Caiming Li felt excited when he first arrived at UAA four years ago, yet the first-generation college student needed to answer many questions before enrolling in classes.
He decided to major in computer systems engineering and minor in math, electrical engineering and aviation technology, so math would be embedded in his life for the foreseeable future. Caiming knew he’d need to find tutors — both for English and for math.
“I had no idea who I should talk to or where I could find information,” Caiming said. “I went to a couple of years of college in China, but back there, there is no tutoring lab for students and private tutors were only available for high school students — not college students.”
He found out about UAA’s Writing Center and went there — and, later, to the nearby Math Lab — for help: “I was shocked I could be helped free of charge and come as many times as I want,” he said. “From my experience, even professors don’t advertise the tutor; I know the existence of tutor labs mostly by the hiring information.”
Caiming began tutoring at the Math Lab in UAA’s Learning Commons, at Monserud Hall.
“The reason I decided to be a math tutor is that my Accuplacer score in math is pretty high, so it gave me a lot of confidence to apply for the job,” he said.
He admires how math quantifies things and creates models that open our understanding of the world, “so we can make rational decisions toward the things we care about.”
Caiming described tutoring resources as islands he needed to find himself. Now, he’s created a math tutor app as a way of connecting those islands and helping other students find the tutoring assistance they need.
“College has lots of resources that can help and guide me, but I just could not easily find them,” Caiming said. “I will be the first college graduate from my family. When I encounter obstacles, I have no people I can talk to from my family. As an immigrant, I had no friends in the beginning, too. It was a dark time, but it turned out OK. There are lots of light shining into my life, lots of help.”
Connecting students with help
While Caiming enjoys math, many other students at UAA (and elsewhere) dread the prospect of tangling with math in classes they need as prerequisites for degrees in engineering, business, science, education, health and other career fields.
Instructors offer help during their office hours, but tutors are a precious resource — the help of a capable, patient tutor can boost students’ morale, guide them to a better understanding of math concepts, processes and skills and make the difference between passing and failing, dropping a class or succeeding in it.
Shannon Gramse, director of UAA’s Learning Commons, says the Math Lab conducted 6,567 tutoring sessions in fall 2016, primarily assisting students in classes from prealgebra 050 to calculus 251. (A fee-based College of Arts and Sciences math lab is located on the first floor of the Social Sciences Building.)
Working two to five hours per shift, Caiming helped students who flowed into UAA’s Math Lab comprehend problems and formulas from their algebra, trigonometry or calculus textbooks or lectures.
Their questions could touch on just about anything within the massive scope of college math: Caiming might discuss percentages with one student, help another factor polynomials, watch the next student try to graph polar coordinates, then help yet another student locate a vital step they’d missed while taking derivatives.
Caiming and other tutors would often handle a steady stream of students, moving from table to table to white board and back, tracking their time by memory.
“I have been to two math labs and also the computer tutor lab,” he said, “and my biggest impression is that they are all understaffed. I think one administrative problem is that the students come to labs at very different times — a lot of times the lab would be heavily occupied and sometimes there aren’t a lot of students there.”
Tutors would record information about their help sessions on a sheet of paper, he said, “and a lot of time we were just guessing at the number.”
Inspired by the Writing Lab and ANSEP, Caiming built an app that would maintain a more precise record of the lab’s workflow.
“ANSEP has a very positive academic atmosphere,” he said. “I think the main reason is they have a recitation program, which is kind of a weekly study group. They hire one student who has already finished the class and help other students who are currently taking the class. They meet every week, finish the homework and answer questions they encounter during the study. But that service is only open for ANSEP students and classes are mostly in STEM fields. I hope with the app, we can scale the success of ANSEP.”
He envisions expanding the Learning Commons’ tutoring resources to high school and even middle school students: “I think tutors in our lab are capable of tutoring those potential UAA students,” Caiming said, “so it would also benefit the Anchorage community.”
In the beginning, Caiming said, his app was just a digital sheet of paper. Now, Caiming says he has shaped the app to do more.
“Right now, the goals are to show how busy the lab is and when it is busy, by number, so administrators can do something with it,” he said. “A student can find a particular class tutor through the app easily; it can show the location of the tutoring lab and tutors can easily record useful data.”
The result, Caiming hopes, will be more precision in data about students’ math lab use, proving his belief that the labs need more math tutors. He’d also like to see tutors available for students taking classes in aviation, economics, music, psychology, anthropology and other topics: “And every professor can put the link of the app on their syllabus,” he said.
Looking to future needs
Gramse praised Caiming’s work, which received UAA Community & Technical College funding to hire other students to finish the project over the summer.
“We’re using it right now in the math lab as a pilot this semester,” he said. “Tutors can use their phones, check in, log in as they’re working with people. This helps students’ ability to find resources when they most need them.”
Math lab managers can use the app to access real-time information about their tutoring resources, the number of students visiting the lab, and what those students want — creating a more precise record they can use to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses, justify funding requests and lay groundwork for the future.
“It’s date-stamping everything,” Gramse said. “Let’s say you’re looking for an algebra tutor. By logging that request, we’ll know someone was interested in algebra at 1 o’clock on Friday. We can watch that data and respond accordingly.”
Gramse added: “What’s so exciting about this is that it’s a student-led grassroots project. You’re talking about encouraging students academically in a powerful way — connecting them with peer educators and helping them become a member of a learning community.”
The app could offer not only a low-cost way for UAA to effectively manage and allocate critically important math lab resources, but fulfill UAA 2020 goals by removing barriers to student success, increasing student retention and graduating more students to fill Alaska’s needs.
“I believe this app can inexpensively transform UAA into a better place to learn for students,” Caiming said.
Written by Tracy Kalytiak, University of Alaska Anchorage