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Rhetoric’s new embedded tutors support holistic student success

An embedded tutor pilot program shows promising early results

swink with rhetoric studentsEvie Swink, a Success in Rhetoric (SIR) tutor in Wayne Anderson’s rhetoric class, works with small groups of students on an in-class exercise. Photo by Tim Schoon.    


Nearly all University of Iowa students take an introductory rhetoric course to fulfill the speech and writing portion of their general education requirements, but only 59% of students who receive a D, F, or Withdrawal in their rhetoric course stay on campus. In addition, students who earn a C or lower in their required rhetoric course report that they feel less prepared for upper-level college courses.

“Statistics from the past several years show that poor performance in rhetoric can be indicative of additional barriers that students may be facing in their academic and social experiences,” says Mirra Anson, director of Academic Support and Retention (ASR), an office that coordinates initiatives to facilitate student academic success. “We want to help students find ways around those barriers so that they have every chance to succeed.”

dana thomannDana Thomann

Troubled by these statistics, Dana Thomann, a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric, partnered with ASR to create Success in Rhetoric (SIR), a new and growing embedded peer tutoring program.

“We have really talented students at this university,” says Thomann, “but they don’t all believe in their skills or know how to seek out help. I want SIR to change that. I want to permeate campus with a growth mindset, to normalize the idea that successful students seek guidance, so that our retention rates are some of the best in the country.”

The UI Strategic Plan 2016–2021 outlines several goals for student success, including a call to increase course-linked academic support for gateway courses such as rhetoric, and a call to increase participation in high impact practices, such as becoming an embedded peer tutor. The SIR program helps meet those goals.

The peer tutoring program idea was recommended to Thomann in 2016 by another lecturer. Thomann partnered with Lisa Kelly, then the ASR assistant director and now the program coordinator for the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning at the Graduate College. Together, they implemented a program that provided peer-facilitated group study sessions outside of class.

In fall 2017, six peer tutors conducted group study sessions for rhetoric courses, but the sessions were poorly attended and students had difficulty connecting the material their tutors were teaching to their classes. Thomann attributed this to the variety of approaches and materials in rhetoric courses and worked with ASR to refocus the program on an embedded peer tutor model.

“We have 42 faculty in the rhetoric department and we all teach the same rhetoric concepts, but how we teach those concepts and the teaching materials we choose can vary widely,” says Thomann. “The question has been, ‘How do we make a peer tutoring model that works for everyone?’ Pairing tutors with instructors and embedding them in classrooms has been the key—that’s what’s working for us, and it’s picking up steam.”

Success in Rhetoric

The Success in Rhetoric (SIR) pilot program helps meet two goals of the UI Strategic Plan 2016–2021. One goal is to increase course-linked academic support options for gateway courses such as rhetoric, and another goal is for 60% of all undergraduates to participate in three or more high impact practices before they graduate. 

SIR provides course-linked academic support for students in rhetoric courses, helping optimize campus environments to support holistic student success. Providing holistic learning support can equip students with the skills needed for success in college and beyond. SIR also provides a high impact practice for students who participate in the program as peer tutors.

Read the full strategic plan, along with progress reports, on the Office of the Provost’s website.

Starting in fall 2018, 17 peer tutors were embedded in rhetoric classrooms. Those tutors participated in a practicum course, led by Thomann, that trained them in activities common to rhetoric courses and how to identify a range of student needs.

This fall, Thomann expects to have 20 SIR tutors embedded in rhetoric classes. The embedded tutors attend two hours of class time a week and coordinate with their instructors on how best to provide support, including participating in peer review of student drafts or leading class activities.

Thomann’s own experience in college was challenging, and she says it taught her the importance of peer support. She is a first-generation college student, preceded at Iowa by her older sister.

“My sister was always my mentor,” says Thomann. “We had one year of overlap here at Iowa, and I think maybe that was what kept me in college. I did have the aptitude, but I don’t know if I had the confidence to be here. Am I really smart? Am I supposed to be here? I suffered a lot from imposter syndrome.”

After graduating from Iowa in 2005 with a double major in journalism and communication studies, Thomann gathered experience on how to support student success. She worked two years for Teach for America and five years for Iowa’s TRIO Student Support Services. Two of those years she served as the director of TRIO Upward Bound, which helps first-generation and low-income high school students prepare for postsecondary education.

Although it will take four or five years to gather data on how the SIR program effects retention and graduation rates, Thomann says the new model already is showing positive results. Instructors report positive changes in student work, and tutors say students are approaching them for help. In addition, Thomann says she has noticed that SIR tutors often assume a mentorship role for their peers, not unlike the support she received from her older sister.

“I’ve found that there’s a lower barrier for students to approach an SIR tutor than a professor with questions,” says Thomann. “Sometimes they want to talk about college in general. Most of our SIR tutors are first- or second-year college students themselves, and a lot of times student success is more about a mindset than skills. SIR tutoring has turned out to be a lot of mentorship—and I love that about it.”

Evie Swink, a second-year English major, rhetoric minor, and SIR tutor from Channahon, Illinois, participated in the SIR practicum in spring 2019 and worked as an SIR tutor paired with Wayne Anderson, a lecturer in the rhetoric department since 2004. Swink says students frequently approached her at the beginning of the semester when they were worried they might be asking a “stupid question.”

“Students didn’t want to go to Wayne with a certain question because he’s the ‘big professor,’” says Swink. “They were worried about what he would think, or they didn’t want him to see something in their paper and judge it immediately—which he wouldn’t do anyway because Wayne isn’t that kind of professor. Mostly it’s anxiety about talking to a professor.”

Anderson says that with the help of Swink and his other SIR tutors, students are avoiding big mistakes, such as misunderstanding an assignment, and are improving in other areas, such as how to structure their papers. This has helped him reallocate his time to focus on big-picture course concepts, he says, and he’s glad that students are getting feedback from someone they find relatable.

“The main reason the SIR program is so helpful is that it provides students with another friendly face with whom they might feel more comfortable,” says Anderson. “Some students, first-generation students in particular, are nervous about bringing their work to a professor, especially one who has been here for a while. I can relate because I didn’t have the confidence to go in and talk to my professors when I was a first-year student.”

Anderson says that because the SIR program trains the peer tutors to be flexible, he’s able to teach his course more or less the way he’s always taught it; he just makes sure that every week Swink can actively support one of his lessons.

Anderson has worked with peer mentors before and says he volunteered to join the SIR program in part because many of the tutors are interested in teaching or being mentors themselves, and the opportunity to support them is rewarding.

tutor evie swink with rhetoric studentsEvie Swink, a Success in Rhetoric tutor in Wayne Anderson’s rhetoric class, works with small groups of students on an in-class exercise. The UI Strategic Plan 2016–2021 aims to increase student participation in high impact practices because they give students perspective-gaining experiences and skills they can use the rest of their lives. Photo by Tim Schoon.

Swink, who hopes to be a teacher one day, says she’s appreciative of the opportunity to gain teaching experience as a first-year student. The training and experience she receives as an embedded peer tutor have made the program a high impact practice (HIP) for her. Iowa defines an HIP as an activity or program in which students integrate learning across contexts. Other examples include student research, capstone projects, and internships.

The UI Strategic Plan 2016–2021 aims to increase student participation in high impact practices because they give students perspective-gaining experiences and skills they can use the rest of their lives. The plan’s goal is for 60% of all undergraduates to participate in three or more HIPs before they graduate.

“SIR gives a different perspective,” says Swink. “You get to learn a lot about yourself and how you function academically, but you also get to experience other people and how they function. Especially as a future teacher, this is such a great opportunity for me.”

Thomann also is excited about how SIR contributes to the education of future teachers.

“A lot of our peer tutors are finding that they love mentoring and teaching,” says Thomann. “We’re getting these really talented students who were going to be doctors and engineers, but they’re deciding they want to go into a classroom instead. I think that’s a really cool thing that’s happened as a result.”