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Center for Teaching and Learning

Direct Student Support

Implementation and Assessment of a Peer-Tutoring Program in Geography

Leader - Don Plondke

 Area of Inquiry

In the fall semester of 2009, a Basic Skills Initiative (BSI) pilot project was initiated in 3 sections of Geography 1, Introduction to Physical Geography, with a total student registration of 152. The primary goal of the project is to increase rates of student success in learning basic geographic concepts and analytical skills through peer tutoring utilizing the resources of the PATH program. Two peer tutors were recruited and employed to conduct regular tutoring sessions outside of the classroom environment where participating students interacted with the tutors to improve their study skills and conceptualization of essential geographic concepts. The methodology adopted for peer tutoring and student outcomes assessment was designed and organized by Instructor Don Plondke in the spring semester, 2009, supported by a grant allocation from the Basic Skills Committee.

The two Geography peer tutors met multiple times during the semester for 50-60 sessions with 16 voluntarily participating students enrolled in Geography 1. Results from course assessments through the semester are under examination to evaluate the apparent effectiveness of peer tutoring in improving the performance of participating students in answering objective questions on essential geographic concepts. Evaluation of the assessment results requires separating the student populations into two groups: those participating in tutoring and those not participating. The hypothesis of the project investigation is that students participating in peer tutoring will show higher rates of improvement in grasping essential geographic concepts as revealed in comparing correct and incorrect answers to objective test questions tailored to assess an understanding of these concepts.

Toward the end of the semester, the peer tutors reported a qualitative evaluation of the effectiveness of tutoring. They noticed a significant improvement in mid-semester and final exam results among the students who participated in tutoring. They also reported, through tutor report forms and discussions with the instructor, elevated levels of engagement with, and enthusiasm for, the course content. The instructor has tabulated, but not yet statistically analyzed, results on a student-by-student basis, on assessment questions that specifically examine the student’s understanding of key geographic concepts. Rates of improvement in correctly answering the tailored questions will be compared between the two student groups: those who participated in peer tutoring sessions, and those who did not. Comparisons of these rates of improvement will quantitatively assess the effectiveness of the peer tutoring methodology in enhancing student success in physical geography.

Test results from the first few weeks of a semester in introductory physical geography (GEOG 1) show consistently a fundamental lack of comprehension by many students of essential geographic concepts (e.g. region, distance, circumference, ratio, distribution). Although textbook introductory chapters and 3-4 weeks of lecture at the beginning of the semester focus on essential basic concepts in geography, the lack of comprehension seriously inhibits the communication of more complex ideas in the discipline that build on these elemental concepts. In geography, critical thinking skills needed to investigate physical processes and solve spatial problems require quick recall and clear visualization of key definitions of natural features and spatial relationships. Perhaps more innovative and systematic strategies are needed to teach essential concepts and thoroughly expose students to examples of applying those concepts in observing the world.

As an illustration of the learning problem in Geography courses, the following is a sample of data collected from assessments given in three class sections of Geography 1 during the early weeks of the fall semester, 2009, showing percentage of students who erroneously identified concepts that are essential to critical thinking in the discipline:

concept or principle  % of students incorrectly identifying
methodology of spatial analysis 52 %
Geography’s relationship to other sciences 50 %
composition of Earth’s crust 60 %
location of the International Date Line 59 %
longitude of the Prime Meridian 55 %

Discoveries to Date

The primary strategy adopted in this basic skills pilot project is to intensify students’ exposure to basic geographic concepts and to reiterate key ideas through more interactive means. The strategy has been implemented through the Peer Academic Tutoring Help (PATH) program and a systematic plan to assess students’ progress in identifying and applying basic concepts in geography. PATH program administrators, in consultation with the course instructor, hired qualified peer tutors and trained them in the principles and methods of effective peer tutoring (TUTR 1A). In the fall semester, 2009, the instructor and two tutors, with the help of PATH personnel, organized tutoring sessions in the PATH center, outside of regular class time, to engage students in review and illustration of fundamental geographic concepts, and to discuss study practices with them in both one-on-one and group tutoring sessions.

To recruit active participants in the tutoring program, the instructor announced the availability of peer tutoring early in the semester and offered the awarding of extra credit points for participation. A significant challenge in this approach to improving basic skills is finding means to recruit into the program students who truly could benefit from tutoring. The aptitude of students in comprehending basic concepts in Geography is not apparent in the early stages of the course. Only after results from 2 or 3 assessments are examined can students who might benefit from tutoring be identified. In order to encourage students to participate in tutoring, students were offered 15 points of extra credit for participation in 3-5 peer tutoring sessions and 30 points of extra credit for attending more than 5 peer tutoring sessions.

The instructor designed the content and timing of course assessments (4 in-class quizzes, 2 on-line midterm exams, and an in-class final exam) to collect data on rates of success in correct identification and/or application of basic concepts in geography among all enrolled students . For data analysis, students taking the assessments were divided into two groups: those participating in one or more tutoring sessions and those not participating in tutoring. Extracted from the assessments was tabulation of correct and incorrect responses to questions that were deliberately repeated on quizzes and/or tests at stages in the course both before and after the period of tutoring sessions. For each student, and for the two separated groups, the occurrences of correct and incorrect answers were recorded in Excel spreadsheets for those specific questions tailored to evaluate learning of basic concepts.

The effectiveness of the project’s peer tutoring effort would be at least partially revealed by comparing rates of success in learning essential concepts between the two groups. Also potentially meaningful would be a comparison of rates of improvement within the two groups of students in grasping the essential concepts tested.

Fig. 1, below, is a process data flow diagram illustrating the components of the project and the processes involved in tutoring, assessing learning, and evaluating outcomes for students.





Fig. 1. Process Data Flow Diagram of Geography Peer Tutoring Pilot Project
Observations & Data Acquired

Among three sections of Geography 1 with a total enrollment of 152, 16 students voluntarily participated in the program of peer tutoring. The participation rate of 10.5% suggests that it may be necessary to offer greater incentives in order to increase student participation. 5 students attended 5 or more tutoring sessions, and 5 others participated in 3-4 sessions. It is uncertain at the stage of the project how the number of tutoring sessions attended can be factored into the rates of student success, but that data should be examined further.

The two Geography peer tutors reported on tutoring sessions through completion of Tutor Report Forms standardized by the PATH program. They also reported verbally to the course instructor in face-to-face meetings and emails. Their observations of student engagement and students’ informal reports to them on assessment results suggested that success rates did noticeably improve as a result of participation in tutoring. The level of interaction between the tutors and the participating students increased in the form of more frequent and specific questions asked during tutoring sessions. The tutors described how most of the participants appeared to gain confidence in taking tests through the semester.

Problematic issues related to the tutoring process emerged during the first semester of implementation. Because of the instructor’s and tutor’s busy schedules, meetings between them to strategize tutoring techniques and discuss experiences and outcomes were sporadic and probably insufficient. The PATH Center was forced to reduce hours of operation due to budget cuts, limiting the number of time periods when tutor availability could be matched to that of the students. As is the case generally with class attendance patterns, regular attendance at tutoring sessions cannot be assured by any known strategy. Only the student’s experience with the process can determine persistence in participation.

Conclusions & Future Prospects

The next stage of the project will focus on assembling and analyzing the data from course assessments.
Each student’s success in learning basic concepts in geography will be measured by examining their sequence of correct and incorrect answers to specific assessment questions repeated during the semester. Rates of success in learning essential concepts will be aggregated for the student population that participated in tutoring and compared to those of students who were not tutored.

The second semester of the project’s implementation (Spring 2010) will involve three geography peer tutors working with approximately 112 students in 2 sections of Geography 1. Planned regular meetings every two weeks between the instructor and tutors will promote closer monitoring of the project’s progress and allow for coordination on new strategies in tutoring and assessment. Also planned are 9 hours of training and discussion sessions between the instructor and the three tutors related to teaching and learning strategies in introductory geography.

As part of a “Faculty Forum” event at Chabot on February 19, 2010, Don Plondke facilitated a workshop on strategies for using and evaluating peer tutoring in the development of basic skills.


 
 
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