Academic student support is not new to WGU Teachers College, whose non-profit, competency-based, mastery-based model has offered more than 63,000 graduates individualized support across their academic journeys in the past two decades. During those 20 years, new support centers, methods, research, projects, applications, and scaffolding have been added to create a robust and holistic Community of Care for each student, supporting them no matter where they are on their journey.
Before diving into the support model’s latest offering of a web-based Study Hall, it’s important to understand WGU offers a unique specialized faculty model where experts – most with terminal degrees – offer support in one of three ways: (1) as an instructor in a course, (2) as an impartial assessment and evaluation faculty member (read more here about this model), or (3) as a program mentor. The mentor model is unique to WGU though many universities are working to replicate it. The program mentor is assigned to the student before the student starts the first course in their degree path and continues to meet virtually with that student every week or two until the student graduates. Deep understanding and bonds are created that allow the mentor to provide coaching, mentoring, advice, structure, and friendship to the students they support. Mentors also provide essential feedback to both the academic and operations side of the college as the “eyes and ears” of what students are needing, using, and benefitting from the most.
To see the profound strength of this bond, attend any of WGU’s many in person commencements and watch mentors and students embrace like long lost family!
For years, course instructors have offered WGU students the equivalent of brick and mortar’s faculty ‘office hours’ but with much more flexibility given WGU’s devotion to personalized learning and flexible scheduling. Unlike traditional colleges’ fixed weekly office hours, Teachers College students can reach out to any of their instructors for 1:1 support, on-demand. Instructor availability is based around student need, and so our students receive a timely response and appointment scheduling, including on weekends and weeknights. Furthermore, our instructors do not merely respond to requests, but they proactively reach out to students based on assessment outcomes and course engagement. Yet despite this ample access to faculty instruction and 24/7 access to learning resources, mentors still recognized opportunities to increase academic and community engagement. Excited for new avenues for peer and faculty interaction, they decided to create a place students could study together with other students, removed from the noise of their busy lives beyond school. Enter the WGU Teachers College Study Hall.
Launched in fall 2021, the web-based study hall concept was initially tested in small pockets and quickly grew to a college-wide offering. The Study Hall is a program mentor-facilitated forum where students come to study, and when needed or desired, can request to be routed to further instructional support in many ways from 1:1 with a course instructor, small group live online tutoring, or assistance with navigating to the best learning resources – all available as part of their flat rate tuition. Today, the WGU Teachers College offers more than 50 hours of mentor-hosted open study hall a week, seven days a week ranging from early morning to night.
“This is a very exciting step forward for our students as well as the mentors and instructors who are offering up their hours to support this initiative,” said Heather Roche, Senior Manager, Program Mentoring Faculty.
“In recent years, when instructors saw certain topics were tough for students, they would often host a webinar to walk students through a specific aspect of that course. But this initiative takes it to the next level.”
Students can drop into any of the open Study Hall sessions they want via a web link provided by their personal mentor and come back as often or as seldom as they need and want. Since launching the program late in 2021, the college has offered more than 5,000 hours of hosted study hall sessions to students.
“The actual study hall ‘room’ (or web meeting) is a surprisingly quiet place, says Joe Spalding, Director of Operations, Elementary and Special Education. “When I joined to observe it, I could see activity on chat, but I was a bit surprised because you’re used to hearing a lot of talk when you see all these faces on camera, and it was very quiet. The thing the students have pointed out to me is that’s exactly what they wanted – a chance to come together to have a quiet hour or two whenever they need to focus on their studies without interruption from work or family. Since the pandemic, we’ve all been trained to understand when we see someone at a computer with faces on screen, we know that person is in a meeting, and we should not disturb them. I’m hearing from students this gives them that space and grace to study without interruption.”
It may be helpful to think of a traditional/brick and mortar comparison of a campus library. Students walk in and can see other students who look like them. They can have a quiet place to study. And, in an improvement over the ground-based library, the virtual study hall offers a visual normalization of asking for help. Often at traditional colleges and universities, the students who would most benefit from academic support don’t seek it out because of a perceived stigma. The same can be true in online learning environments if it’s not woven into the mix via learning experience design that puts students at the center of the instruction.
“In these study halls, a student can ‘raise their hand’ and the mentor reaches out via chat to see what they need.
They can say they are having trouble with a certain concept and the mentor hosting that session will connect them in real time with resources or people to help. Additionally, it’s common to see students drop a message in chat that says, ‘I’m stepping out to meet with my instructor, be right back!’ This socialization of seeking support shows all students it’s a good and normal thing to ask for help,” said Roche.
As a former provost and academic vice president at a state institution in Florida, current Teachers College mentor, Dr. Michelle McCraney admits she is extraordinarily passionate about academic support services. She’s becoming active in the Study Halls as one of many mentor hosts. “As students drop in, they chat what they're working on, and I welcome each one. I monitor the chat closely. We have course instructors who come to our team meetings and give us tips on their courses. If I see a student say ‘I need a little motivation’ or ‘I'm having a hard time with this’ I'll message the student privately and send some course tips, direct them to resources or help them connect with an instructor. Bottom line is we want every student to know all of us are here for them no matter who their mentor or course instructors are,” said McCraney.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of providing some extra emotional or psychological support. “I had one student reach back to me after a private message I sent her to be sure my encouragement was meant for her,” said McCraney. “I said yes, of course it was. She was so tickled that I cared enough to see her comment and reach out to her privately to cheer her on as she prepared for an upcoming assessment. You know sometimes, that’s all it takes to get a student past a roadblock.”
Another advantage to the peer groupings, is mentors see students who have attended previously frequently return to their next session and post messages like,” after my study hall session last week I went and took my assessment and nailed it,” or “after my session last week I was able to complete and turn in that task…one step closer to my degree.” When students post these messages, other students chime in with support, cheering them ever onward. The chat functionality gives students a place to chat their achievements and support each other, creating the sense of community many were asking for without the noise of a live group conversation.
One student – Myra – has participated in more than 80 of these sessions. “Study hall is a great place to study and focus on your specific goals for each session. I really like that you have the choice to be on camera. Some days I feel braver than others. I increase my chances of meeting my goals for each session when I let others know my goal. I also like that when I fill out the attendance form, a copy is emailed to my mentor to keep her updated. Everyone is always so uplifting when you are going through a tough class. Everyone also gets really happy and excited when you accomplish something too!”
Program mentors are now weaving the study hall into their welcome conversations with new students. In the early 1:1 calls mentors have they often ask students when they will study each week, what support they have at home, how they’ve planned their life and work to allow for time during the day or night (their choice) to do their studies. Then, once they see the student’s schedule, they can overlay that with study hall session offerings and suggest the student take some of that time and study directly in the study hall. It eliminates procrastination and distraction and helps students not only get ahead academically but also feel part of a community.
The initiative is seeing broad adoption. “I’m hearing from instructors in the Math Center that they want to come into study hall to be available to help students, so we’ll have them at various times of the day throughout the week,” said Roche. “And I had a math course instructor contact me just today. She’s been joining on Fridays and Saturdays to help students and it’s been so successful she wants to join at least an hour a day every day to be available for questions on demand.” Some mentors host sessions at various times throughout the week with the students they support so those students can meet peers in the same program.
In addition to the study hall and breakout rooms for specific course instructors and mentors, some study halls also have ‘study break’ rooms where students can go to take a short break, go on camera, and just visit with each other.
While this is not emphasized because the impetus of this initiative is to give busy students academic support and study time, WGU recognizes students also need time to just connect with each other, decompress from busy lives and feel part of the whole.
Dr. Mark David Milliron, WGU SVP and Executive Dean of the Teacher College shares the enthusiasm among faculty and students for the Study Hall. “I’m very interested in studying the outcomes of this new way of scaffolding support to our students,” said Milliron. “It demonstrates so clearly a way to achieve the twin goals of building belonging and community while also offering just-in-time academic support. Students are showing us in no uncertain terms that this is meeting a need in their lives and their learning experience journey here in the Teachers College.”