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Studying together for success

Published Mar 13, 2013

Peer teaching is the path to success for new students. They learn the university's study techniques much quicker, which lowers the dropout rate and improves the pass rate. This has been the experience of several schools at KTH. Recently, the Chemistry and Biotechnology departments also started employing this concept. The first evaluations indicate that peer teaching is a success.

SI meetings are a time to discuss things that you have not understood during the lesson, says Viking Flyhammar. (Photo: Christer Gummeson)

“I've received more help from SI than I have from all the other exercises and lectures put together.”

“Now I have a greater understanding of how everything in the course fits together.”

These are some of the comments from students who attended Supplemental Instruction (SI) for the Chemistry and Biotechnology programmes in the autumn.

“By all accounts, the initiative is well-appreciated among the students. But this was quite expected,” says My Lönn, study adviser at the School of Chemical Science and Engineering. “Several studies show that students participating in SI courses obtain more credits and get better exam results than others.”

The study advisers at the school started the courses in the autumn as a way of increasing the pass rate and reducing the number of students dropping out of the programmes in Chemistry and Biotechnology. The vast majority of students who took part are happy with this new form of support, according to a questionnaire survey. Nearly all participants feel that the SI courses will increase their chances of passing their exams.

SI courses runs alongside the regular courses in the study programme. The concept is simple: Led by an older student, the group discusses different issues and problems relating to the course they are currently studying. Together, they look for answers whilst learning about effective studying methods.

A relaxed environment is beneficial to studies

The SI courses are offered primarily to new students taking courses in subjects that are known to be difficult. Normally around half of the students show a willingness to participate. An SI course is not based on grades, which is crucial to its success.

The fact that the SI is led by a student is also important to the concept. It creates a non-competitive and relaxed environment in which the students feel comfortable enough to enquire about matters in a different manner than they would during normal lectures, according to Anneli Åkesson, study adviser at the School of Electrical Engineering.

”Perhaps the students do not understand, for example, the basic concepts being discussed in a mathematics course. It can be difficult to 'admit' this to a teacher. But an SI group is characterised by openness and students have the confidence to bring up these issues,” she says.

Åkesson has used SI since starting at KTH nine years ago. She says: “In a perfect educational world, we wouldn't need this kind of support. But in reality, the situation is somewhat different. If everyone used SI, the pass rate would increase radically.”

She refers to the surveys carried out at the Faculty of Engineering at Lund University which reveal that the examination pass rate among students is between 10 and 40 per cent higher for those who have attended SI courses.

”We haven't conducted this kind of survey here yet, but there is no reason to believe that the KTH figures would be any different to those from Lund. SI is a clearly defined method employed in the same way at all the higher education institutions that have adopted it,” she says.

The breakthrough comes early

Viking Flyhammar is in his third year of study on the Electrical Engineering programme. Thanks to the SI courses he attended, he came to see how important and fun it can be to work in a group, as he explains it.

”If you're studying a lot of maths, it's important to have fun. Otherwise you get worn out. You want to discuss things with friends so that you learn properly. This way, the knowledge is much more deeply ingrained and you can pass your exams,” Flyhammar says.

He describes himself as an ambitious student who enjoys studying and is active in lectures.

”I ask a lot of questions in normal lectures. I probably ask more than anyone else. But there's more scope for this at the SI meetings. We discuss things and learn from others. It's a completely different pace; you take one thing at a time and don't move on until everyone understands.”

According to Lönn, SI helps new students to understand 'the university code' quicker than they would otherwise. Her understanding is that the breakthrough as a university student now comes as early as Christmas, rather than May.

”The first year at KTH is absolutely crucial to further studies. If you don't pass the first courses, your confidence sinks pretty quickly and you lose faith in yourself. From this perspective, SI helps to bridge the gap between upper secondary school and university,” Lönn says.

By Christer Gummeson