Study Lab Brings Data-driven Approach to Academic Support

Mary NapoliStudents at Pitt are smart, motivated and hardworking, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t challenged by rigorous courses and difficult assignments. 

Pitt’s largest school, the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, has wrestled in the past with low engagement in its Academic Resource Center (ARC), the campus hub designed to help students with their classes. Now, that’s beginning to change. 

This fall, a re-branded Study Lab officially launched, bringing data-driven changes to the old model of offering academic support services. And even though it’s located in the same physical space as the office formerly known as the ARC, already Study Lab is seeing far greater engagement than in the past.

What’s in a name?

Rebecca FarabaughThe ARC was known to students. “Professors would mention it in their syllabus at the beginning of the semester,” said senior William McFadden, “so students were usually aware, but didn’t take advantage” as often as they could.

“It wasn’t that the content wasn’t great, but the unit wasn’t doing a good job of communicating what we’re here for,” said Dietrich School staffer Rebecca Farabaugh. That created an opening. 

Farabaugh, a communications manager, and Mary Napoli, director of academic success in the Dietrich School, teamed up in January 2019 to find out more about student experiences with seeking academic support. 

“We wanted to move towards language that was more reflective of the ways a student would access it,” said Farabaugh. Part of that included a critical look at the ways academic support services were packaged and delivered to students. 

Enter Study Lab

Based on surveys and focus groups they conducted, Farabaugh and Napoli knew they didn’t need a wholesale redesign. The only major change to Study Lab’s programming is that it now offers services outside of the office, said Napoli. 

“We’re meeting them across campus wherever they are,” she said.

With Mobile Study Lab, students can drop in to study with other students and expert peer tutors in the Hillman Library, no appointment needed. 

The Knowledge Drop video library is a Khan Academy-style tutorial series—but with foundational concepts taught by actual Pitt students.

Other on-demand online modules provide plans for developing time management strategies, realistic goal setting, how to reduce test anxiety and more. 

There’s also an online chat feature for instant questions during business hours. 

“Overall, our tutoring utilization is up by 55%. Our tutors have served almost 600 students in the first six weeks of this term, an increase of 41% from last fall. These numbers are more than we expected.”

Rebecca Farabaugh

Student-led success

Peer tutors make Study Lab the success that it is. They’re Pitt students themselves who have aced the courses they tutor for, and who want to help others achieve their academic goals. Peer tutoring is one-on-one, so it’s a substantial time commitment, said Napoli, but also a paid position. 

Study Lab is certified by the College Reading and Learning Association, meaning all peer tutors are required to go through 10 hours of tutor training before starting the job. 

More than 60 peer tutors support 35 courses in subject areas from biology, chemistry and physics to economics, statistics, neuroscience and psychology. A full list can be found here.

Because of his experience as a peer tutor, McFadden, who graduates in December with degrees in molecular biology and political science, is changing his post-grad plans from med school to teaching.

Lindsey Maclay and William McFadden “I had been a teaching assistant a couple of times before, but it wasn’t until the semester I started (peer) tutoring that I said, ‘This is really what I want to do, this is for me.’ Teaching is really rewarding and good for me because it keeps me on top of the material, too.” McFadden’s long-term goal is to become a professor, he said. 

Also new this year for Study Lab is Academic Coaching—undergrads who work with fellow students looking to maximize their return on investments by developing personal study strategies to study smarter, not harder. 

Senior biological sciences student Lindsey Maclay is a peer tutor and one of the four new Undergraduate Academic Coaches this year. She thinks of the roles as “two sides of the same coin.”

“Peer tutors and Academic Coaches cover the ‘what’ and the ‘how’,” respectively, she said. It’s the course content, and then the approach to tackling the problem. “You can’t have one without the other. They’re so intertwined.”

Maclay, who is applying to med schools now, is also a teaching assistant for Laura Zapanta’s Foundations of Biology 1 course. She suggested Zapanta request a Study Skills Boot Camp workshop after the first exam scores came back lower than expected. Second exam scores reflected a positive change, Maclay said. 

By the books

Napoli and Farabaugh supplied some numbers as part of the regular data collection they do to evaluate Study Lab’s services. 

Academic Coaching appointments were booked in the first week of the term, and overall appointments for coaching are up by 142% as compared to fall 2018.

Tutoring is also seeing a substantial increase. 

“All tutoring appointments for the first week were filled in all but two of our subject areas, something that had never happened before,” said Farabaugh.

Study Lab“Overall, our tutoring utilization is up by 55%. Our tutors have served almost 600 students in the first six weeks of this term, an increase of 41% from last fall. These numbers are more than we expected.”

Fliers and posters across campus are helping spread the word about Study Lab.

Joshua Wiener, a third-year premed student, peer tutor and biological sciences major has noticed more traffic. Among peer tutors, he said, “Everybody agrees, there’s rarely a time when we get a free hour, or rarely a time when it’s easy to find an empty spot to sit with your student. Even Monday mornings at 11 a.m. the space is literally packed.”

Maclay, who estimated about 50% of the six hours per week she worked last year would be scheduled for a one-on-one, said she’s back to back to back this year. “Sometimes I leave without a voice. I think it’s amazing that so many people are coming to get help.” 

Napoli is also encouraged. 

“All of our new messaging aligns with recent scholarship on students’ sense of belonging in higher education, their connection to their campus environment. By communicating to students that failure is part of the college experience and providing them with the connections to peers that can help them to learn from those experiences—peers who went through similar challenges—students are more open to seeking out support,” Napoli said. 

The early success of Study Lab’s rebranding “is normalizing the struggle,” added Farabaugh. The struggle in transitioning to college is real, but “everyone can always learn more or do better.”