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Tutoring @ Tutor: Undergrads Help Undergrads Through Final Exam Anxiety

Crunch-time program offers support, solidarity, suggestions, study partners and snacks
Eric Mankin
December 10, 2008 —

Engineering final exams are difficult and intimidating, particularly for freshman and sophomores - and for five semesters now, the Viterbi School has been working to soften the edges and improve performances by offering peer tutoring in the 'stop days' just before the tests begin.

Study partner Lindy Liggett, (M.E. '09) left, works through a problem with Chris Woodruff, ('11, undeclared).

"This can be a tough time for freshman," said Kathleen "Kate" Baxter, Viterbi School director of student programs, sitting at a table beneath a sign in Tutor Hall announcing "Tutor Days." "They're about to take a college final exam for the first time. This is a place for them to come, to be with friends, to structure their time, to receive help."

The help, explain Baxter and her tablemate and assistant director Marianna Kolonelos, comes from fellow students. Part is formal: undergraduate study-partners are available to conduct study sessions for about a dozen difficult early courses, mostly math but also basic physics, chemistry and lower level engineering courses.

The courses chosen have some standards - Math 125 and 126, for example -- but also vary to include some new challengers each year.

The partners have completed the courses they are advising with B+ grades. And they are familiar from experience with the problems and anxieties of freshman and sophomore test taking.  And along with the partners are other young test takers, sharing their worries and knowledge.

Additionally, the Viterbi School supplies snacks, coffee, quiet, computers and support, plus a useful guide on "Taking a Math, Science and Engineering Exam." (Suggestion 1: "Read over the entire exam before writing anything."  Suggestion 2: "Choose the problem that seems easiest. Do it first."  Suggestion 3: "STAY IN MOTION.")

Tutor 3
Marianna Kolonelos, left, and Kate Baxter on the job during "a tough time for freshmen."
Jacob Gotberg (AME '11) was on his way out of a coaching session with a positive feeling. "It was good, partially for solidarity with classmates," he said. "At this point, you can't learn the whole content of the class, but you can learn some useful tricks; I found a way to remember whether to use a sine or cosine."

According to Baxter, the number of students using "Tutor Days" varied from year to year. Last fall, about 125 students took the program; this year, the tally was about 65.  Three offices collaborate on the effort:  the Viterbi Academic Resources Center (VARC), the Center for Engineering Diversity
and Women in Engineering.

Inside the tutoring room, work was in process as partner Lindy Liggett (M.E. '09) conferred with Chris Woodruff, ('11, undeclared) on a set of problems. Woodruff had attacked the problems earlier with his teaching assistant, but the explanations he'd received had been general. This time through, working with Liggett, he was getting details on exactly how the solution worked out.

Baxter  said no figures existed to say how many students had passed because of their tutoring experience.  "But we ask the students on their way out.  And they say, thank you."