Strength in Numbers

Winter 2009

strength_in_numbersEach Tuesday evening last fall, Murat Bilgel felt like a Jeopardy contestant. He offered only questions.

Bilgel, a sophomore biomedical engineering major, was one of five group leaders in a peer- learning program piloted in Calculus II that aims to boost academic performance and foster better student interaction.

The 40 freshmen who signed up for the program experienced the same lectures, exams, and homework assignments as their counterparts in the standard Calculus II class. But in addition they met once each week in small groups for a two-hour session led by a trained peer leader.

“We had them think about different aspects of the problem they were working on,” Bilgel says. “We asked them questions all the time.‘What if these conditions were different? What if I changed this number, what would happen?’ There was a lot of brainstorming going on.” To prepare for the course, Bilgel and the other peer leaders underwent 15 hours of peer training last summer under Regina Frey, a chemistry professor and director of the Teaching Center at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

Ed Scheinerman, the Whiting School’s vice dean for education, championed the creation of the program. “My contention is that for success in science and engineering, one’s math skills are paramount,” says the professor of applied mathematics and statistics. “So many things build from Calculus II. We thought this was an effective way to start boosting student achievement across the board.”

The key, he says, is the roles the peer leaders play.

“They are the glue that holds the sessions together. They help the students articulate ideas to each other. This is quite different from tutoring, where one can join in at any point.
We want them from day one to take good students and make them better.”

Bilgel, for one, knew how to keep things lively. He brought chocolate for instant energy and occasionally let the conversation wander off topic to sports or the presidential election. He also played a game of keywords. If someone said the name of the course professor, for example, everyone had to switch chairs. “It shakes things up a bit,” he says.

Richard Brown, director of undergraduate studies for the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Mathematics and an early advocate of the program, says he jumped on board because he saw the merit of academic interaction outside the classroom.

“The students benefit from each other’s strengths,” says Brown. “What comes easy for one person might be a challenge for another.”

The Center for Educational Resources helped secure funding for the first year of the project and will evaluate its effectiveness. Calculus II students in a new peer-learning program met weekly for a study/discussion session aimed at boosting academic performance. Peer leader Murat Bilgel offered candy as an energy boost during the sessions he led.

Scheinerman hopes the concept can be expanded to include other problem-solving courses at Hopkins. “This program provides two hours of very efficient studying,” he says. “They do more in those two hours than they can do by themselves all week, almost. That is what I call an efficiency of time.”

Time well spent, apparently. On the first Calculus II exam, students in the peer-learning group received grades 10 points higher on average than their non-peer-learning counterparts.