Students taking the one-credit course, called SAIL fellows, will engage with student groups on campus to teach them principles for improved learning.
Students taking the one-credit course, called SAIL fellows, will engage with student groups on campus to teach them principles for improved learning.

SAIL Program to Focus on Improving Student Learning Techniques

It's called Student Advocates for Improved Learning, and it will use UA students to teach other students in the best practices for learning and studying.
Aug. 31, 2016

Highlighting with a pen, as a form of studying, is now a thing of the past. At least, according to more and more research, it should be. Studies show that the way students are learning and studying isn't as effective as it once was thought to be.

The University of Arizona's new SAIL program, which stands for Student Advocates for Improved Learning, is set to change that by equipping a group of students with the right learning tools. Those student then will go into the UA student community and coach other students on key learning strategies.

"The science of learning tells us that there are good ways and not-so-good ways to learn, and unfortunately a lot of students use strategies that aren't terribly effective," said Jane Hunter, director of academic resources and special projects with the Office of Academic Affairs. "So, what we're trying to do is get that message out. The way we can do that is by using students, because they can communicate with their peers many times more effectively than we as instructors can communicate with them. That's our strategy."

The idea for the program came from a book, "Make It Stick," which offers techniques for more productive learning and studying. The book provides information about  learning techniques that enable students to retain more information for the long haul instead of retaining to cram for a test.

Gail Burd, senior vice provost for academic affairs, worked on getting the UA Learning Initiative — which the SAIL program is part of — approved by the Higher Learning Commission. The initiative includes both faculty and student components, which Burd thinks is important.

"I think the program was needed because we realized that teaching faculty to be better teachers is only half the story," Burd said. "One really needs to work with the students to help them be better learners."

The students who are enrolled in the course will be called SAIL fellows and will be taught by Debra Tomanek, professor in molecular and cellular biology, along with Hunter. The course will include instruction on techniques that are mentioned in "Make It Stick."

Some of the key principles to improve student learning that the SAIL fellows will be focused on are self-quizzing, connecting concepts, engaging during class, collaborating with peers, explaining concepts with peers and spacing out study sessions. (Watch this video to learn more about some of the concepts the SAIL fellows will be emphasizing.)

After the SAIL fellows are prepared, they will collaborate with different departments and groups on campus, and work closely with the faculty fellows to reach students who would benefit from knowing how to improve their learning and studying. John Pollard, associate professor of practice in chemistry and biochemistry, will play a key role, serving as faculty fellow for the SAIL program.

"We're trying to create a group of students who can both advocate for, and be successful in, communicating the importance of using these principles of learning that we know work," Tomanek said.

The hope is that the SAIL fellows will reach a variety of student groups, getting the word out about better learning and study habits in a campuswide effort.

"We want our students to be expert learners, and that means knowing more about how learning happens," Tomanek said.