"The culture around tutoring is shifting. Now it's akin to going to a gym. You need to have a plan, and you'll benefit from working with trainers who are there to help you."
Shane Staff should know. The director of the UW-Whitewater Campus Tutorial Services has been involved one way or another for 30 years, first as a writing tutor when he was a student on campus to being an employee, then interim director and finally director. In that time, he's witnessed the tremendous growth of the program.
"When I started we had 37 tutors — now we have 250. And we went from 7,000 hours of tutoring every year to 140,000-150,000."
UW-Whitewater has provided free peer-learning opportunities to its students since the mid-1960s. Housed largely in the basement of McCutchan Hall, the center currently serves 43 percent of the current undergraduate population of 12,628 full-time students - three times as many as it served just five years ago.
"The tutors are doing phenomenal work," said Staff. "The fact that they are getting the results they are while working in a windowless room without air conditioning is testament to that."
That windowless room is about to change. The Mary Poppe Chrisman Success Center, an 18,390 square-foot, three-story addition to Laurentide Hall that will house the UW-Whitewater Campus Tutorial Services, will open on October 13, 2017.
The addition, which broke ground in May 2016, is thanks to a generous donation from an alumnus, Byron R. "Chris" Chrisman '59, in honor of his late wife, Mary Poppe Chrisman '57.
Poppe Chrisman excelled on campus, where she earned a B.S. in mathematics. She went on to teach math at the high school level before joining the National Bureau of Standards and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as a computer programmer.
"My primary motivation for wanting the building named after Mary was that she loved teaching," Chrisman said, adding that Poppe Chrisman would have liked working as a tutor, had the job been available when she was on campus.
In fact, the untold benefit of the tutoring program, Staff believes, is to the tutor, who is not only paid a fair wage but has a unique opportunity to master content; accounting majors jockey over the opportunities to lead supplemental instruction — or SI — sessions because the experience is so useful to their preparation for CPA exams.
In SIs, tutors are imbedded in the actual classrooms, so they know what students are learning and how the instructors are teaching the classes. Every week the tutor prepares a lesson plan with a worksheet or a Powerpoint, which the classroom instructor and Staff review. SIs are usually optional, but attendance is robust, especially for disciplines like math and accounting.
"The national average for students attending SIs is 10 to 12 percent," said Staff. "Forty to 50 percent of our accounting students attend SIs."
Stephanie Nigon, a graduate student majoring in accounting who has been tutoring math and accounting, leads one of those SIs. By tutoring others, she learns the material in "a deeper and richer way, almost akin to an internship."
The Rudolph, Wisconsin, native already has a job after graduation in May at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Milwaukee, and she credits the tutoring process for helping prepare her for interviews.
"Tutoring is about figuring out how to talk to people," she said. "Everyone understands differently. Accounting is a foreign language at first. Being able to explain it to someone and then seeing the lightbulb go off — ‘Oh now that makes sense!' — that's my favorite moment with students.
"And the accounting SI reinforced what I already knew and made it so much clearer - it definitely made me more confident."
Staff and his team work hard to dispel the notion that tutoring is necessary remedial work. According to Staff, some people simply learn better or more deeply when they work collaboratively.
"In fact, the tutors aren't just tutors — they are facilitators of learning," he said, emphasizing the fact that tutors aren't a substitute for classroom instruction and that students need to go to class, do their reading, and hand in their work, and meet with their instructors during office hours.
Shannon Burback, who tutors statistics and psychology, has helped Staff manage the growth of the tutoring center and will be his graduate assistant next year. The native of Grayslake, Illinois, says she's learned to push herself, to not see her work as just a job.
"I learned to take those extra steps to make the operation more efficient," she said.
Emily Leclair, a journalism and communication major from Johnsburg, Illinois, who tutors writing, learned how to "vary communications between nontraditional students and veterans. They often feel they aren't very smart, and part of my job is to help them apply their life experiences to what they write."
Leclair first encountered the center when she was getting tutoring for Spanish, and then tried her hand at tutoring herself. Working with students with learning disabilities has made her more patient and understanding of people with different backgrounds, she said.
"When I tutor I try not to take a dictatorial approach," she said. "It's more like ‘I'm here to help.'"
Both Burback and Leclair are looking forward to the brand-new building and how it will draw people in.
"It will be more like the library," said Burback. "People will want to hang out."