A Series on Teaching During Covid-19
When Covid-19 struck mid-way through the spring semester this year, SASN professors had to turn on a dime and get creative about how to teach remotely—no small feat, given the novelty of the virus and the unprecedented situation the world found itself in. The same holds true for academic-support service areas such as the Rutgers-Newark Writing Center and Rutgers-Newark Learning Center, two vital entities for students in Arts & Sciences and across campus. Recently, we spoke with Marne Benson, Director of the Writing Center, and Al Brown, Director of the Learning Center, to discuss the challenges they’ve faced and the creative solutions they and their staffs have adopted to continue to offer outstanding support in these challenging times.
What is the mission of your center?
Marne Benson: We offer one-on-one tutoring for students across campus to help them respond to the demands of academic writing. We use a holistic approach, helping students clarify their assignment, generate and organize their ideas, expand and articulate their argument using textual support, review and revise drafts, improve grammar and style, and strengthen their critical analysis and editing skills. We also teach workshops on some of those skills, primarily geared toward at-risk students but open to everyone.
Al Brown: We provide support and tutoring for all RU-N students in STEM and business subjects. We also approach our job holistically, functioning not just as a tutoring center but also providing academic coaching to help build better learners overall—helping with transition to college concerns such as time-management and study strategies, and IDing when students need concurrent support best addressed by other support units. We also work with Academic Advising to support students on probation and provide workshops to all interested students.
What’s been your staffing and student demand before and since Covid?
MB: The Writing Center typically has 12-14 undergraduate tutors, plus six graduate tutors for the satellite centers we run for the Graduate School, Nursing School and MSW Program. We’ve maintained that same staff because demand has been consistent. In fall 2019 we had just over 2,300 visits, around the same as spring 2020, which included Covid. We served just under 1,000 students in the 2019–2020 academic year. And our workshops, which we’re doing virtually now and which draw anywhere from 10 to 25 students, are still going strong.
AB: The Learning Center usually has 25-30 undergraduate tutors, plus a Learning Specialist and one graduate-student academic coach who works with them. To adjust for student demand, we currently have 22 tutors. We usually serve approximately 400 students and have about 1,500 visits per semester, but Covid has placed some unique pressures on our traffic. One of the reasons is that we’re doing fewer group sessions because students are more interested in attending one-on-one virtual sessions. We look to creatively recapture some of this activity by doing things such as expanding outside our normal hours of operation and reimagining how group sessions might work differently in a virtual context.
I try to encourage horizontal communications by asking my tutors if they’re in touch with each other—and they have been, which is important.
What do your virtual tutoring sessions look like now?
MB: We used Blackboard Collaborate in the spring. Now students use the Run4Success platform to schedule appointments and Zoom for their tutoring. During our 40-minute, one-on-one sessions, the video function is on so students and tutors meet “face-to-face,” students share the screen with their paper on it, and the pair can talk together about what is or is not working. Students have agency to make changes while the tutor offers suggestions. Our goal is to make the students independent thinkers and writers, and the virtual sessions actually work well for this. If a tutor needs to write an explanation or give an example, they can use the whiteboard function in Zoom.
AB: Our students also use Run4Success for scheduling appointments. We sometimes use WebEx for our 45-minute, hour or hour-and-a-half-long sessions, but primarily we use Blackboard Collaborate, which allows me to impromptu sit in and observe the sessions. Usually both student and tutor have audio on while using a whiteboard to write on, with video is turned off, although our Geology tutors to use video also. Some explanations such as for plate tectonics are better done via demonstration with hand gestures and the like.
What have been some of the biggest challenges in shifting to remote tutoring?
MB: Our Writing Center tutors can’t just walk into my office and ask questions like they used to, although they can email me. They also have a harder time getting close by working together: There’s less chat between sessions now, so the social aspect for them is diminished. Usually they make lasting friendships and relationships—two of our tutors even got married! We’re using Teams on Office 365 to help with this, so that tutors can be in touch with us or each other. This is in addition to our regularly scheduled check in meetings.
AB: Learning Center students are making appointments for tests and other situationally specific reasons much more often now, so there’s less holistic help being requested. We’re fighting turning into the homework help center, using sessions to figure out how to help them with with performance issues instead. A second issue is that while our tutors often use Wacom drawing tablets to draw on the virtual whiteboard—whether it’s graphs, math equations or molecular models—usually our students are slowed down writing onscreen with a mouse. So, that’s been challenging. Finally, it’s also been harder to monitor interactions between tutors and students and intervene if needed.
Post-Covid, we’ll continue to offer a virtual tutoring option for students.
Do you miss the buzz and social interactions at your physical space since Covid?
MB: Yes. I’m missing that energy! And we used to have a lot of walk-in appointments, students seeing if a particular tutor was available or if there was a cancelation.
AB: Exactly. There was a certain vitality to the Learning Center environment as well. We’re certainly feeling more isolated now. And like Marne, we’re also using Microsoft Teams for tutors to be able to contact each other easily and still feel a sense of camaraderie. I try to encourage horizontal communications by asking my tutors if they’re in touch with each other—and they have been, which is important.
Are you keeping the same hours as you were pre-Covid?
MB: So many of our international students are now overseas during Covid, and the time difference makes it difficult for them to adhere to the Writing Center’s normal schedule, so we’ve added new evening and weekend hours to accommodate them.
AB: The Learning Center’s tutoring hours are the same as they were Monday-Thursday, but they expanded on Fridays, and we added four hours per day on Saturdays and Sundays as well.
Will any of the changes you’ve made become permanent after Covid?
MB: Next semester the Writing Program, which we support directly, will offer courses at different times to accommodate international students and the various time differences. Post-Covid, we’ll continue to offer a virtual tutoring option for students who can’t make it to campus during our regular hours and for nontraditional students. That will be more relevant in our satellite centers but also among undergraduates who have other responsibilities and among our international students.
AB: We’ll continue with remote tutoring on Saturdays and Sundays—and during week after 5pm, especially for working students who would rather be home with their families. We also just got permission to purchase a Microsoft Surface Duo 2S, a stand-up whiteboard for our staff to do remote tutoring. In these ways, we’re thinking about what a post-Covid tutoring center will look because students will demand this.
AB: I’d like to give a shout-out to OIT, especially Joy McDonald, for doing such a great job with the technology during Covid. The video medium has been very well-run, and they’ve been remarkably helpful whenever we reach out to them.
Thanks for sitting down with us.
MB: Thank you.
AB: My pleasure.