Video by Josh Larkin, CCV
Sometimes success in college is defined by having learned how to learn. It’s not just about asking questions, it’s about asking the right ones.
CCV has long acknowledged the benefits of providing resources to support students in becoming the best learners they can be. The College takes pride in homing in on what will aid students in getting the most out of the education they are paying for. The newest addition to that arsenal is taking off, and fast.
Piloted at two centers just last spring, the peer mentoring program at CCV has been so well received it is now being offered at ten of the centers in 40 “gateway” classes, and aims to be operating at all 12 centers by next fall.
“It was really exciting to see an initiative that faculty, staff and students bought into almost immediately,” said Jennifer Garrett-Ostermiller, coordinator of academic services at CCV Winooski. Garrett-Ostermiller is co-chair of the statewide Learning Centers Committee with Kelly Young, coordinator of academic services at CCV Montpelier. “The faculty have been raving about their experiences.”
The peer mentors, who are recommended by faculty and then interviewed and trained, are embedded in classes, spending five hours a week in- and outside of the classroom providing support for both students and their host instructors.
CCV’s academic support services evolved organically, starting almost a decade ago with the library support staff–peer assistants who aided fellow students in their researching. According to Garrett-Ostermiller, when the libraries transitioned to a more online-based system, the College recognized the inherent value of peer assistants and, not wanting to lose something so crucial to student success, its Learning Centers were born.
“The evidence shows that peer tutors are the most effective at supporting their classmates; they’re less threatening and they have a shared experience right away,” said Garrett-Ostermiller. “So peer tutoring just made sense at CCV.”
Fast forward to the present. CCV boasts Learning Centers at every location with peer, professional and faculty tutors committed to guiding students to become self-sufficient in their studies.
“I joke with my tutors that it’s their job to work themselves out of a job,” said Garrett-Ostermiller.
For some students it might be one math problem or one research paper that brings them to a Learning Center, but they are encouraged to keep coming even once that particular problem has been worked through.
“The work that happens in the Learning Centers is helpful to the student in the moment, but students are best served when they return often so they can continue to build those skills and have that support while doing so,” added Garrett-Ostermiller.
Dave Amsden, long-time faculty member and coordinator at CCV Winooski’s Evelyn Hoffman Donovan Learning Center could not agree more.
“When a student comes into the Learning Center they can expect supportive staff that have expertise in some of the content they are working on. They can expect that the staff can support them with individual assignments, as well as general coursework throughout the semester,” Amsden said. “And they can expect that the tutors and the lab professionals in the Learning Center will be supporting them to become independent learners in order to succeed not just this semester but in future semesters.”
The Learning Centers are meant to be places where students can not only come to receive support but also to give support to others, sometimes just by being there. Students engaging together in a supportive space is very compelling and for those students who might not typically consider themselves in need of the Learning Centers, their persistence and excellence is a welcome model for those who do.
Thus, peer mentoring was a natural next step in CCV’s focus on support, effectively bringing the Learning Centers into the classrooms. As liaisons between faculty and students, the mentors open a pathway of communication not otherwise available; they have a student perspective as well as an instructor perspective. Not only have the mentors taken and excelled in the course in which they are embedded, but they also give presentations and develop leadership skills.
“It’s a shifting role from being a student trying to demonstrate knowledge to helping other students discover their own knowledge and questions,” said Garrett-Ostermiller. “It is really neat to watch that professional growth happen even in the span of one semester.”
Deborah Stewart, dean of students, says that getting the contextual experience and modeling in the classroom is a powerful role for them.
“I think it’s some of the most exciting new work the College is doing, because it’s a real win-win-win situation; for the faculty, the students and the mentors themselves,” she said.
Tracey Staples, a peer mentor at the Montpelier center, said her involvement in the new program has reaped numerous rewards for her.
“This has added up to more experience, understanding, and personal growth than I would have thought possible,” she said.
Peer mentors have extensive support from faculty and staff in order to establish themselves in their new role. With the online Moodle 2 Sandbox, training and resources are easily accessed from anywhere and give everyone involved statewide the same building blocks. This January peer mentors, and the faculty teaching the 40 classes in which they are embedded, joined tutors in a day-long training workshop in Montpelier led by Amsden and Young.
“We envision the peer mentors as a connecting link to students and the CCV academic community. We expect the program to support students in their academic proficiency but also persist through challenges,” said Amsden.
With just under 12 percent of the total student body accessing the Learning Centers this past fall, one hope for the peer mentoring program is to make the support the College provides even more accessible.
“The best advertisement are the students that have already gone to a Learning Center,” said Garrett-Ostermiller. “We do certainly talk about the Learning Centers in orientation, we know that students who attend orientation are much more likely to use the Learning Centers in the first five weeks of the semester.”
With peer mentors bringing the support of the Learning Centers directly to students, the word is sure to be spread a little farther, a little wider.
“From my vantage point this recent evolution to an emphasis on peer tutors and peer mentors is an opportunity we wanted to take advantage of to bring students into the Learning Centers; many students can benefit, but don’t know about them,” said Stewart.
This expansion of support services not only has the potential for increased short-term student success and retention, but it’s also allowing for further encouragement of student success beyond the classroom; because learning does not end at graduation.
For students still unsure, Amsden urges them to take advantage of something which they’ve already paid for through their tuition.
“Because of the mission of affordability and accessibility, CCV takes learning assistance and academic support very seriously,” said Amsden. “In relation to other colleges and universities we use quite a bit of CCV resources for that academic support. It is something that all students here have already paid for and we encourage students to capitalize on that.”