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Changing Roles for Changing Times: Social Media and the Evolution of the Supplemental Instructor


Emily Alden

11/06/16 to 11/08/16

The supplemental instruction (SI) model has come a long way from being just peer-assisted study sessions to improve student retention and success. Students now have 24-7 access to handouts, professional tutoring, and group collaboration outlets; several of these services are offered via social media sites. How well these outlets are incorporated into the classroom is now a key component of what makes an SI session successful. With the advent of these innovations, the limits to what an SI can provide to his/her students are far less, including (but not limited to): video lectures, practice exams, and promotion of group collaboration among students. Through the use of platforms including Facebook, Twitter, Piapp, and Slack, the SI session can be held almost exclusively online and provide just as much if not more benefit to the students involved.



Throughout this paper there are references to a few chemistry classrooms. The first being the traditional classroom where the students attend all of their lectures in person, they complete homework on their own time, and examinations are given during the lecture time slot. A Hybrid class is split, fifty percent online and fifty percent in person. The students are expected to watch video lectures on their own time and complete homework assignments online. The face-to-face time is reserved for group quizzes and activities to emphasize key points in the material. Exams are provided in the college testing center for a set number of days. The last class mentioned is the Blended class where the only time students are expected to come to campus is to take the examinations which are offered for a set number of days in the testing center.

While the models we are presenting were accomplished through the use of a professional tutor (hired through the college, having taken at least four semesters of chemistry and passing a pre-hire examination) we believe the models can be successful under different circumstances. Peer Learning Facilitators who are being compensated for their time and are at least two semesters removed from the course they are assisting have the potential to successfully handle both the tutoring and mentoring aspect of the models provided.

Traditional Supplemental Instruction Model

Supplemental instruction (SI) is an academic support model developed by Dr. Deanna Martin at The University of Kansas City (UMKC) in 1973. The traditional model uses peer-assisted study sessions to improve student retention and success within targeted historically difficult courses (UMKC, 2016). Students will attend a traditional face to face lecture where the SI leader is not present. After the lecture students have the option of attending a weekly or biweekly SI session where they can ask questions on that week’s material. It has been demonstrated by UMKC that students are more likely to complete the course as well as perform better than their peers who did not attend any SI sessions.

The simplicity of the traditional approach to SI is appealing to many instructors. Selecting a student who successfully completed the course in the past to host the SI sessions is much less time consuming and more cost effective than hiring a professional tutor per class. As a whole the system bridges the gap between the professor and the students. The SI leader is an extension of the professor and can cater their sessions to the course being taught. The drawbacks include an SI leader with limited knowledge beyond the class being supported, and limited depth of the SI sessions outside of simply answering questions. The major issue, which is later address by the Active Learning Model and the Integrated Model, is that there is very little face to face contact with the students during the lecture to encourage them to come to the SI sessions.

The Active Learning Model

The Active Learning Model is an academic support model that utilizes professional-tutors inside and outside of the lecture classroom to improve student retention and success within targeted historically difficult courses. This is accomplished through in class formative learning and post-class instructional sessions. The development of this model arose from addressing the issue of low attendance at the SI sessions. At Central New Mexico Community College, the STEM UP Grant allowed for professional tutors to be present in select STEM courses to interact with the students and encourage their attendance of SI sessions (STEMUP.UNM, 2016).

We differ from the traditional model in having the professional tutor present in the classroom. At the discretion of the instructor the tutor can answer questions and participate in group activities. The SI leader was also responsible for collecting any handouts and taking photos of lecture notes for students not present who will later attended an SI session. These sessions were held twice per week, typically one before the lecture time and one after the lecture time to accommodate most student’s schedules. SI sessions were structured by the professional tutor but they typically reviewed the previous lecture topics, a practice quiz was provided, questions were answered, and then the new material would be briefly discussed. As I first began to work in a non-tradition classroom my online presence was limited mostly to emailing with students individually as well as posting announcements to blackboard learn. Allowing the SI access to blackboard learn had previously not been explored.

By adding a professional tutor to the classroom, interacting with the students, we have been able to increase SI attendance. The SI sessions are still catered to each professors teaching style but now the SI leader can assist multiple classes in a single semester. These improvements come at the cost of having to hire a tutor with extensive prior education in the subject. The tutor must also be available to attend the lecture class which is can be limiting when looking for a potential SI leader. This model is most successful in a flipped or nontraditional classroom because the interaction of the SI leader with the students is a key element.

The Integrated Model

The Integrated model arose due to the shift towards a non-traditional hybrid or blended classroom where the primary form of communication with the students was online. The need for students to attend class once per week or have the option to take a class entirely online creates a need for supplemental instruction that also caters to this new population of students. It became an academic support model that utilizes professional-tutors inside and outside of the lecture classroom to improve student retention and success within targeted historically difficult courses. The difference is that this is done through in-class formative learning and post-class instructional session held both in person and online through the use of social media platforms.

The SI leader is still present in the lecture classroom, if the course is hybrid, to assist with questions, and take pictures of lecture notes and handouts for the online classroom. The optional SI sessions are still held twice per week. Any handouts, quizzes, and practice exams provided were also provided in electronic form to the online course room. Online the SI answers questions posted via social media by students. Ideally promoting collaboration among students to answer each other’s questions and verify student responses. Also organizing study sessions, mock finals, etc. can be done online. If multiple sections of the same course were held in different formats, blended and hybrid, these students were combined into the same online classroom. This allowed students who had the benefit of an in-person class session to convey information to the entirely online students.

Many institutions utilize asynchronous communication methods such as blackboard learn. However, these platforms tend to have poorly developed apps, aren't as ADA compatible, users cannot easily post photos or videos and the discussion boards have the potentially for too many threads. This results in confusion and loss of information. We chose to steer away from these systems as much as possible in favor of a more user friendly platform. Academically geared apps such as Piapp or Slack allow the students to create accounts separate from their social media persona. The draw of these apps included an individual feed which prevented the loss of student’s questions, and promotes student collaboration to solve problems. These apps also provided statistical analysis features for the instructors to track the student's usage. It was very important to find an app that could be accessed by PC as well as various smart devices so that any student could utilize the online information. Another option would be to use Facebook or Twitter. A private Facebook group was used where students had to request to join the group, and they would no longer have access after their semester ended. Many students embraced the idea of having their social media persona now tied into their education. It was also made clear that making a fake Facebook page was always an option in order to keep social media accounts separate from school.

We found success with this model due to the higher level of aid provided by having a professional tutor present in the lecture classroom and the online classroom. The option for face-to-face contact between the students and tutor was key to some students participating in a blended class due to scheduling conflicts. Some would prefer to have an in-person opportunity to ask questions. Providing the course materials and the supplemental handouts in digital format ensured the material reached as many students as possible. The Piapp was able to track how many students downloaded each handout or responded to each question. The drawback to this model would be the added confusion in having too many access points to the classroom. Many universities require the use of Blackboard learn. Adding a supplemental app as well as an online homework platform created some confusion for the students. I was able to alleviate some of the stress by using the social media aspect to remind students of due dates with links to the correct website to complete said assignments.

Case Study

Here we take a deeper look at the implementation of the integrated supplemental instruction model by following a cohort of students through general chemistry I & II during the Fall 2015 and Spring 2016 semesters. Students were in a hybrid general chemistry I course requiring that 50% of the course materials be completed online. Students attended at least one of the two optional SI sessions offered each week. Lastly this cohort actively participated in the online classroom, this semester Piapp was selected, by posting original questions as well as answering each other’s questions. The same cohort of students continued on to the second semester of general chemistry together. This course was a blended, 99% online, course. Students still attended at least one of the two optional SI sessions offered each week and actively participated in a new online classroom using a private Facebook group.

Of the 36 students who continued from general chemistry I on to general chemistry II (many with the same instructor, and supplemental instructor) 76% passed the course and 85% were retained, including the 4 students who audited the course. These numbers are impressive for a blended course which typically have low retention.

At the end of their second semester these students chose to continue on to take both semesters of organic chemistry together. They have organized their own weekly study sessions, created a google drive to share documents and have retained a tutor to attend their weekly study sessions. This cohort not only attended a study session to better their chemistry skills but also created study skills to utilize throughout their educational careers. By sticking together through multiple semesters the students formed a support system which has allowed them to excel in their coursework. This group has been able to influence one another by sharing study techniques, organizational skills, and networking opportunities and they made efforts to bring new students into the cohort to expand their group as well as they continued on.

The success of these students has led to an ideal two semester general chemistry, or organic chemistry, model. The idea is if students were to begin their general chemistry I semester in a face-to-face or hybrid classroom it would promote success in a blended general chemistry II course. During the first semester students have the opportunity to buy in to the supplemental instruction system, form a relationship with the SI leader and professor, and adapt to using the social media tools of the course. These students are more likely to continue on with another course offering the same assistance.

Future Goals

As teaching continues to embrace flipped classrooms and the integration of social media it is important that the supplemental instruction model follows as well. Improvements to the online classroom through dedicated, user friendly, free apps with integrated data analysis would allow further research into how students are using these tools and how we can better meet their needs. Peer tutoring should be added to the integrated SI model along with the professional tutors to prevent gaps when trained tutors are finished with their studies and are ready to move on from the college. Interested students would be chosen from previous semesters and allowed to shadow the current SI leader to ensure they are fully prepared to take over the role. None of this is possible without gaining support from the college, the faculty and of course the students. It would be wise to begin incorporating the integrated model into established non-traditional classrooms where the instructor has already embraced incorporating a social media aspect. As the support grows the hope would be for the college or university to encourage its faculty to incorporate some or all of these ideas into their curriculum moving forward.

I would like to thank Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh, my incredible mentor who allowed me to be her SI leader for many years and who always supported and encouraged the ideas that made todays presentation possible. I also would like to thank Central New Mexico Community College and the STEM UP grant for providing the opportunity to become a professional tutor and supplemental instruction leader and to be able to influence the programs growth and development.



  1. Academic Support and Mentoring (2016) Retrieved from:
  2. CNM/UNM Cooperative Grant: What is STEM UP? Retrieved from:



Thanks for sharing your work with us, Emily.  I'm hoping you can tell us more about Slack and Piapp, which are probably unfamiliar to many readers.  I have heard of Slack, but not Piapp.  Could you describe them briefly and compare their features to Facebook and Twitter?  Thanks.


Slack and Cisco's Spark are online collaboration tools. Both offer team messaging, screen sharing and video calling. I have chosen to use Spark as my institution has adopted this and provides a license


Emily Alden's picture

Hi Pamela thank you for sharing that information! I have never heard of Spark but I am very interested in the screen sharing and video calling options. Are students utilizing those options are do they mainly use the messaging feature? 


For me teaching Ochem the creen sharing feature is key. If users have tablets (I use ipad, surface or Samsung note) then they can draw structures and mechanisms 


Emily Alden's picture

Hi Jennifer thank you for your question!

Slack and Piapp are very similar in that they are academically geared apps that are completely separated from social media outlets. Once a group has been set up on one of these apps the professor can require that students sign up using a particular .edu email address to ensure only their students take part in the group. Students had the abilty to create posts and reply to each other in a similar fashion to most social media sites where you can tag an individual by typing their username in the comment. This was particularly useful to me as the SI when students asked questions that had previously been answered. I could simply tag the student in the original post to draw their attention to it. 

Both apps were very easy to navigate both on PC and smart devices. Students, myself and the professor could easily post photos, videos, and upload documents. It was particularly useful for the accounts that were specific for the teaching assistand and professor that you could see which students were clicking on any uploaded handouts. The iphone/android app was particularly important to what I did as an SI. I would check in with my groups just as often as I would check Facebook. I would generally answer students questions within an hour of it being asked due to the ease of accessing the groups. I think this is a very important aspect of the evolved SI model. Students are constantly on their phones or computers so making myself constantly available resulted in students relying on the online classroom more than they had in previous semesters. 

Piapp unfornately no longer exists but its draw was that the app had only one news feed per group. This ensured that students questions were never lost in a string of threads. Slack has options to create multiple discussion threads within each group so it is important that students understand how to use the app and not to create discussion boards instead of posting to the current feed when asking questions. 

As many of us are familiar with Facebook and Twitter it is easy to see how similar these apps are to general social media sites. The large difference is the accounts requiring a .edu email address to ensure that only students in the course were accessing the group. This level of privacy can be achieved through a private facebook group, and I do not believe twitter has any option to create a unique feed for a particul group. 


It sounds like Slack could be extremely handy.  Did you have any pushback from students about the need to use yet another website/application?  Or maybe I'm the only one who resists having yet another password to keep track of...


Emily Alden's picture

Hi Jennifer,

Yes, there was some push back from students about having another thing to keep track of for the class. In a typical week our students would need to do a homework assignment through Mastering Chemistry, submit a muddy point (a comment or question about the current material) through Blackboard learn, and access Learning Catalytics (during the lecture for a hybrid class, or any time before the exam for blended students). Another access point to the classroom on top of that to-do list met some resistance. When I first started as an SI I would provide the students a printed weekly checklist to help them stay on track. That evolved into posting reminders to the app on the day these assignments were due. I noticed that some of the students who were initially resistant to having to use the app came to rely on these reminders and would become more present online. Some of them would actually chime in to remind each other of study groups and tutoring opportunities. 

For some of the classes using the app was optional and when it was built into the grade it generally required a set number of unique posts per semester as well as answering a set number of other student's questions. Posts could be anything from a question on the homework to a funny chemistry comic that the student wanted to share with the class. The percentage of the grade attributed to the app was always small enough that the student could make up those points through extra credit assignments if they did not wish to participate. I always made sure that any handouts I would upload to the app would also be sent out via email to the class so that those who were not participating were still able to access them.

It is also convenient that the smartphone app for Slack allows you to remain signed in so that accessing the group is as quick as pushing a button. The desktop site is also well developed and just as easy to use. The academically geared apps had no option to tie the accounts to Facebook, Twitter, of Google+ so yes a separate sign in was necessary but it also appealed to the students who wished to keep their social media accounts separated. I chose to create a separate Facebook account for when I would SI which required me to sign in and out a lot some semesters. Thankfully the password request function does not have a limit. 

I hope this answers your question!



Can you tell us which app the students prefer?  Or maybe their preference depends on the semester?  Is that app free?

And which app do you think provides the most powerful feature set for your students?  Is that app free?


Emily Alden's picture

Hi Jennifer,

I believe that Facebook will continue to be the preferred app by the students. Most of them already have accounts and as a result end up checking the private group more often than other apps because the notifications are tied in with the rest of their activity. Facebook is of course free and professors can set up individual groups for each course and section if they prefer. The big draw to Facebook really is how user friendly it is. Students can easily upload videos, share links, and tag one another in their posts. There is one news feed per group which makes it very easy to scroll through and find older posts or use the ctrl+F function to search for key words. I made use of the pin option where a post can be the first thing students see when they click on the group. I would pin exam reminders, study group times, etc. 

I think for a lot of the students opting to take online STEM courses the option to integrate social media is readily accepted. I've seen students who follow the posts to learn from other students questions but may not be confident enough to ask on their own. Other students would really enjoy promoting group collaboration trying to answer questions. Out of all the different platforms we experimented with I think Facebook created the best atmosphere for the online classroom. 

Again thank you for your question!



Tanya Gupta's picture

Hello Emily,

This is great work. I have read your paper twice and pondered over a few aspects. My question is that : social media is a great engine to bring students together. I notice that a major component of integrated SI model involves using problem solving approach (it is also an important component of the active learning model). How do you ensure that students are actually gaining skills that are often a core of a a scientific thinking model (scientific inquiry) such as questioning, analyzing data, seeking trends, communicating understanding? 

Problem solving for immediate gains helps students but overall in the long-run where are students heading with these skills. Is it a new comfort zone that students feel secure with as they form their own study groups and focus on the next semester of chemistry course (as you mentioned from gen chem to o-chem). What would you do through social media to challenge them to think further about chemistry?

Also, I am curious about the baseline - where were the students to begin with before they started SI mentoring. This would serve as a good comparison and help see relation of retention rates and pass rate.

Thank you again for sharing your paper and it is great work.


Emily Alden's picture

Hello Tanya,

Thank you for your questions! It is not always clear if all of the students really are using the social media classroom to gain these skills and thats actually something that really began to develop during the end of my time as an SI. During the face-to-face SI sessions I would present students with practice problems to reinforce that weeks material. I would go beyond asking the students to simply answer the question by asking them to tell me another way the problem could be presented, what concepts are being covered, etc. Incorporating this into the online classroom was difficult. At first when a student posted a question I would try to answer it as quickly and as thoroughly as possible but over the semesters I tried to encourage the student and others to problem solve. Generally I would wait a bit after the question was posted to see if another student wanted to jump in and try to help. At that point I would either confirm what was said or try to lead them in the right direction. Some students would point out a smilar problem they found in the homework which told me they were understanding the material well enough to make those connections. Another trick to promote group collaboration and really test if they're grasping the material and asking the right questions was posting practice quizzes and exams without the attached key. Previously I would always have the answers on the last page of the handouts I created but I noticed when I didn't attach it right away the students would start to post more questions. Granted some of the time they were posting about the annoyance of not having a key but that often sparked someone to post what they believed the key was and then students could confirm or question that. 

This actually leads in to your next question. Most of what i've mentioned is indeed problem solving for immediate gains. I think the students who participated in the SI and formed study groups for multiple semesters were the ones that really developed skills that would serve them beyond the chemistry series. These students who began simply studying togther would eventually discuss their majors, future plans, their research, etc. I watched as they began bouncing ideas off of one another and by sharing their experiences they could unknowingly be inspiring others. Typically this occured within their study groups and not posted to the entire class. The mentoring aspect I briefly mentioned, that I believe is so important to effectively transform the SI model, demonstrated how chemistry can be taken beyond the classroom. I tried to share what I was doing with my studies, scholarship oppotunities, cool guest lectures, interesting papers anything that might impact even just one student. I think by my being a few semesters removed from the classroom but still a peer was a great way to show the students that these skills do take you further than just four semesters of chemistry. This is something I would really like to see develop further with this new SI model. How do we better incorporate this into the social media classroom? It would be interesting to test a weekly post that asks the students to image how the skills theyre currently working on apply outside the classroom. I think some students would readily take part in these discussions and perhaps by varying the topics more students will be drawn in. I would need a better understanding of how this was acoomplished in a face-to-face setting to better translate it to an online format. 

Lastly, there was some data collected by the STEM UP grant that provided a comparison of students who participated in SI and those who did not participate in SI. For general chemistry I it was seen that the students who attended SI achieved a letter grade better than the class average while general chemisty II it a half letter grade better. There of course was a correlation between the number of SI sessions attended and the grade achieved. Keep in mind this data was only interpreted for face-to-face SI sessions and was prior to the extensive integration of an online presence for the SI. 

Again thank you for your questions!