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Academic Support Services Achieve Virtual Success

screenshot of cadets on a Zoom call

Cadets in History 103 gather virtually for a group study session, joined by Qingfei Yin, Ph.D., and Maj. Liz Schroepfer, Ph.D.. Photo courtesy of Lt. Col. Denise Young, Ph.D..

Like every other aspect of life at VMI, academic support services have had to figure out the COVID-19 environment this fall. Largely, this has meant finding ways to offer personalized services in an online-only format.

“Everything’s being done virtually, but we’re still trying to keep all of the services we’ve always offered,” noted Lt. Col. Denise Young, Ph.D., director of the Miller Academic Center, which helps cadets achieve academic success.

This fall, the MAC has offered its usual full complement of group study sessions, which are organized for cadets in a particular class and led by a cadet who’s successfully completed that class—and sometimes a faculty member as well. Some of the group study sessions are offered via Zoom and others via Microsoft Teams, with the choice made by the group leader.

The MAC has also introduced a new concept this fall: Academic coaching. This service, Young explained, is aimed at cadets who may be having trouble with the skills that undergird college academics, such as time management and making a study plan for the week. There are five academic coaches, all cadets from a wide variety of majors, who are paired with a small number of cadets needing help.

“This allows them to have that one-on-one support and someone to hold them accountable if they need someone to check in a little bit more often,” said Young.

Most often, she added, cadets receive guidance from a peer better than they would from someone significantly older than themselves—thus it’s a wise idea to have cadets who are strong academically help others who may be struggling.

Young reported that while the number of cadets getting help from the MAC was down early in the semester, that number was rising by early November.

“Part of it is getting cadets to understand that this is going to be the way for a while,” she commented, referring to the online learning environment. “I’m pleased with our numbers because we’re getting to the point that this is familiar and cadets are growing more comfortable with it.”

At the Writing Center, cadets have also been adapting to virtual sessions with helpers, known there as consultants. Lt. Col. Steve Knepper, Ph.D., the Writing Center’s interim director, praised those consultants, a mix of cadets and professional writers, as “absolutely cadet-centered and enthusiastic and adaptable” in their transition to an online environment.

Thankfully, he noted, the software platform the Writing Center uses, WCONLINE, has a built-in online consultation feature, and it also integrates with Zoom.

“Both of them allow you to share a paper,” Knepper explained. “The nice thing about Zoom is that it has a true screen share feature, so it makes it really easy to switch between an assignment sheet and an essay draft.”

To access the Writing Center’s services, cadets make appointments online, and can do so at any stage of the writing process, from brainstorming for ideas to polishing a final draft. All of the Writing Center’s consultants are trained to assist cadets without violating VMI’s work for grade policy.

Not being able to walk in for help hasn’t kept cadets from seeking out the Writing Center’s services. Knepper said that appointments have been “steady” in number this fall, with cadets looking to improve their writing mostly in the humanities, but also in the social sciences and sometimes the hard sciences as well, in which lab reports are a staple.

Cadets have responded so well to the Writing Center’s online platform that Knepper may recommend keeping online appointments as an option even after the pandemic ends, especially on evenings and Sunday afternoons.

“It doesn’t seem to hurt to give cadets more options,” he commented.

At the Open Math Lab, also known as the Mathematics Education Resource Center, Capt. Kristi Brown, tutor supervisor, says that while the number of cadets seeking assistance this fall has dropped somewhat, the quality of the interactions seems to have risen.

Brown thinks this is likely connected to the online environment, in which cadets are forced to pay attention constantly. When Brown is tutoring a cadet, she uses a tablet with a stylus so she can “write” on the cadet’s paper.

“I basically have them talk me through what I should write, and I’ll write what they tell me to write,” she explained.

“Honestly, they have to focus more on what they’re writing, what they’re saying,” she continued. “They have to be more precise because they have to communicate it to someone else who is then trying to help them.”

Col. Troy Siemers, Ph.D., director of the OML, thinks that the number of cadets seeking help might be down because cadets can now schedule a Zoom session directly with the professor who teaches their class rather than come to the OML. He’s been interacting with cadets in this manner himself, sometimes in the evenings and on weekends.

“The numbers might be down, but so what?’ he commented. “If it’s two or three times the quality, it balances out.”

  • Mary Price VMI Communications and Marketing