statistics tutors. “I think the MSRC would benefit from including STAT 101/201 tutors to our group. More and more students are taking statistics for a variety of different reasons (including its addition as a pre-med requirement) and I think that trend will continue given that the Statistics department is growing,” he said.

Disability support services

The Writing Workshop and the MSRC are available as resources for all students to use, but there are also special accommodations offered to students with learning disabilities. These accommodations are generally arranged with students on a case-by-case basis, rather than as a general rule of thumb. Students with disabilities are required to complete all of the College’s academic requirements, in keeping with the College’s “rigorous academic standards.” The web page for Disability Support Services states that students with disabilities are “required to provide a recent professional evaluation which identifies the disability, describes the challenges faced due to this condition, and if possible, recommends modifications to be provided.” This information is kept confidential. “We do not waive academic requirements for students with disabilities,” the web page emphasized. “Rather, our policy is to assist students in their efforts to meet those requirements through reasonable and appropriate accommodations.

Accommodations depend on the condition of the disabled student. For those with visual disabilities, for example, note takers, recorded readings and braille materials are a few of the resources that can been provided. For students with learning disabilities and/or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, some of the most common accommodations offered include extended exam times, note takers for class lectures, a separate exam room or audio recording of class texts and syllabi.

Other academic support programs 

The Peer Tutor program is another important aspect of academic resources at the College. Peer tutors can be requested through PeopleSoft. Zach Mackenzie ’14, Carly Valenzuela ’14 and Lani Wilmar ’15 coordinate the program. The purpose of the peer tutor program is to help students review and clarify material, rather than to serve as a substitute for class attendance and studying. Once students are matched with peer tutors on PeopleSoft, they arrange to meet for tutoring sessions.

The Study Skills Corps is also an academic resource that assists students with developing better organization and study skills. They arrange workshops that focus on four main goals: note taking, reading, test taking and time management. The 30 to 45 minute workshops are run throughout the semester.

Despite areas in which academic resources could be improved, the general feeling about academic resources is a positive one. “The peer tutoring process was new to me,” Bundy said. “But I’ve also had the change to give feedback to students on assignments for classes that I had previously taken, and to discuss our individual experiences, majors and interests. The most rewarding aspect of working at the Writing Workshop is actually talking about writing.”