Supervised study sessions lead to improved grades

11/2/2009 Charlie Johnson, ECE ILLINOIS

ECE Professor Michael Loui, along with several undergraduate researchers, found that regular study sessions facilitated by knowledgeable leaders led to improved exam grades.

Written by Charlie Johnson, ECE ILLINOIS

Michael Loui
Michael Loui

The transistor. PLATO. The LED. No matter what pops to mind first, ECE Illinois has a long tradition of groundbreaking scientific research and development. But ECE Professor Michael Loui, along with then undergraduate students Brett Robbins and Erik Johnson and current undergraduate Niranjan Venkatesan, made a discovery sure to amaze the academic community:

Studying helps students improve their grades.

But, this isn’t just any type of studying. Beginning in the fall of 2007 and with the support of a College of Engineering Grant for the Advancement of Teaching in Engineering, Loui, who is a University Distinguished Teacher-Scholar, began the Assessment of Peer-Led Team Learning in an Engineering Course for Freshmen to determine whether the nonmandatory study sessions that were offered for freshman in ECE 110 were translating into student success in the classroom. The sessions, named Supervised Study Sessions (SSS), are composed of small groups of students who meet regularly with a team leader, either a TA or competent undergraduate, and work with one another to solve problems from past ECE 110 exams.

While the team leader is there to provide advice or help with difficult concepts, the SSS embrace peer-led learning strategies in which group of students help each other solve the practice problems. These peer-led learning strategies have been utilized in the past in other scientific disciplines, but Loui, who was elected a Carnegie Scholar by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 2003, wanted to test their effectiveness with engineering students.

“We should treat teaching like a scholarly activity. We should ground our teaching in research and that research should be evaluated by peer review,” said Loui, who helped design ECE 110 in the early 1990s.

In fall 2007, with the informed consent of the students, the researchers collected the ACT math scores of 208 ECE 110 students. After final exams, Loui’s research team constructed a multivariate linear regression model that took into account the students’ ACT math score, the self-reported time each student spent in independent study, and the number of sessions each student attended. Their results showed that 43 regular attendees, those who attended 6 or more of the 11 study sessions, on average scored 5.5 points higher on the final exam, even though their ACT math scores were slightly lower than those who didn’t attend.

In essence, those who were naturally more intelligent were actually outpaced on the final exam by students who attended the supervised study sessions.

“With the variables we chose, we were trying to study the difference in performance between attendance and raw intellect,” said Venkatesan. “And when you have these hard facts to show students, even very intelligent ones, you have to wonder, ‘Why not go’?”

But the research team hasn’t stopped simply with final exam scores. They also collected qualitative data from surveys issued to SSS participants. According to the surveys, peer leaders reported an increase in confidence, an appreciation for intellectual diversity, and some found that they had an increased interest in the possibility of teaching. Loui and his team might also use their data to analyze other student outcomes, for instance, whether students who attended the SSS are more likely to remain in ECE as they progress throughout their college careers.

“We haven’t looked at retention too much, but it’s of great interest to us,” said Loui. “There is more and more evidence in research that is showing that alternative teaching methods will improve a student’s persistence and attitude. We know that everyone who is admitted to the College of Engineering can succeed. Now, we want to be sure everyone has the best opportunity to succeed in engineering.”

For ECE 110 students looking to take advantage of SSS, the sessions have just begun and there is still plenty of time to take advantage of them.

“Definitely take it. Go out of your way to take the Supervised Study Sessions,” said Venkatesan. “From personal experience, I can tell you, it’s worth it.”

And, like any good engineer, Venkatesan has the research to prove it.

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This story was published November 2, 2009.