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Teaching students how to learn at Penn State York

Alyssa Jackson
505-5438/@AlyssaJacksonYD
  • According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, one third of high school seniors are ready for college.
  • Penn State York uses the Nittany Success Center and courses to try to teach students how to learn.

Penn State York professor Cora Dzubak says today's college freshmen are smarter than she's ever seen — but she also said their study habits and strategies are weaker than ever.

The college readiness gap is something universities across the nation face. According to a study done by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, in 2015 only 25 percent of high school seniors were ready for college-level mathematics and only 37 percent of seniors were ready for college-level reading.

Dzubak said students' memorization skills are phenomenal, but most students think that memorization is learning. They might be smart in that they can easily memorize facts or information, but when it comes to truly learning a concept and applying it in a more diverse fashion, today's students can have difficulty.

Tutor Adam Huffman works in the Nittany Success Center at Penn State-York where tutoring and mentor ship is available, Tuesday, August 23, 2016.   John A. Pavoncello photo

It's for this reason that Dzubak is the director of the the Nittany Success Center at Penn State York. The center offers free tutoring for students and study skills workshops as well as professional and academic mentors. The goal of the center is to help students on campus better equip themselves for college-level work in their courses.

Students helping students: The Nittany Success Center employs a number of students who work as tutors for classes on campus, such as electrical engineering technology major Adam Huffman. He is in his fourth semester at Penn State York and has worked as a tutor for the Nittany Success Center since the fall of 2015 for math classes.

Huffman said he helps approximately six or seven students each semester and gets paid for his work, which is an added benefit. What makes the job worth it to him, though, is being able to help students understand a difficult concept.

Tutor Camden Nace, left, helps fellow student Walter Packoskie with math homework in the Nittany Success Center at Penn State-York where tutoring and mentor ship is available, Tuesday, August 23, 2016.   John A. Pavoncello photo

"It's gratifying. It's nice to see them improve," he said. "The nice thing about tutoring is you see a light bulb go on, an 'Aha!' moment."

The center also has a number of student mentors available for help or advice. Ginia Morehead, a human development and family studies major who is graduating in December, was a mentor for incoming students this past summer through the PaSSS program. PaSSS stands for Pathway to Success: Summer Start Program and is designed to help students transition to college life. The students can take a class or two, begin work on campus and work with a peer mentor such as Morehead.

Morehead also worked in the center as a tutor throughout her five years at Penn State York. She enjoyed working with other students and finding something in common with them to establish a connection.

"I like interacting with other students," she said. "You can let them know they're not alone."

Dzubak said part of the success of the center is the close-knit campus. Tutors and mentors are hand-chosen based on personalities and who might work well together. Because approximately 50 percent of the students on campus last year went to the Nittany Success Center for at least one of its services, individualizing the approach for each student is important.

"There's a real advantage because we can individualize so much of what we do," Dzubak said. "I think it's been real successful."

Ginia Morehead, a mentor and tutor, works in the Nittany Success Center at Penn State-York where tutoring and mentor ship is available, Tuesday, August 23, 2016.   John A. Pavoncello photo

The need: It's important that the Nittany Success Center works closely and carefully with the students seeking assistance because there's a real need for it, Dzubak said. Though not only freshmen come to the center for help, they are a group of students who often need the most help in rethinking how they learn and study.

The Nittany Success Center has a nationally certified tutor training program, so each semester all tutors go through 10 hours of training with Dzubak where the tutors work on things such as using active learning, recognizing differences in how students learn and how to coax them to learn at a college level.

Dzubak also taught a course for incoming freshmen the week before school called "Learning to learn," in which she went over effective study habits and other college learning tips. She said she was shocked at the number of students who don't know how to do things like take notes, read a textbook or study for a cumulative exam.

"I teach a note-taking course, and one day I said to my students, 'You all act like you've never done this,'" Dzubak recalled. "One student raised their hand and said 'Well, we haven't.'"

Because so many teachers are now required to teach to the state tests, Dzubak said most students have their teachers print out their slideshows or notes for them to study from. Students are typically told exactly what to study, so Dzubak has had several students complain when a topic comes up on an exam that wasn't taught in the class but instead appeared in their textbook.

Not only are students struggling in math and reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, but they lack the skills to effectively learn at a college level, Dzubak said. This lack of preparation can result in a poor first semester, which can effect their entire college career, Dzubak said.

Tutor Camden Nace, left, helps fellow student Walter Packoskie with math homework in the Nittany Success Center at Penn State-York where tutoring and mentor ship is available, Tuesday, August 23, 2016.   John A. Pavoncello photo

Penn State York, through the Nittany Success Center, tries to approach remediation not only through courses such as remedial algebra, but also by attempting to change study habits and learning approaches. Barbara Dennis, the coordinator of publications and promotion at Penn State York, said that it's all about showing students they care.

"It's a small campus and people care about each other," Dennis said. "(The Nittany Success Center) is an area of campus you can really see that people care."