FAQ from Faculty about SI

Supplemental Instruction (SI) is an academic success and retention program that focuses on high-risk courses and not high-risk students. A high-risk course is one where approximately 30% or more of those enrolled typically earn a D, F or withdraw. High-risk courses are frequently introductory science and math courses such as biology, chemistry, calculus, physics, and geography, though many other courses may qualify. The goal of SI is to help students learn how to learn the course content, earn higher grades, become independent learners, and remain enrolled until graduation.

1.  Why is my course called a high-risk course?

This has little to do with the instructor. The emphasis in SI is on historically difficult courses rather than high-risk students. A high-risk course is one that is considered traditionally difficult since it has a D, F, and withdrawal rate of 30% or greater for several academic terms. Across the country, these are commonly introductory courses in biology, chemistry, economics, mathematics, and physics, to name a few. In addition, many of the targeted courses are gatekeeper courses (students must pass in order to pursue a particular major) that are large and serve the freshman population. In general, any course may be high-risk when there is a gap between the rigors of mastering course content and the skills for learning that students bring to learn that content.

2.  Can I come to SI sessions?

Unfortunately, when instructors attend SI sessions for their course, the dynamics of the group generally change. Students tend not to deliberate over course content with each other because they are tempted to ask the professor for information or answers to questions. Students who attend SI sessions are guaranteed anonymity so that they will feel free to ask any question and reveal any weakness in understanding course material or in learning skills. The presence of instructors may inhibit students from revealing weaknesses and risking attempts at answers.

3.   Who trains the SI leaders and who runs the SI program?

An integral part of an SI program is the SI coordinator, an on-site professional who recruits, trains, observes, and supervises SI leaders. The coordinator meets regularly with the SI leaders individually and in team meetings. The SI coordinator attends SI sessions and provides feedback on what is observed, helps with the development of handouts, and provides information on group dynamics, learning skills, and leadership skills. The SI coordinator also acts as a liaison between the SI program and the campus community.

4.   Am I selected because I am a bad instructor?

No. Some of the strongest instructors find additional academic support for their students beneficial. Courses become designated as high-risk because of the mismatch between the study skills that students possess and the difficulty of the material to be learned. SI helps students meet or exceed the expectations of the courses and instructors. Instructors may see that they are able to increase their expectations in the class because of SI assistance.

5.   How much do I have to do?

SI is only attached to courses where instructors welcome and support SI. Since SI leaders attend the class, instructors do not need to provide lecture notes or a content review. It is required that instructors and SI leaders meet once a week. During that meeting, SI leaders often show instructors the handouts they have designed, review possible test questions they or the SI group have made up, or provide insight about materials students find difficult. Instructors may provide SI leaders with ancillary workbooks, old tests, or problem sets to use in SI sessions.

Some general duties of instructors with SI components are:

  1. Allow up to 10 minutes during the 1st week of class for the SI leader to introduce SI to the class and administer surveys.

  2. At the minimum of once per week, verbally encourages all students to attend SI sessions.

  3. Provide test grades to the SI Coordinator as soon as possible after each exam or as requested.

  4. Allow 10-minutes for midterm and end-of-semester SI surveys of the class.

  5. Avoid suggesting that SI is for only those doing poorly. SI is open to any student in the class and any student may benefit from a greater understanding of the course content and the study skills needed to learn it.

  6. Do not call on SI leaders in class to answer content questions. SI leaders are focused on building a model of well-organized lecture notes and are thinking of ways to help students learn this material. Because of this, SI leaders have a different focus than students enrolled in the class and may not be prepared to answer content questions.

  7. Please secure a desk copy of any texts and related materials for the SI leader.


Many instructors find that having SI attached to their course decreases the workload, because SI is a resource for questions on subject matter and study skills for learning that subject matter. SI leaders can aid instructors by encouraging the students to attend office hours and ask questions in class.  SI students are better able to identify areas of difficulty and to demonstrate to the instructor the effort exerted in attempts to understand and learn the material. SI instructors commonly find that SI attendees are more active participants in class with better questions and are more ready to venture answers to classroom questions. Instructors have also noticed that SI students acquire better mastery of the subject as these students refine and upgrade their skills for learning in SI sessions.

6.   What are the qualifications to become an SI leader?

SI leaders are students who have taken and successfully completed the targeted high-risk course. In general, SI programs commonly define success as achieving an A or high B in the course and have a 3.0 or better GPA overall. However, when choosing a leader, the SI specialist also looks at a potential SI leader’s educational background, interpersonal skills, academic references, receptivity to learning a new leadership style, capacity for accepting feedback and training, and compatibility with the SI model.

7.   Why do colleges and universities have SI programs?

A major reason institutions choose SI is because it is a cost effective and educationally effective program designed to retain and graduate students while protecting academic integrity. SI provides opportunities for all students in a traditionally difficult course to participate in a peer led, active learning experience that integrates how-to-learn with what-to- learn. Furthermore, as validated by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE), students participating in SI persist at the institution (re-enrolling and graduating) at higher rates than students who do not participate in SI. SI participants also graduate with higher GPA's. This latter fact is likely to facilitate entry into medical, law and graduate school. Claims of SI effectiveness as validated by the USDE are:

Claim 1. Students who participate in SI earn higher mean final course grade averages than students who do not participate. This remains true even when differences in ethnicity and prior academic achievement are considered.

Claim 2. Students who participate in SI succeed at a higher rate and have lower withdrawal rates and receive lower percentages of D and F final course grades than those who do not participate.

Claim 3. Students participating in SI persist, re-enroll, and graduate at higher rates than students who do not participate.

National and international dissemination continues. SI has expanded to over 800 colleges and universities around the world. For the past 35 years, faculty and staff from over 1,500 institutions across the United States have received training to implement their own SI program. SI is active in 29 countries.

8.   What is the theory behind this program?

Educational theorists such as Dewey, Piaget, and Bruner advocate learning in peer groups (collaborative learning). SI brings students together to collaborate to study and learn common subject matter. Under the leadership of peer SI leaders, students exchange information in notes, build possible exam questions and answers, build problems and solutions, and exchange information on ways to understand, learn, and remember the subject matter. Many of these SI activities are consistent with Piaget’s concept of constructivism wherein students must construct their own knowledge and use it to gain an understanding of material to be learned.

Educational research of Dimon and Keimig finds that it is difficult to teach transferable study skills apart from content. Therefore, SI's effectiveness comes from applying how to learn course content directly to the content in historically difficult courses. The SI Model was developed by Dr. Deanna Martin at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and focuses on refining the skills for learning as applied to specific course content. Study strategies are integrated into course content in SI sessions. Students are, therefore, able to master course content while developing, refining, and integrating effective study skills.

9.   Can the SI leader substitute for me in class when I am out of town?

Unfortunately, no. SI leaders do not function as teachers but are expected to serve as models of successful academic behavior and skills and how to apply these skills to specific coursework. SI leaders risk losing credibility as peers if they conduct class. SI leaders are instructed to let the students in their session know that they do not have all the answers but are present to facilitate discussion of the material and guide the students through the study-learning process for the course. The basis for these skills is having taken the class previously and done well and having received extensive collaborative learning and non-directive leadership training.

10. Why should I consent to having SI with my class?

SI should be offered as an additional benefit to the students: not necessarily to increase test scores, but as a model of good study behaviors. Through SI sessions, students are exposed to effective college level study habits. SI students learn to discuss the course material to increase and to check understanding. They have opportunities to mentally manipulate information to understand ideas, concepts, and problem solving techniques rather than just memorizing facts. SI also offers an enrichment experience for SI leaders. It allows them to improve the study skills and leadership skills that will benefit them in future courses and in the work world. Finally, SI leaders provide an important communication link between the instructor and students.

11. Isn’t it just the motivated students who attend SI? (Or occasionally we hear “Isn’t it just the weakest student who attends SI?”)

Incoming variables have been repeatedly examined and compared in the research between SI and non-SI attendees. When incoming high school grade point averages are examined, there is no consistent difference between the two groups. The same is true of high school class rank and size. If SAT and ACT scores are any indication of industriousness and motivation, SI attendees' scores are consistently the same or statistically significantly lower than the non-SI attendees. In this light, it does not appear that only the most motivated or most academically prepared students are the ones who attend SI sessions. In addition, one could expect that students with lower incoming SAT and ACT scores to earn lower grades. The opposite has been true on a consistent basis since research on SI began in 1973. SI attendees typically earn the same or statistically significantly higher on final course grades in spite on the same or lower incoming SAT or ACT scores.

12. Does the Family Education Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA) permit me to provide exam grades to the SI program? How is this confidential information handled?

Supplemental Instruction is an integral part of any course and, in a sense, an SI leader is a teaching assistant who focuses on study skills. The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) disclosure provisions 99.31 allow those with a legitimate educational interest to handle student records without prior consent provided that SI leaders sign a confidentiality agreement (FERPA, 1988). SI has been permitted access to exam scores nationwide subject to permission from existing campus committees for using student’s records in research. Considering that many SI coordinators are also counselors and advisors and have access to student records anyway, there appears to be no legal reason why SI administrative staff should be denied access to test scores. Once test score differences have been computed between SI and non- SI attendees, there is no need to keep individual exam scores and are discarded appropriately. There appear to be no issues related to the FERPA that limit SI’s access to properly handled test scores.

13. Can I choose my own SI leader?

Commonly, instructors are asked to recommend students who have done well in their classes and who meet basic qualifications. Since the specialist of an SI program has been trained in the elements that make for a successful SI program, it is this person’s responsibility to set the criteria for qualifications, recruitment, screening, interviewing, hiring, and training SI leaders. SI leaders are screened for content competence, effective and efficient study skills, and the potential and receptiveness to refine skills to properly lead SI sessions.

14. Why shouldn’t I know who is attending SI?

Many institutions require an SI program to prove, using inferential statistical methods, that SI participants exhibit benefits from the program over non-participants. To prevent the appearance of bias in grading and jeopardize the validity of research, instructors are asked not to track who attends SI sessions during the semester. Technically, since SI is part of a class, instructors certainly have the right to know what happens in SI sessions. Unfortunately, when instructors attend SI sessions a result is that the data used for researching the impact of SI on students is potentially compromised. This is because data are considered biased when instructors in charge of grading know who is attending SI sessions. In other words, who is to say that instructors do or do not favor SI attendees in grading in this case?

15. Where do SI leaders come from?

This is where an SI specialist can use much creativity. Below are some of the ways SI leaders are recruited:

    1. Recommendations from instructors

    2. Recommendations from current or former SI leaders

    3. Recommendations from counselors and academic advisors

    4. Recruiting posters around campus

    5. Announcements in the student newspaper

    6. Announcements in the current classes with an SI component

    7. Campus peer tutoring program

    8. Recommendations from current peer tutors

    9. Announcements on the campus website

    16. What do students say about SI?

    Below are quotes from students on several end-of-semester surveys over the years:

    Quotes from Biology students:

    • “Very helpful! I appreciate it too. Learning and studying with someone who already knows all of the information is definitely an awesome things.”
    • “SI helped me understand the concepts that confused me and the other students there helped me get answers to my questions. SI also ‘nailed’ many of these questions on the exams.”
    • “In SI, I learned more about the material and SI helped us organize the material into possible test questions and answers. This was an easy way to set-up my notes and to test myself. I learned and remembered the material better.”

    Quotes from Math students:

    • “SI provided more details and a more clear explanation of the material in class.”
    • “SI broke solutions down into steps which are easier for me to understand and remember. I liked the mnemonics we came up with to remember solutions.”
    • “SI provided more examples of problems and that helped me understand and made sure that I knew the material.”
    17. Won’t SI sessions compete with my review (help) sessions?

    Not at all. SI focuses on how to learn course content. Consequently, SI leaders are trained in fast, effective skills for college level learning based on the current research in the field of learning skills. Because SI focuses on how to learn the course content and review sessions typically focus on re-lecturing and rehashing course content, there is no competition between the two forms of assistance. In fact, SI leaders are expected to urge attendance at all review sessions. Much of the content in review sessions can then be used as fodder to help students acquire and refine the skills for learning the content of those review sessions. SI attendees are also encouraged to take advantage of tutoring if that fits their learning style better.

    Adapted from:

    The Supplemental Instruction Discussion list by Dennis Congos (dcibgis@mail.ucf.edu) October 7, 2009

     Congos, D.H. & Stout, B. (2001). 20FAQ‟s from faculty about Supplemental Instruction. Research & Teaching in Developmental Education, 18 (1), 41-49.