Tutoring never appealed much to Jenna Stover or Jennifer Barker.
But free Chick-fil-A? That makes it more palatable.
“The food is definitely, like, incentive,” Barker said.
The sophomores enjoyed their dinner last Wednesday during the final academic coaching session of the semester at Coastal Carolina University’s CINO Grille.
The tutoring is part of a new program aimed at reducing failure rates in humanities classes by encouraging students to dine with their professors in small groups. Coastal officials hope that by chatting with instructors in a casual setting, students will become more engaged, less intimidated and open to seeking out help during the semester.
So far, students seem to be embracing the concept. More than 330 participated this fall.
“You don’t feel like you have to hold back,” Stover said of the informal sessions. “You’re in your own element. You’re not really like in the teacher’s element. They’re kind of in yours, so it’s cool.”
That’s exactly the point, said Dan Ennis, Coastal’s vice president for academic outreach.
The new tutoring approach is rooted in sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s concept of third places: meeting areas such as coffee houses, restaurants or barber shops.
“The idea of a third place is communities are stronger when there are spaces that are neither home nor work for interaction,” Ennis said. “Universities have lots of third spaces, student lounges and things like that, so trying to get the students and faculty in a third place to change the interaction from ‘I’m the professor. This is the material. You’re the student’ meant looking for non-traditional tutoring spaces.”
Coastal officials frequently analyze class failure rates and they noticed freshman courses with more than 25 students posted the highest rates of students earning Ds and Fs.
“Especially in the fall,” Ennis said. “[Students] are making a transition from high school. They may not have been asked to study the way we ask them to study. They feel lost. When they get into academic trouble, maybe they don’t quite know how to get out of it the way the way they might in high school. The support system is here, but it’s different.”
Last Wednesday, the support system looked like this: Two large tables, one marked for Spanish, the other for history, and smaller ones for English, religion and geography.
When students arrive, they sign in and receive a food voucher that expires later that night. Some receive special humanities scarves, giveaways Coastal officials hope will generate buzz about the program. Once they grab some dinner, students seek out professors for some mealtime studying.
With a pen and paper beside her sushi, assistant professor Yun Sil Jeon prepped her students for an oral exam. She teaches Hispanic Studies 115, which focuses on conversation and culture. In between Spanish lessons, Jeon took time to ask about students’ hometowns and backgrounds. She appreciated the laid-back environment.
“The classroom setting is always more intimidating,” she said. “This is more relaxed and they love it.”
Senior Tysheema Murray agreed.
“You have food involved and you have all of your peers with you,” she said. “It’s not in the library where it’s so quiet and serious. … You can sit down and be relaxed.”
In a corner booth sat Clayton Whitesides, an assistant professor in the Politics and Geography Department. This semester, he’s teaching three sections of world geography. Each class has about 30 students, many of them freshmen.
“This provides, I think, at least a good opportunity for them to see that you too eat normal food,” he said of the tutoring initiative. “And you too have interests beyond the geography or the Spanish or the course material that you are discussing.”
Whitesides’ dinner guests, freshmen Emma Harrelson and Lea Spaniak, concurred.
“It’s really helpful,” said Harrelson, who went to tutoring for English and geography this fall. “In both classes, my grades have gone up since I’ve been here.”
“It’s different than being inside a classroom,” Spaniak said. “I like that.”
While Coastal officials see anecdotal signs of progress, they insist they will need more data before declaring the program a success. This fall, they did three-night study sessions in September, October and November.
As the initiative moves forward, Ennis said faculty will be examining the results to find out how much tutoring affects achievement, which students are using the service and what times generate the best turnout.
Like other aspects of teaching, tutoring methods should be examined and altered over time, said Jonathan Trerise, an assistant professor in the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department.
“You make tweaks as you go,” he said. “That’s all this is. This is another method of making a tweak. So if we go [hold tutoring] on off hours will students be more likely to listen to me? I’ll tell you what, there were definitely students here tonight that in class their eyes wander far, far more often than they wander here. Does that necessarily translate to better grades, to more learning? I don’t know, but I can tell you that their demeanor was different.”