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SDSU Program Helps Freshmen Learn Like College Students, Not Cram Like Them

San Diego State senior Kristen Abranjano helps freshmen students during a Sup...

Photo by Megan Burks

Above: San Diego State senior Kristen Abranjano helps freshmen students during a Supplemental Instruction study session for Psychology 101, April 10, 2017.

San Diego State University is expanding a program that's helped more college freshmen get through their first lecture-style classes in one try.

Bottleneck classes. That's what college administrators call those large, 500-seat general education classes students take as freshmen. As many as 40 percent of San Diego State students end up having to retake one of them — Psychology 101 — before they can move on with their majors.

But SDSU may have found a solution.

Last school year the university began hiring undergraduates who aced the class to lead semester-long study sessions called Supplemental Instruction. Unlike nearby test prep companies, Supplemental Instruction is free and geared toward teaching students how to learn like college students, not cram like them.

Student instructors get training in active learning, meaning they use questions and activities to guide students in understanding the material, not memorizing it.

Administrators say two-thirds of students who came to the sessions last spring with Ds and Fs had passing grades at the end of the semester. Fewer than 4 percent of participants had to retake Psychology 101, compared to 18 percent of students who did not participate.

Photo by Megan Burks

San Diego State University freshman Omar Ceballos is pictured, April 10, 2017.

"Without it, I wouldn't be this far in class," said Omar Ceballos, a child development major who said his grade is up from a D to a C+ since January.

He said learning in a 500-person lecture hall can be tough.

"Sometimes people raise their hands. Sometimes people don't because they're shy. So sometimes something won't get answered," Ceballos said. "These sessions help with what we need to learn, and not be afraid to ask for help."

Supplemental Instruction isn't just improving student transcripts; it's helping SDSU make the grade when it comes to graduation rates. Tasked with cutting costs, California State University campuses have been trying to increase the number of students who complete their degrees in four years.

"They stay on track for a four-year graduation rate," said Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies Stephen Schellenberg. "And also just expense-related, if they have to repeat a laboratory, they're paying for it, and we're investing more resources that could be focused on the next student coming in."

When students repeat classes, the university must add more sections to accommodate new freshmen.

This school year, the university expanded its Supplemental Instruction program to help students in chemistry and math prerequisites. Schellenberg said it plans to supplement even more classes next year.

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