Getting tutoring at Arkansas State University has long been easy. A student could just walk into a campus tutoring center and get help from a tutor, on demand—for free. But in practice, that approach hasn’t always worked for students.

For one thing, even though tutoring centers at the university offer expert tutors in a long list of subjects, not all of those experts were on hand at any given time. And sometimes tutors were sitting waiting to help, but no students came in to get the benefit.

“Before, I would say to myself, ‘I’m going to spend 20 hours of my [budget] on chemistry tutoring because I know that’s a high-challenge course,’” explains Kelli Listenbee, director of learning support services at Arkansas State. “We were just going through what I thought in my brain, where we wanted to place that on the schedule, and just hoped that students [then] had access to chemistry tutoring.”

Recently the center revamped how it does scheduling, bringing in an app that lets students schedule time with a tutor—eliminating the practice of taking walk-ins. And the change has resulted in more tutoring sessions, says Listenbee, adding that it also helps make sure students get connected to the expert they need.

“It has made our budget as efficient as possible,” says Listenbee. “It has increased our availability for every subject.”

That’s just one example of a college that has rethought its approach to academic tutoring since the disruptions of the global pandemic.

During the past two years of the COVID-19 crisis, there has been a spike in student use of so-called homework help websites—including Chegg and Course Hero—which market themselves as providing study aids but which many professors see as designed to aid student cheating. Those for-profit sites, which charge students monthly subscription fees for access, claim to fill in a gap in academic assistance that they say colleges fail to provide.

But those companies’ well-funded marketing efforts obscure the reality that most colleges offer peer tutoring services to their students—for free. And the pandemic has led many colleges to work to make their tutoring more visible and convenient, by offering more online options, using new scheduling apps and doing more marketing on campus about their services.

“What we’ve learned is that direct intervention is best,” says Michael Frizell, president of the National College Learning Center Association and director of learning services at Missouri State University. “It’s not, ‘Build it and wait for them to come.’ You’ve got to do these direct appeals.”

For instance, Frizell says that before the pandemic, his center used to run workshops for first-generation students about its tutoring services to raise awareness with a group who might not know about the resource. Now he is looking for more ways to make sure not just that group, but everyone on campus, is aware of the tutoring services. “I’ve got to devise a marketing plan for our unit,” he says.

One of the best ways to spread the word is to deliver effective tutoring, says Geoff Bailey, executive director of the Resources for Academic Achievement center at the University of Louisville.

“If a student has a good experience, they’re going to tell another student,” Bailey says. “They’re the best advertisement you can ever ask for.”

Meeting Students Where They Are

Like many campuses, Missouri State quickly shifted from in-person to online tutoring during the pandemic. And like many campuses, the university is now keeping both options available, since officials found that many students prefer the convenience of online. One challenge, Frizell notes, will be finding funding for both formats going forward.

One model that seems to be working well, says Frizell, is one where a tutor is embedded in a large lecture class, an approach called the “supplemental instruction program.” “If you’ve got this person embedded in the class, they’re going to use her,” Frizell adds. In contrast with having to go to a tutoring center, he explains, “the stigma is gone.”

Finding students where they are is also the mantra of a startup called Penji, which offers a service that helps college tutoring centers and other campus services offer an easy-to-use app to schedule appointments. It’s the service that Arkansas State is using, as well as more than 50 other colleges.

“Schools are looking to invest to modernize tools to connect them to people,” says one of Penji’s co-founders, Ben Holmquist. “We’re coming in and saying, ‘You’re going to get the same modern experience that you’re getting from a Chegg, and we’re integrated with the school—and it’s free.”

The idea is that students today feel more comfortable calling up an app to get help than they do walking into a campus building, like a tutoring center tucked in the basement of a library.

Since the pandemic began, the National College Learning Center Association has been organizing regular virtual meetings for officials who run campus tutoring centers to share their experiences and approaches. And the group even rushed out a book of advice and articles, called “Rising to the Challenge: Navigating COVID-19 as Higher Education Learning Center Leaders.”

Facing Bigger Challenges

Tutoring centers aren’t just changing tactics. In some cases, they’re rethinking what they do.

At Arkansas State, for instance, the tutoring center is focusing more on how to build study skills rather than how to help students with specific assignments.

“We’re teaching students how to read their textbooks. We’re teaching them how to take notes. We’re teaching them how to study for the test,” says Listenbee. “We’re really stepping away from content- specific tutoring and diving into learning and how to do that.”

The bigger question is how to re-engage students who have become disconnected with their classes, a problem facing colleges across the country.

“What we’re hearing is something that kind of surprised me: is that students aren’t seeking help,” says Frizell, the NCLCA president, who says many college tutoring centers have not yet seen a return to pre-pandemic levels of use. “Emotionally I feel like the whole country just took a breath—just sucked in and held their breath for a couple years. Students aren’t feeling that comfortable, and neither are faculty.”

The challenge for tutoring centers, he says, is to adapt and be ready for “when students are more ready for the rigor that they absolutely need.”

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