Biology – Innovation Grant

Embedded BIO111 SMART Peer Mentors

Faculty Lead: Catherine Bush

The core course BIO 111 has consistently seen students struggle due to difficulties with course content and a concerning lack of foundational study skills. This was partly visible in the course’s high DFW rates over time – in the Fall of 2022, the course had a DFW rate of 39%. In the Fall of 2022, Dr. Catherine Bush created a BIO 111 and Academic Study Skills Initiative to tackle this issue. However, it quickly became clear that students needed additional support to foster academic skills which would allow them to succeed.  To address this issue, Dr. Catherine Bush and Dr. Erin Cassidy wrote a project proposal to introduce peer mentors to BIO 111 using the existing SMART Mentors format and were awarded an Innovation Grant for Student Retention and Success. The project is based around a partnership with the Academic Achievement Center, The Biology Department decided to partner with the Academic Achievement Center to hire BIO 111 SMART Mentors for the Spring of 2023. Ultimately, 5 mentors were assigned to act as mentors for 3 sections of BIO 111.

The selected BIO 111 SMART Mentors had previously excelled in the course and received additional training from the Academic Achievement Center in academic skills and study strategies. Over the course of the semester, mentors led 50-minute study sessions three times each week. During these sessions, the mentors guided students through real-time active studying and note-taking skills for the BIO 111 content they were currently covering in class. Data collected from these study sessions showed that there were 187 total visits to the group study sessions and 74 unique students attended. Those students represent 19% of the total enrolled participants in BIO 111. Of the students who attended, 4 students came to more than 10 sessions, and one student even participated 21 times. This shows that there is a need for these studying sessions, and that many are interested in utilizing this additional academic support. The major challenge for the BIO 111 SMART Peer Mentor program in the Spring of 2023 was encouraging students who could have benefitted from the program to attend sessions, which is a common issue for resources the AAC offers.

To collect more information about the difficulties students are facing, and where they are most in need of support, students were assigned, or were offered extra credit to take a LASSI (Learning and Study Strategies Inventory) assessment at the start of the semester. 75% of students completed the assessment. Data demonstrated that for all 10 categories within the LASSI, 2/3 of the students scored below the 50th percentile, indicating they would have significant issues succeeding in college with their academic skills. Using Academic Resources was the category where students performed the worst, with 76% of them scoring below the 50th percentile.  However, data also shows that students are motivated to learn and want to succeed academically. This leads Biology faculty to believe that their students are eager to succeed but lack the tools necessary to overcome all academic challenges. This may be a particular problem for minority and first-generation students, who are often more reluctant to ask for help, even when resources are available.

In addition to aiding students, this program has also had a positive impact on the BIO 111 SMART Peer Mentors. Mentors felt they positively impacted students who participated in study sessions. They did find it challenging when students chose not to accept help – mirroring the concerns of the faculty. Mentors described the experience as promoting their interest in teaching as a profession, developing confidence in public speaking and leadership, as they led sessions without faculty assistance. For one peer mentor, these additional interactions with faculty members allowed stronger recommendation letters to be written, and they were accepted into several prestigious summer internships.

Following the SMART Mentor program, average DFW rates for BIO 111 dropped from 39% to 30% in the Spring of 2023. This is a good sign that the additional support being offered is having an impact on students, although the small sample size means that further data is needed. Biology faculty want to continue to utilize mentors and find new ways to encourage students to seek help, in order to continue to bolster student success. One way in which this will be done, is through a campaign of posters and social media content called “Help Got Me Here.” These will present images of alumni from the program with a brief description, in their own words, of an obstacle they overcame as a student and how they received help. The aim is to show diverse role models that can remind students that they can succeed and that there is no reason to feel ashamed of asking for help. Additionally, professors moving forward are being encouraged to share their own prior academic struggles with their students. Being aware that their professors may have also had trouble in a tricky course or had to learn new ways to study in college, will helpfully help students to feel confident that they can succeed academically and that they can approach professors for help and be met with understanding. In the same vein, in the Fall of 2023, one section of Dr. Bush’s BIO 111 (BIO 111-03) will be taught using a DEI-informed partnership with Bri Welsh from the Office of Intercultural Engagement, in hopes of creating a supportive community environment for students and testing additional methods of increasing student success. This mentorship program has shown signs of success, and the Biology Department and faculty are committed to expanding on this foundation to best support their students. This pilot program also served as a test-run for the LSAMP program, starting in the Fall of 2023 LSAMP fellows will be leading sessions on academic skills with BIO 111 students each week.

Want to Learn More?

Visit the Biology Department’s website or contact Dr. Catherine Bush (