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Why LTH students succeed more easily in their studies

2015-07-23

Leif Bryngfors

How does a student straight out of upper secondary school manage the difficult studies which await at a Faculty of Engineering? One of the answers to this question is spelt SI; it is an academic support programme which aims to counteract drop-out rates and help new university students to acquire a better study strategy. SI has been available at Lund’s Faculty of Engineering since 1994 – with very good results.

SI stands for Supplemental Instruction and is based on collaborative learning in groups with the aim of bridging the differences in learning techniques between upper secondary school and higher education. In short, SI helps students to succeed on selected “difficult” introductory courses on the programme.
20 years ago, the completion rate for students was a crucial issue for many Swedish higher education institutions. There were courses in teaching and learning for lecturers but there was no equivalent training focused on the students’ own learning processes.

“We observed that many students were alone in their studies and we wanted to see how we could get them to work together in a more structured way. We also saw that the students found it difficult to apply study techniques to what they had heard or read within their own subject”, said Leif Bryngfors at LTH.

Together with Marita Bruzell Nilsson at MatNat, he applied for development funding to study possible ways of working with student learning in groups. Leif and Marita visited a number of universities in the US and found that SI was a model which could quite easily be adapted to Swedish conditions, as was subsequently done.

SI is a complement to the regular teaching on a course. The idea is that the learning of a subject is reinforced through the exchange of thoughts and ideas among students. SI takes place in meetings of around 5–15 students, with discussions led by a senior student. The older student is not to act as a teacher, but rather to help clarify difficult issues within the subject by asking questions, acting as a sounding board, initiating work in small groups and coordinating the presentation of conclusions.
This generates an atmosphere in the group with an emphasis on helping one another to achieve a deeper understanding of the issue. It establishes an approach to learning in which the students involved shift their attention from details to see the bigger picture.

“The students also learn to think strategically and methodically. Group members discuss and formulate both issues and arguments and test them against the views of others. The work is done in an engaging way and you feel a strong sense of cohesion in the group”, said Leif Bryngfors.

Ever since 1994, the basic idea has held and is well-supported throughout the organisation. At LTH, the concept has been further developed, with specialised supervision of the SI leaders. LTH has also introduced several occasions for self-reflection among the SI leaders, who write a log book after each meeting to record what worked well and what could be improved.

“We have also developed and structured the evaluation work, resulting in a large number of published research articles. We have noticed a strong interest in introducing SI in schools”, said Leif Bryngfors.
There are currently five centres for SI in the world, of which one is at LTH. All those using SI today at Swedish, Norwegian and Danish higher education institutions were trained at the centre in Lund.
SI can be used in all subjects and does not focus on a few students; it is open to all.

“At LTH we have chosen to focus SI on courses for our first-year students, to enable them to get going with their studies rapidly and see their fellow students as a resource. The courses new students find difficult and to which SI is linked are mainly courses in mathematics, chemistry and mechanics”.
There is an advanced selection process to become an SI leader, focusing on study results along with communication skills and personal ability. Everyone undergoes a two-day SI leadership training course and is then supervised, observed and coached continuously as long as they are SI leaders.

Why would a student use SI?

“The most prominent reason for taking part in SI meetings is that they contribute to a better understanding of the subject. The participants improve their results, increase their motivation and develop general skills such as teamwork, communication and critical thinking. The students formulate the issues themselves and then process them together with others in a group. It happens in a non-judgemental environment which allows students not only to admit that they don’t understand but to ask for help from the group. The experience of being able to contribute to understand or solve parts of a problem or the whole of it causes self-confidence to grow and you dare to tackle even things you would not normally think you could manage”, said Leif Bryngfors.

He adds that the students who appear to benefit most from the SI activities are the SI leaders, who develop within everything from leadership and management of groups to taking on responsibility, as well as often acquiring a much deeper understanding of their SI subject.

There are plans to extend SI to other subjects in the future, at all the faculties. The establishment of a regional SI platform in cooperation with Kompetenssamverkan Skåne (Competence Collaboration Skåne) is also on the cards. The aim is to reach out with SI to schools in the whole region.

SI in figures:

  • A student with high SI attendance produces approximately 12 additional credits during the first academic year, compared to students who have not taken part in SI.
  • After five years of study, the proportion of students who have obtained a degree is more than twice as high among those with high SI attendance, compared to those who did not take part in SI. 
  • Almost 6 times fewer students drop out among those with high SI attendance, compared to those who did not take part in SI.
  • Among the students who have neither dropped out nor obtained their degree after 5 years, the production of credits is almost 30 credits higher for those with high SI attendance compared to those who did not take part in SI.
  • SI was developed in 1973 at the University of Missouri in Kansas City to increase the completion rate among students on difficult courses. SI as a concept has since had a great impact and become established at more than 1500 higher education institutions in around thirty countries.

The people behind SI:

The steering group for the National Centre for Supplemental Instruction at LTH consists of the following people: Leif Bryngfors, Arthur Holmer, Pavla Kruzela, Joakim Malm, Lise-Lotte Mörner, Ingrid Svensson.