Supporting Student Success: Creation of the Physics Tutorial Centre

Universities have witnessed significant shifts in teaching and education, exacerbated by the challenges of a post-pandemic era. This new landscape has been riddled with lower student engagement, remote learning fatigue, and the lack of social support systems when everyone was quarantined at home. Coming out of the pandemic was difficult for many of us, with some of us adapting better than others to a new normal.

As we returned to in-person teaching, our Department realized that there were less students who showed up to class amidst higher enrolment, less students who showed up to office hours, and a wider range in the academic backgrounds of students within a class – all leading to a call for improved student supports outside of the classroom that could adapt to a growing population of students.

In response to the evolving needs of students within the Department of Physics & Astronomy, the Physics Tutorial Centre was established in September 2023 by Brenda Lee (Associate Chair, Undergraduate Studies) as a dedicated safe space to provide enhanced academic support to students from peers, teaching assistants and instructors. This came after numerous meetings with students – program representatives that stated their peers would benefit strongly from a Department-run support system that serves its entire population. Brenda, having been an alumni herself and had used the physics study room on numerous occasions, wanted to create a formal setup that would be run by the Department so that all students could benefit from dedicated support on a permanent basis. Formalizing this commitment meant coming up with a plan for sustainability, and an organizational structure. Although the physics study room still existed on the main floor, it was not enough because there were students who were afraid to reach out for help, students who were not aware of its existence, and students who wanted dedicated support.

As the Tutorial Centre Director, Brenda received strong support from Department Chair, Brian McNamara and Administrative Officer, Trish Van Berkel. They hired their first co-op work placement student to launch the program in Fall 2023. Their goal was to create a program that could eventually be self-sustainable through donor-funded and work placement co-op students who would act as coordinators and lead tutors to provide support to a wide range of undergraduate students in multiple courses. These lead tutors would be employed full-time in the Physics Tutorial Centre, while volunteer tutors would sign up for smaller shifts throughout the week to help out their peers and gain experience in teaching.

Outside of this peer support network, we wanted to encourage additional interactions between undergraduate students, graduate students, staff and faculty. Before the beginning of each term, Brenda reaches out to all the instructors of courses being taught the following term to see if they would like to dedicate regular hours of support to the Physics Tutorial Centre for their course in the form of TA (graduate student) office hours or even having the instructor come and hold office hours for their lab or lecture. There has been increasing buy-in because we had started off with two dedicated instructors in Fall 2023 and are now up to seven dedicated instructors in Winter 2024!

In just two terms, there have been over 700 visits from our undergraduate students with an average stay of at least 80 minutes and 98% of visitors stating their help session has been useful. Omar Rahman, our first co-op student, has stated that,

The Tutorial Centre proves exceptionally beneficial when there is robust communication among all participants, including volunteers, tutors, and students.

On top of that, he notes that “group interactions are notably more productive than one-on-one sessions, fostering a richer exchange of ideas and alternative problem-solving approaches.” This overwhelming response means that the Physics Tutorial Centre is here to stay and will continue to serve students in all programs within our Department. We couldn’t be more happy, and our two start-up co-op students, Omar Rahman and ZiLing Chen, have played a pivotal role in its success and popularity.

Today, the Physics Tutorial Centre is known to be the go-to place for physics course support. It gives first year students a chance to work together on problems and enhance their skills in collaboration and peer support; it gives first year students a chance to talk to upper year students and build connections; and it gives all students a chance to network with graduate students and instructors to get to know them a bit better than in a classroom. As our program evolves and our undergraduate enrolment increases, we look forward to being able to hire more co-op students and expanding our space so that we can continue helping more students and create a supportive environment of physicists, for physicists.

Donor Fund Link

Note: You must select "Physics & Astronomy Student Mentorship Fund" to donate to our Physics Tutorial Centre!