When I first started using SI (Supplemental Instruction) in my physics class, it was at the very beginning of the program, so I did not have many success stories to tell my students and entice them to attend the sessions. I told them of course about Uri Treisman, the math teacher who had developed what we call the Berkeley model of SI, and how he had dramatically boosted the success of his black students (who used to study alone) by organizing SI workshops for them.
I did get a few takers in the class. They did better than the rest, but it was partly a matter of self-selection: my most serious students tended to attend the SI sessions in greater proportion than the students who really needed it.
Then one semester I had a great idea. Instead of the regular homework that my students had to turn in, and which counted for 5 points out of 100 in their final grade, I offered them a choice: they could keep doing the homework the usual way, or they could earn their 5 points by coming to a 2-hour SI session each week. That was in the 1990’s, before the compressed calendar, and I offered them a choice of 3 or 4 such sessions each week which I would set up after polling them to accommodate their different schedules.
They had to decide one way or the other; I would not allow flip-flops with SI one week and homework the next. I gave them 2 weeks at the beginning of the semester to make their decision, so they had a chance to try a workshop or two and see if it worked for them. They could miss a session during the semester, but any session missed beyond that would cost them half a point.
The result was dramatic. To start with, it didn’t take long before the vast majority of my students chose SI rather than the homework, and actually came to the workshops very regularly. In fact, many students came to more than one session each week, especially at mid-term time.
But the best part of this arrangement is that it boosted the success rate in the class by 20 percentage points! In education, where improvement is never easy, this was amazing!
But it’s not hard to see why this was such a success. This class, algebra-based physics, was a problem solving class: my students did not have to memorize concepts and laws of physics – they could always bring a cheat sheet at the tests – but they had to understand them and be able to apply them to solve problems. So their 2-hours of SI, where they practiced problem solving, were just perfect for them: it was learning by doing, and they did it with friends and with help from SI leaders: couldn’t be better!
I should mention a beneficial side-effect: I didn’t have to grade practically any homework, which I did not miss! I used the time saved to go and attend as many SI sessions as I could: this gave me a chance to work directly with students, answer their questions and see where their difficulties were so I could go over those points again in class. So it worked well for everybody.
Needless to say I have been a fan of SI ever since: I wouldn’t teach without it. It’s a wonderful program and I recommend it very highly to anyone who can use it.