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Academic support programs grapple with ‘barriers to entry’ in a virtual semester

<h5>Empty desks in Frist Campus Center.</h5>
<h6>Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Empty desks in Frist Campus Center.
Mark Dodici / The Daily Princetonian

In their first semester, Princeton first-years often face a host of academic questions. Is everyone putting off their R2s as well? Does my professor really expect me to do all of my readings and still wake up for a 9 a.m. lecture? Does anyone else’s math problem sets take them over eight hours? And, above all, where can I get help? 

To answer some of these questions, students often turn to the Writing Center, the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, office hours, and other programs that seek to provide academic support. But being online has resulted in a new set of challenges. 

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One such barrier is live attendance. After classes moved online last spring, the number of students who scheduled appointments or joined workshops plummeted. Head Writing Center Fellow Paige Allen ’21 attributed this drop to the stress of the online transition, as well as the University’s expanded pass/D/fail (PDF) policy.

“Obviously, we hope students aren’t coming in because they want a certain grade and they actually want to work on their writing,” Allen said. “But it’s understandable that students don’t want to take that extra step.” 

Allen is a head Prospect editor for the ‘Prince.’

Academic support programs were unsure whether such low engagement would continue this fall. But so far, this semester has proven a different story.

According to program staff, first-year attendance is consistent with previous years, despite the difficulty of publicizing resources to first-years scattered across the globe — what Senior Associate Director of the McGraw Center Nic Voge calls a “barrier to entry.”

Higher attendance has resulted in part from the Writing Center and McGraw’s new schedules, which have included extending hours to midnight every other day to accommodate students in different time zones. According to Oriana Nelson ’24, tutors have also offered times outside of the built-in schedule. 

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Voge said that McGraw has the largest learning consultation staff to date, and has offered more workshops than ever before.

Nelson commended the University’s efforts to publicize the academic help first-years can receive. 

“Princeton wanted to make sure that even though we weren’t physically on campus, we knew what resources we had,” she said. She was surprised to hear from upperclass students that they had not learned of these opportunities until late in in their academic careers. 

The rebound in attendance may also reveal something about the first-years, who have comprised close to half of the Writing Center’s participants this fall. 

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Professor Genevieve Creedon, Associate Director of the Writing Center, remarked, “My sense is that … because first-year students are not in close touch with their peers super often, outside of class, we may be seeing students who want a sense they are doing Princeton-level work.” 

Although previous first-year classes similarly sought such validation, Creedon noted that the lack of social interaction this semester might have heightened the impulse.

“They don’t know that they’re all procrastinating,” Creedon said with a laugh. 

In a normal year, students would have more opportunities to work alongside their peers: in the classroom, at late meal, or in McGraw. Students who come to McGraw’s weekly tutoring sessions often see familiar faces as the weeks go by.

“You have around 10 students who oftentimes don’t know each other in the beginning maybe, but by the end you have the same people come every week and they get to know each other,” said Tilmann Herchenröder ’21, a McGraw Center learning consultant and previous head tutor.

Zoom heavily restricts spontaneous interactions. 

“It feels more transactional,” Herchenröder said, explaining that he finds it hard to build the same rapport in a virtual space.

Soo-Young Kim, a Writing Seminar professor, expressed similar concerns in establishing relationships with her students. 

“I’m being made very aware of the fact that I don’t necessarily have a great sense of how the students are actually doing — I don’t mean necessarily in their coursework, but just how they’re coping with everything,” she said. 

She continued, “I think it also makes me realize that maybe when we were on campus, there was more of an illusion that we had a sense of how students are doing — and maybe we never really did, but I think being online exacerbates that.”

While certain aspects of social interactions have been lost, online platforms come with a plethora of tools that have made it easier to offer academic support to students. Functions such as screen sharing on Zoom have made the virtual transition for many tutoring and office hours sessions more seamless.

Before the transition online, Kim recalls many instances when she would have to look over a student’s shoulder to discuss their writing. At the time, she didn’t think twice about it. 

“But now that we do it on Zoom and it’s so easy to share screens, I realize that it was awkward,” Kim said.

Although most academic support systems have offered the same services to students online, not everything translates well on screen.

Creedon identified the difficulty of interpreting body language virtually as one impediment to a smooth tutoring session. She also pointed to the distractions that abound in an online environment — a concern Allen echoed.

“I think it’s definitely easier to be distracted within the conference when you’re looking at a screen and maybe texts are coming up or your emails are one tab over,” Allen said. In response to these distractions, she and other writing fellows have tried to make students active participants, increasing their investment in the conference.

Such efforts have seen largely positive results. In past years, the Writing Center might have had as many as 20 students who failed to make their appointments in the semester’s opening weeks. This year, they have had seven. 

“I would say that for some students, they might prefer the online interaction,” Kim said. “I think it’s important to realize that the in-person interaction wasn’t always easy for everyone before. Zoom can be a little less intimidating.”

Looking forward, Creedon isn’t sure whether the lessons she and her colleagues have learned virtually will carry over into an in-person semester. She does know, however, that in-person interactions trump their online counterpart.

“On the whole,” she said, “people are looking forward to having an office space, dedicated resources, and the ability to have an in-person rapport.”

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