When I first set out to learn about the Penn experience with virtual tutoring this semester, I expected to hear about another dimension of the disconnect and shortcomings of remote learning. I had had a week which culminated in a repugnant screen time update and disdain for Zoom, Canvas, and any remote learning platform. I thought that perhaps the reality of being a student, or simply a person, in 2020 would mean a decrease in Penn students caring about their courses or using Penn’s resources. While the first year of virtual tutoring has come with difficulties, my conversations about Penn’s online tutoring world rather highlighted the resilience, collaboration, and creativity of our entire community.
Penn students have always been resourceful. As Valerie Wrenn, Associate Director of Tutoring at the Weingarten Center, explains, “our services are always pretty heavily utilized … On average we support about a thousand students every semester from all different schools at the university.” As Amy Kaplan (C’23) , a tutor of Physics 101 this semester and of chemistry previously, says that generally, “people who seek out the tutoring center are often really motivated to do well.” However, the academic gumption of Penn students has never been more obvious than in the Fall 2020 tutoring space. Considering all the trials and tribulations of this semester and the factors that have and could strain our academic focus, the fact that students have continued to pursue outside assistance speaks to the grit of Penn's student body. Wrenn says that “just within one area of our services—the most popular—which is the contract tutoring [tutoring that meets regularly with the same group of people]. We already have about 850 requests in the system and that is pretty much on par with previous terms.” Amy described her students this semester as “eager to learn and go over the material.”
Penn tutoring emphasizes the support generated between undergraduates during a semester where there is a deficit of student collaboration and intra–class interactions. Joyce Davis (C’24) explains that working with her Math 103 tutor has been helpful. "[My tutor] goes fast but in a way that is understandable … It just works.”
Annelisse Sunga (C’24) discusses how tutoring has in a way filled some of the void from learning remotely in an Integrated Studies course as a part of the Benjamin Franklin Scholar program. She says, “I think part of why it is called Integrated Studies is because you need to collaborate with everyone in your class on the many different topics. My classmates and I have been saying this class would have been a lot less challenging had we been together.” Her Integrated Studies and Hebrew Literature professors all advocated for their students to use tutoring to connect with peers and the material.
Many other first–years have praised their tutor’s guidance and view this as a way to connect with older Penn students in the virtual world.
The Weingarten's tutoring department focused on the group model tutoring this year to generate more collaboration. Wrenn says “we decided … to really dive into group tutoring this year to really give students at least one avenue where we knew they could connect with each other around their coursework."
While tutoring has been a beacon in an entirely remote semester, there are many challenges and changes that the tutors and the department have faced—namely, recruiting enough tutors and adjusting to shifts in courses meant to accommodate the new online learning. Wrenn explains, “this year I think it has just been much more challenging to find students who are willing to commit the extra time to an on–campus job, even one as flexible as ours, because [students] are all so overburdened this year.” As a result, some of the courses have had a little bit of a longer wait for contract tutoring. She said that “it is completely normal for a class to change from year to year or professor to professor," but this year, she has also noticed slightly more changes in courses due to the new online format. However, Wrenn highlights that the department considers this an opportunity for a tutor “to help a student walk through the process with you of learning something new.” In a way, this may foster the peer advising and support elements of tutoring.
The tutors and Weingarten's Tutoring Center have also been challenged to think creatively on how to relay information virtually. A huge concern of the tutoring center was “making sure solutions they put out were accessible to every student." One of the changes made to training tutors is the addition of “an entire 45 minute section specifically about tutoring online and part of that covers simple technical things … and then how techniques will have to be different for this environment.” At the beginning of the semester, Amy attended Zoom sessions where they went over “what platforms are best to use and all the tutors were able to give each other advice about what worked for them.”
Amy says “it is hard to get things across sometimes” but often writes directly on the screen using Zoom features. Another “low tech solution” is to log in to Zoom twice and point the second camera at the homework. This was brought to Wrenn's attention by a student tutor last semester and now she widely recommends it. Joyce’s tutor uses her whiteboard and Joyce says “I feel like I’m getting high quality, professional tutoring for free.” The office has found also more high tech solutions like "website[s] that allows you to type math equations in to the screen that don’t utilize coding [and] are more easy to use”, a website that renders a 2D or 3D a model of a molecule, or apps with different anatomy models of the body. Wrenn and Patricia Briscoe-Cypress, Administrative Assignment Coordinator for the Tutoring Center, continue to work hard to better the experience by researching and crowdsourcing as the student tutors take advantage of these tech solutions to teach their peers.
In a trying, stressful semester, the Penn community has remained driven in the pursuit of academic success and continued to build a supportive environment through virtual tutoring. I was definitely skeptical of virtual tutoring, but after talking to tutors and tutees, I decided to enroll in the program. My group tutoring has met a couple of times and includes two other first year students. The hour every week really dovetails nicely with the work I do on my own and in recitations. I connect with my tutor on more than just the class material. My tutor took a gap year before coming to Penn—like me—and has helped me with the overall adjustment in many ways.