Research, Modes of Operation, and Anecdotes

Supplemental Instruction’s Impact in Two Freshman Chemistry Classes: Research, Modes of Operation, and Anecdotes

Congos, Dennis


Colleges and universities have employed Supplemental Instruction (SI) programs to promote retention and success of students in courses identified as “historically-difficult.” SI sessions typically consist of a trained undergraduate SI leader meeting with groups of students to refine problem solving techniques and the study skills essential for learning the subject matter. While much has been written about the positive impact of SI on student academic performance and retention, the students who attend SI sessions represent only one of four important components that make an SI program work. The other components of a successful SI program are the SI coordinator, the SI leader, and the SI faculty member who teaches the course to which SI sessions are attached. While there are many benefits of an SI program, the benefits are even greater if a faculty member is open and receptive to understanding what are the techniques used by SI leaders in SI sessions to promote learning. This article will describe outcomes between student SI participants and non-SI participants in introductory chemistry courses with SI components at the University of Central Florida (UCF). These outcomes include higher final course grade averages, more final grades of A, B, and C and fewer grades of D, F, and withdrawals.

Background on the Supplemental Instruction (SI) Program

Supplemental Instruction (SI) began in 1973 at the University of Missouri at Kansas City in the medical school as an academic assistance and retention program (Blanc, DeBuhr, & Martin, 1983). After a rigorous review process in 1981, SI became one of the few postsecondary programs to be designated by the U.S. Department of Education as an Exemplary Educational Program, that is, it was actually proven to increase retention and academic performance (National Center for Supplemental Instruction, 1997). SI was so successful in achieving its aims that the federal government’s National Diffusion Network (NDN), the national dissemination agency for the U.S. Department of Education, provided federal funds for dissemination of SI until the NDN was discontinued by the U.S. government. (National Center for Supplemental Instruction, 1997)

The SI Model

SI is a proactive, non-remedial, academic assistance program that focuses on historically-difficult courses and not on high-risk students. A historically-difficult course is one in which 1/3 or more of those enrolled typically earn grades of D, F, or withdraw. The emphasis in SI is on helping students acquire and refine the college level learning skills indispensable to mastering college level course content. SI sessions are led by peers called SI leaders, who are especially trained to help students refine how to learn the course content, understand course content, and become independent learners.

SI leaders are undergraduate students who have a minimum 3.0 GPA and who have earned an “A” in the historically-difficult course targeted for SI support or equivalent coursework. The grade of “A” suggests that this student has mastered the course content, but more importantly, it demonstrates that s/he has mastered the college level study skills that it takes to learn the course content. A major goal of SI leaders and the SI program is to help students learn how to learn the content of the course in order to achieve the level of mastery and excellence that each student chooses.

Some of the basic requirements for becoming an SI leader in addition to the 3.0 GPA and an “A” in the course are well-developed interpersonal skills, a desire to help others succeed, a willingness to learn a new style of leadership, good communication skills, the ability to accept feedback and refine leadership behaviors, availability to attend pre-semester training (2 days), and availability to invest the required 10 hours per week for SI leader responsibilities. SI leaders must fill out an application and complete a screening and interview process with the SI supervisor. The instructor of a class with SI must approve of the SI leader for that class.

SI leaders are recruited in a variety of ways. Some of those ways are recommendations from faculty, utilizing former tutors, placing job opening posters around campus, making announcements in classes, and recommendations from current SI leaders. After an SI program has been running for a while, word of mouth is often responsible for an influx of applicants.

SI leaders are expected to work 10 hours per week for which they receive an hourly wage of $8.00 per hour (at UCF), but the wage varies depending on the institution. The 10 hours are broken down as follows:

3 hours in class lecture

3 hours leading SI sessions

2 hours in training (1 hour in a weekly staff training meeting and 2 one-half hour feedback meetings with an SI mentor or supervisor who has observed an SI session)

1 -hour preparation time

1 hour to meet with the instructor of the SI course (If the faculty member waives this meeting, the SI leader is expected to offer an additional SI session.).

Claims of SI Effectiveness Validated by the U.S. Department of Education

Claim 1. Students who participate in SI earn higher mean final course grade averages than students who do not participate. This remains true even when differences in ethnicity and prior academic achievement are considered.

Claim 2. Students who participate in SI succeed at a higher rate (have lower withdrawal rates and receive fewer D and F final course grades) than those who do not participate.

Claim 3. Students participating in SI persist, reenroll, and graduate at higher rates than students who do not participate.

National and international dissemination of SI continues. SI has expanded to over 800 colleges and universities around the world (National Center for Supplemental Instruction, 1997).

Distinguishing Characteristics of Supplemental Instruction at UCF

* SI provides a vehicle for acquiring and refining the college level academic skills essential to understanding, learning, and remembering the content of historically-difficult chemistry courses.

* Attendance at SI sessions by students is voluntary and open to all students enrolled in the historically-difficult chemistry course.

* SI leaders attend all chemistry lectures in the targeted class, read textbook assignments, and complete the homework for that class.

* SI leaders are trained in leadership skills, teaching/learning theory, techniques for facilitating collaborative learning, and in efficient and effective skills for learning college level chemistry.

* A professional staff member who has received certified training at a national or regional SI training workshop supervises the SI program.

* SI is offered only in chemistry classes where instructors consent to support SI and agree to carry out the few but crucial responsibilities of an SI faculty member.

* SI assistance begins the first week of class as an opportunity to proactively prevent academic difficulty and to increase academic performance. Attendees acquire, adapt, and refine general college level learning skills and those study skills unique to learning college level chemistry.

* SI leaders must meet specific criteria such as an overall gpa of 3.0 and a grade of “A” in the historically-difficult chemistry class for which they will lead SI.


Many college students enter with underdeveloped problem solving skills for college level chemistry beeausc it is complex and takes a variety of skills to understand and learn. Some of these skills require conceptualization and problem solving along with competency in mathematics, applying theories, and understanding the language of chemistry (VerBeek & Louters, 1991). To compound the problem, many of these underprepared students are required by their major to take one or more chemistry course. This is when college instructors discover that a large portion of these students lack the fundamental knowledge of chemistry upon which to build an understanding of college level chemistry. As a result, if instructors do not spend time in remediation of basic chemistry fundamentals, there is a higher level of grades of D and F. Many entering college students need access to a resource that helps them build college level learning skills, refine problem solving skills, acquire a more solid basis or fundamental chemistry knowledge, and enhance thinking skills.

The Impact on Grades and percentages of D, F, and Withdrawals

Supplemental Instruction has a significant impact on final course grades and there is no exception when it comes to college chemistry courses. Lundberg (1990) found that SI positively impacted final mean course grades 2.08 vs. 2.26 (p

Other studies have documented both the short-term and long-term benefits of attending SI sessions. Gattis (2000) conducted a study with undergraduate students who enrolled in Chemistry I and Chemistry II courses in two consecutive semesters at North Carolina State University. The results showed that students who attended SI in both semesters increased their final score in the second semester, suggesting that continued attendance to SI improves retention of concepts and problem-solving skills that affect long-term learning.

Student and course descriptions

At the University of Central Florida, the average student’s entering SAT score was 1,160 and ACT was 25 in 2001. The high school GPA average was 3.6 and 1/3 of the entering freshmen come from the top 10% of their high school graduating classes. All freshmen must have had 3 units of natural science in high school to gain admission into the 4-year Florida state universities. Some of these students have had one or more of these units in high school chemistry, but this has not been a prerequisite for taking one of the 3 introductory chemistry courses at UCF. Needless to say, incoming freshmen without high school chemistry have a very difficult time with UCF’s introductory college chemistry courses. Even though many of the incoming students have had high school chemistry, many still do poorly in these introductory college chemistry classes. While some of the difficulty comes from inadequate knowledge of basic chemistry, UCF faculty and SI leaders report that many of the problems stem from underdeveloped skills for learning college level chemistry. Many students do not know how to take organized lecture notes, read chemistry textbooks with understanding, possess adequate problem solving skills, develop appropriate self-testing habits, or manage sufficient time to meet the demands of college level chemistry.

The two introductory chemistry courses examined in this research at UCF are Concepts in Chemistry (CHM 1020) for non-majors and Fundamentals of Chemistry I (CHM 2045) for science, pre-medicine, and forensic science majors. Concepts of Chemistry involves the examination of general chemistry concepts that play a significant role in our culture. Fundamentals of Chemistry I provides the basic physical theory behind chemical reactivity, atomic structure, chemical bonding, periodicity, stoichiometry, equilibria, thermodynamics, and kinetics.

In SI Sessions

Students in SI sessions spend the most time on five activities (called modes of operation by our SI Leaders).

Mode 1 – Build complete and accurate lecture and text notes.

When a student poses a question, the SI leader pools the knowledge and resources of the SI attendees to build a complete and accurate answer or solution to a chemistry problem. Verification of correctness of solutions is imperative and is done by using the text, study guide or workbook, or lecture material. Consensus does not make a solution correct even though many students may seem satisfied with an answer.

Mode 2 – Formulating potential exam questions and answers.

Sometimes students come to SI sessions and have no questions. When this happens, the SI leader will get the group to list all the main ideas or types of problems that could appear on an upcoming exam. SI attendees use the details as a guide to what kind of question an instructor could ask on an exam. The SI participants then collaborate to build a complete and accurate answer to each possible exam question or solution to a problem. Finally, information on skills for learning and remembering possible test information is exchanged.

Mode 3 – Build complete and accurate steps in solutions to problems.

SI attendees may build complete and accurate solutions to each possible exam problem, step-by-step. One format that SI leaders at UCF have found most productive in promoting understanding of how to solve problems in chemistry is the 4-part board model. This model is shown in Figure 1 (see Appendix).

Step 1. The SI leader divides the chalkboard into 4 equal sections and records the problem in Section 2.

Step 2. In Section 1: The SI leader solicits and records relevant prerequisite information essential to solving this type of problem as it is given by SI participants. Text and lecture sources may be used by SI participants to perform this step.

Step 3. In Section 2: SI participants name the type of problem and attempt a solution, step-by-step, including what is done and why it is done that way. If they are stuck, SI leaders may model this information based on their experience from taking the course previously after eliciting as much information from the SI participants as possible.

Step 4. In Section 3: A student or the SI leader writes the words for what is done in each step from Section 2. The description of what is done in each step becomes the rules for solving this type of chemistry problem in the future and leads to greater understanding. When finished, an SI leader will ask for questions and get the SI participants to discuss what was done and why for each step in the solution.

Step 5. In Section 4: When there are no more questions, the SI leader puts a similar problem in Section 4 for SI participants to practice and to check for understanding. If students get stuck, they are now armed with prerequisites, a model of a solution, rules for a solution, knowledge of collaborating peers and, the experience of the SI leader in an effort to build understanding.

Step 6. When SI participants finish the practice problem, the SI leader, or, better yet, an SI participant places each step of a solution on the board in section 4. The person offering a solution should explain: (1) what was done in each step, (2) why it was done that way and (3) how to verify if they have the right answer.

This type of board work model has several benefits for chemistry students:

1. It demonstrates the importance of listing and knowing essential prerequisites such as formulas, equations, charts, diagrams, mnemonics, etc. to solving each type of chemistry problem.

2. SI participants see a model of how to solve each type of problem by watching and hearing the SI leader or other learners think through solutions that include explanations of what is done and why it is done that way for each step.

3. “Rules” (the steps in short phrases) for solving each type of problem are written on the board for students to include in their notes. Because rules consist of a written description of what is done in each step, students whose learning styles have verbal skills (vs. quantitative skills) as the primary style of learning are included. The written description is a tremendous aid to these students (indispensable for some) who traditionally have difficulty with quantitative problem solving. It allows students to bring to bear the often ignored (in quantitative courses) but better developed verbal skills when dealing with understanding, learning, and remembering quantitative information. Typically, instructors in courses with quantitative material teach to quantitative learners. Step 4 accommodates learners with primary verbal learning abilities.

4. SI participants are given a chance to practice and/or check understanding by doing a similar problem on their own. Those who “believe” that they understand how to do a problem without verifying it through practice embark on a risky venture. An SI leader should not accept at face value the verbal assurances of understanding without creating an opportunity for learners to test understanding.

5. SI participants see where information cornes from on how to solve each type of chemistry problem; therefore, they are more likely to refer to these sources as guides to solving current problems and those yet to be presented.

6. SI participants are not “told” how to solve chemistry problems. Telling alone is not teaching and typically yields little success in promoting understanding of solutions to chemistry problems. Many believe that for teaching to take place there must be learning. The 4-part board paradigm provides opportunities for students to learn through examples, models of solutions, step-by-step explanations, written narratives, opportunities to ask questions, and chances to practice understanding.

7. SI participants can easily convert information from the board to notecards. With notecards, students can then practice solving chemistry problems and check for what they have learned and what they have not yet learned before an exam is taken, when they can still do something about it. Also, students get better at that which they practice. Section 1 and the problem should be on the front of a notecard and the solution and Section 3 on the back. Learners practice by looking at a problem and doing a solution from memory before turning the card over to check for understanding. See Appendix for a model of how to set up a notecard to organize and speed the understanding and learning of solutions to chemistry problems.

Mode 4 – Sample test.

In this activity, students are challenged to discover if they really know the material or just “think” they know the material. Possible test questions are collected into a sample test containing possible questions or chemistry problems that could appear on an upcoming exam. SI attendees may work on solutions individually or be broken up into groups for better collaboration and mutual assistance. Problems and solutions may then be recorded on the board for all to see.

Mode 5 – Post-test review.

One of the most important activities done in SI sessions is the post-test review. In this activity, SI participants identify where they lost points on an exam, connect this with study techniques that did not work well so they can be refined or replaced and not repeated. Questions that were answered correctly are connected to study skills that worked so that they may be repeated. The result of the post-test review is that students are immediately rearmed with more effective study strategies to apply to preparation for future quizzes and exams.

In all SI sessions, the focus is on the skills for learning college level chemistry. SI participants may choose to go over worksheets and tutorials with content provided by the instructor or in study guides and workbooks. The skills for learning chemistry are applied directly to chemistry worksheets, review sheets, and homework problems. SI attendees are free to choose to focus on specific content that typically cause student difficulties (drawing Lewis Dot Structures, solving gas law problems, stoichiometry, dimensional analysis, etc.).

Table 1 (see Appendix) covers academic performance in Concepts of Chemistry (CHM 1020) before and after SI was attached to the course. These results show that the percent of grades of DFW before the intervention of SI was 32%. After the implementation of SI in CHM 1020, the DFW rate dropped to an average of 9% for SI attendees but stayed about the same at 30% for non-Si attendees.

Table 2 (see Appendix) shows that students who attended SI for CHM 1020 earned a higher final course grade average than non-Si attendees. The group of SI participants had more grades of ABC and fewer grades of DFW. Since incoming SAT scores for the two groups are about the same, one could expect the two groups to have about the same academic performance levels.

Table 3 (see Appendix) covers academic performance in Fundamentals of Chemistry I (CHM 2045) four semesters before SI was attached to the class. Fundamentals of Chemistry I is the introductory class for students in science, premedical, and forensics majors.

For four semesters preceding the attachment of SI to this class, the overall average GPA was 2.0 and the average for grades of D, F, and W was 45%.

Tables 4 and 5 (see Appendix) summarize the academic performance in CHM 2045 after the intervention of SI. Table 4 shows that the average percentage of grades of D, F, and W for SI attendees was 33%. Table 5 shows the impact of SI on the final course grade average and percentage of ABC vs. DFW grades for 8 semesters in CHM 2045. In all cases, SI attendees earned a higher than expected final course grades average using incoming SAT scores as a predictor. The results indicate that the course grade average for SI participants in was 2.6. In seven of the eight cases above, the difference in final course grades was statistically significant favoring SI participants. In the one case were there was no statistical difference, the incoming combined SAT scores for SI attendees was statistically significantly lower at the .023 level. In this case, one could expect SI attendees to earn lower final course grades and have a higher percentage of grades of D, F, and W. However, in both of these categories, SI students earned a higher than expected final course grade average and a lower percentage of grades of D, F, and W.

On a national level, there are similar positive results when students attend SI sessions in chemistry (Center for Supplemental Instruction, 1998). Table 6 (see Appendix) shows national data collected between 1982 and 1996 from 270 institutions. These results indicate that SI participants earn more grades of A and B and fewer grades of D, F, and withdrawal at a statistically significant level (p

Anecdotal Information on SI

Overall, it appears that SI has a positive impact on students in terms of final course grade averages and ABC/DFW rates in chemistry courses. Since faculty members must support SI and agree to have an Sl component attached to their classes, we have asked “What effect does SI have on instructors who agree to have SI in their classes?”

Below are some anecdotal responses from the UCF chemistry faculty about SI gathered via an end-of-semester questionnaire:

“SI had a very positive effect on my students. SI expanded the learning environment for my class. Students got much needed time with a competent resource. SI students in my class earned, at least, ½ letter grade higher as a result of SI. “

“SI is a nice way for students to review the course concepts outside of class and office hours. SI students in my class typically scored a B or better on my exams vs. a C-for other students.

“SI improved grades and study skills. “

“SI helped student performance. SI students increased their grades at least one letter grade. “

“SI students earned better grades among those who participated. “

“Many students who would have benefited most did not attend SI sessions, in general. “

“Statistically, it does indeed enhance their performance. SI is helpful by quickly getting underway at the beginning of the term, explaining SI to the class, and providing analysis of chemistry problems and solutions. “

“Students attending the SI sessions improved their understanding of the subject matter. “

“The positive relationship that students had with the SI leader encouraged students to attend the sessions and benefit from the study skills that work in my class. “

Below are some anecdotal responses from the UCF chemistry students about SI gathered in end-of-semester surveys:

“I would have failed chemistry again if it wasn’t for SI. I usually had a hard time grasping the information when the prof covered it in class. Going over it again in SI helped me understand. The prof went so fast.”

“Working with other students helped me to solve problems. They helped me see how to do solutions in a way I could understand. Notetaking skills from SI helped me keep up with the class.”

“I liked the way the SI leader made us think. He would help us come up with solutions together. He encouraged us and showed us how he solved problems when we were stuck. The SI study skills for chemistry were better than the ones I had. Thank you SI.”

“The instructor went way too fast in class for me to understand. SI gave me more understanding and helped with knowing how to do the homework. “

Below are some anecdotal responses from the UCF chemistry SI leaders about their SI leadership experience as gathered in end-of-semester surveys:

“My favorite part of being an SI leader is watching students gain confidence in their ability to understand chemistry and solve problems.”

“Students come up to me and say how much SI has helped them in this class. “

“Several SI at tenders said that they would not have passed the class if it weren ‘tfor SI. “

“I like the way professors push SI attendance in class. I think once students attend and see how much SI helps, more and more students come regularly. “

“I like seeing how SI attendees’ test scores increase as I see them coming to SI sessions on a regular basis.”

“I never thought I could have such a big affect on someone else. Through SII can see my suggestions for learning chemistry being adopted.”

“I get tears in my eyes sometimes when I see SI students doing well when they thought they weren’t going to pass the class.”


Drawing from the data and testimony above, it appears that SI sessions have a positive impact on academic performance indicators, on SI faculty, and on SI leaders in introductory, high-risk chemistry courses.


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By Dennis Congos and Ana Mack, University of Central Florida

Dennis H. Congos is a Learning Skills Specialist and Academic Advisor at the University of Central Florida. Ana Mack is the Supplemental Instruction Coordinator in the Academic Resource Center at the University of Central Florida.

Copyright New York College Learning Skills Association, Developmental Studies Department Spring 2005

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