Supplemental instruction – a cost-effective educational intervention

Supplemental Instruction

Supplemental Instruction has won terrain in the world of educational interventions. Not only because of its successful results, but also because of its cost-effectiveness.

Izaak Dekker, associate lector at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, is an expert in the field and has conducted research on the topic.

Dekker was willing to answer my questions about Supplemental Instruction and its impact on education. Below, his answers can be found.

What is supplemental instruction?

Supplemental instruction (also known as peer assisted study sessions), is a structured form of peer-learning organized for a historically difficult course in a higher education program.

In addition to the classes provided by the professor(s), peers who have already successfully completed the course are trained to provide additional sessions during which they will help the students to apply the concepts that were introduced during the lecture.

How does SI work?

The peer who runs the session is called the SI-leader and is trained to design engaging sessions that involve three parts:

  1. During the first part, the leader checks-in on the students and asks them to reproduce the subject matter from class. For example by asking them to first write down what they remembered and then to compare this with their neighbor, and then with the rest of the class (think-pair-share).
  2. The second part consists of higher level exercises in which the students apply the concepts to cases or do exercises that test how well they understand the subject on a deeper level. This could mean solving mathematical problems with a jigsaw method or rule-based debates in groups. Mostly collaborative learning strategies are used during SI. The SI-leader helps students and groups of students to solve the problems themselves by asking questions. The goal here is to make students capable of finding solutions themselves instead of simply providing the correct answer directly.
  3. Finally, each session ends with an evaluation exercise during which the students check how well they have understood the subject. After that, they check-out.

The SI-leaders follow a three to five day training during which they go over the subject matter, learn how to design a SI session and learn and practice how to guide collaborative learning strategies. The training is provided by a SI supervisor who is trained in one of the regional centers.

When was Supplemental Instruction developed?

During the 70s the inflow of students into higher education increased drastically. Universities were looking for ways to provide guidance to a large amount of students.

At the University of Missouri Kansas, Deanna Martin developed a solution that would both be didactically sound and that would also still respect the role of faculty/professors.

In other words, she was looking for a way to cater to more students without simply replacing teachers with ‘cheaper labor’.

SI provided this solution because the students had more time to prepare and rehearse the subject matter, while the responsibility of the SI-leader did not interfere with the faculty.

Teachers still were responsible for introducing concepts and for grading etc. Since then many other universities adopted supplemental instruction and a network of international centers now coordinates the training of supervisors for each continent.

Today, enrollment rates have increased even further. The interest in SI has therefore increased strongly over time and has received more attention.

SI research results

Since the 80’s many scientific studies have compared the performance of students who participate in SI with those who do not.

Participants, on average, perform better than their peers. They obtain higher grades, fail their exams less, drop out of college less. Some studies also found benefits in terms of study skills, well-being, and belonging.

The problem though, is that students who participate might be systematically different from those who do not decide to show up.

Researchers corrected for this by controlling for previous performance and motivation, for example, but there might still be unmeasured differences. This is also called the problem of selection bias. Students self-select to participate. SI is voluntary.

The SI study of Dekker et al. was new in this regard since they randomized who received access to supplemental instruction.

Half of 493 students received access in the third term of the first year, and the other half received access in the fourth term. This allowed Dekkers research team to compare students who were in all aspects the same except for having access to SI.

According to Dekker, and I personally agree, this provides the most reliable indication of the effect of SI.

Dekker found that the students who received access to SI, obtained significantly higher grades. The effect was highly significant and relatively large (d = 0.26) when you consider that one in three students never used SI and the average attendance was 2.3 sessions.

In a course in which students showed up more, Dekkers team found larger effects of up to a whole standard deviation.

The cost of supplemental instruction

Matthew Kraft (2020) proposed a benchmark for assessing the effects of educational interventions. He argued that we should take the design of the study into account, but also its scalability and costs.

According to his benchmark, educational interventions below $500 are low-cost, $500-$4,000 moderate and >$4,000 high.

This intervention cost 154 euros per student per term (all wages for the SI-leaders and coordination taken into account). Within Krafts model, SI is therefore a very cost-effective educational intervention facilitating strong results at a minimal cost.

Would you like to find out more about SI? Check out the full article with Dekkers research which is openly available via the following link: Effects of supplemental instruction on grades, mental well-being, and belonging: A field experiment – ScienceDirect

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