By MARTY LEVINE
Before March 2020, when the staff of the College of General Studies’ Study Lab saw their large office empty of its 60 student peer-tutors, Study Lab Director Mary Napoli had always said “absolutely not” to the idea of going virtual.
“But being forced into it, we have seen value in it for students,” Napoli says.
Napoli’s favorite experience in the Study Lab, she says, had been to walk its space in the lower floor of the Gardner Steel Conference Center, "to see how a student gets something: ‘Oh, I understand this now.’ That is really rewarding to see this happening and how this was important for the student.
“Obviously everything is online,” today, with tutors working virtually, she says. “So we don't have the same kind of contact with them that we are used to. But we're trying to continue to build a community and have the same sort of atmosphere.” For one, the tutor highlight board, offering news and tips, is online, as are team chats for tutors in the same subject area.
And staff members have adapted their jobs as well. Cassandra “Sandy” Kennedy-Carter, administrative assistant — who has been with the Study Lab since its founding 20 years ago as the academic support center — still directs and assists students with appointments. She helps them get into their virtual tutoring spaces, and has had to adapt to new tracking, reporting and communication processes to keep the lab running smoothly for tutors, tutees and staff.
Academic coaches Jennifer Smith and Ingrid Beute (the latter of whom started a few months after the pandemic hit) help students improve in individual courses and learn broader study skills, including time management, study strategies and connecting with the right resources at Pitt.
Before COVID-19, Smith also spent a lot of her time observing tutoring sessions, and recalls how encouraging it was to see a student flourishing: “You can see them have some confidence in what they're doing — that is really great to watch.” Smith also edits student-created videos geared toward improving subject-matter knowledge and study skills.
Over the last year, the Study Lab staff has developed a mentor and mentee program to connect newer and more advanced tutors. “We're focused on letting the tutors get a lot out of” their work in the Study Lab, Smith says, and so encourages networking and peer friendships. Smith also took over the tutor training class.
Beute believes that the virtual tutoring has advantages, particularly now, as compared to in-person tutoring that would require pandemic protections: Since no one is wearing a mask on screen, it is easier to establish a rapport during the tutoring sessions. “I have seen students turn around from the beginning of the semester,” she says. They have “really engaged the virtual environment.”
The virtual tools have allowed Study Lab coaches to reach a much larger first-year student population with presentations on study skills, she notes, since the coaches don’t need to come personally to a large number of classes. “That creates more inclusivity and more equity in the services we provide,” she says.
Still, with 76 different classes to cover (since the lab provides services to CGS and the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences), Beute has expanded her hours to do evening presentations to nontraditional, part-time and other students who are not able to attend coaching sessions in the daytime.
Tutoring can be a little more difficult to accomplish remotely, Smith allows, especially if a student chooses not to turn on the video; it is then harder to pick up visual cues that the student is understanding a lesson or is still uncertain. However, she says, more students are coming back more often for virtual tutoring.
Although Napoli assures that the Study Lab will return to offering in-person tutoring just as soon as it is possible, Smith adds: “We're going to keep the new stuff we did. Not only did it show the value of having these virtual options, it shows the need. We will have the best of both worlds.”
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-758-4859.
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