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Chaparral 2014-2015: 23.3 You Didn't Come Here For Answers

You Didn't Come Here For Answers (December 2014)

You Didn’t Come Here for Answers: The Learning Center, Smarthinking, and Beyond

by Shant Shahoian


“My students can’t write!” shouts my colleague. “I’m going to send all my worst writers to the Learning Center so your tutors can fix their essays.”

There are so many problems with this statement that I am nonplussed. When I explain that we are not a proofreading, editing, or homework completion service, he looks at me askance and asks, “If you don’t proofread their papers in the Learning Center, what do you do?”

We empower students.

We believe our students can write and can solve math problems and can understand organic chemistry. In fact, many of them do before they walk through the door. The Learning Center is not usually a last resort for struggling students or “the worst writers” but a resource for all students, including “A” students who want to refine their understanding of oxidative cleavage reactions or hone their already impressive research papers on the epigenetic regulation of stem cells. In “The Idea of a Writing Center,” Stephen North articulated the goal of writing centers clearly: “[O]ur job is to produce better writers, not better writing.” Of course, the Learning Center offers free tutoring in many other subjects besides writing, but North’s now iconic quotation informs our overarching philosophy: We foster independent learning so students can succeed on their own.

Our tutors ask more questions than they answer, they facilitate learning instead of unilaterally rectifying errors, and they respect and foster students’ sense of agency.

This is a new take on the old adage about fishing: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” If we were a proofreading or homework completion center, students would walk away with a fish but would not understand as well how to produce polished work in the future. Because we are a Learning Center, we’re much more concerned about teaching students how to fish, so they can master the concepts that would enable them to complete future assignments independently and confidently.

We are proud of our successes in the Learning Center, which you can learn more about here. As always, however, we are also looking for ways to improve. We have many upcoming projects, including Smarthinking, planned for the immediate future. Here is a sampling:

  • Workshop Series: This spring, we’ll start offering workshops on Carol Dweck’s concept of growth mindset, which will complement our burgeoning selection of workshops on topics ranging from MLA & APA documentation to paragraph development to logical fallacies. Image of Learning Center
  • Remodel: We have been planning an extensive remodel of the Learning Center. The new space will include an active learning lab, soft seating, and a host of other changes. We hope to start construction this July, and we are looking into branding and possibly renaming the Learning Center.
  • Button: We are working with IT to devise a single button placed on faculty PeopleSoft rosters that, when clicked, would refer all students in an instructor’s course for tutoring. Of course, if an instructor wanted to complete an individual referral, he or she would be permitted – but no longer required – to do so. Students would then seek tutoring whenever they felt it was necessary. Most importantly, this button would simultaneously refer students to all ancillary instruction services on campus, including the Math Discovery Center, Supplemental Instruction, and other resources.
  • Faculty Tutors: Fortunately, faculty members from the English and ESL divisions have donated an office hour to the Learning Center. Other faculty tutor here for flex credit, and some just wish to volunteer their expertise. We hope to continue this practice.
  • Non-Credit ESL: Beginning this winter, we will offer tutoring to non-credit ESL students on campus. 
  • Outreach: Many instructors have graciously invited us to speak to their students about our services in the Learning Center, and we hope to increase classroom visits by 10% next semester.
  • AGS and Scholars Program: Students in both Alpha Gamma Sigma (AGS) and the Scholars Program are interested in volunteer tutoring in the Learning Center. We are working with both Jonn Aque and Michael Harnett to coordinate hiring and tutor training.
  • Veteran’s Center: In order to provide math tutoring in the Veteran’s Center, we are working with Charles Shumate to coordinate hiring and tutor training.
  • Smarthinking: The Learning Center will be partnering with Smarthinking, beginning this winter intersession, to provide all registered GCC students with online, on-demand tutoring, offered by Smarthinking, in a variety of subjects, such as writing, math, statistics, biology, chemistry, physics, nursing and allied health, accounting, economics, finance, MS Office applications, and Spanish.

Image of a woman using a computerThe addition of Smarthinking was not an easy decision to make. Around the state, services like those offered by Smarthinking are praised by students yet lamented by some traditionalists in learning centers. Honestly, I was skeptical at first. Would these non-GCC tutors be qualified, trained correctly, and capable of honoring our tutoring philosophy? Would we lose all of our students to this ultra-convenient online service? Would the service still refer students to other campus resources like the Math Discovery Center or Supplemental Instruction as we always have in the Learning Center? Would we be able to collect our SLO data to determine if the services were comparable to our own?

I’m glad to share that after thorough and careful research, all of my initial concerns were allayed.

The perks are clear: students have online, on-demand access to highly qualified tutors (i.e. 90% of tutors at Smarthinking hold graduate degrees in the subjects they tutor) at times of day when campus services are not available. Most importantly, the tutors are trained in accordance with nationally recognized standards set forth by the College Reading and Learning Association (CRLA) and the National Tutoring Association (NTA).

Also, the Learning Center will include information on the Smarthinking landing page that directs students to all appropriate campus resources. Such notices may not even be necessary; according to my colleagues around the state, access to Smarthinking has only increased attendance in their learning centers. Moreover, students will complete the same brief surveys our in-house students complete after each tutoring session. We use these surveys, along with our tutor logs, to assess our student learning outcomes and make changes as needed.

We will pilot Smarthinking at the start of the new year, and students can start accessing the service on January 7, 2015. The actual portal on our website is still being refined, but I will soon email the entire GCC community to explain how to access the service.

If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me at


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