Student Learning Center: It's Not For the Lazy or Slow

by Arash Ghadishah

At 5 p.m. on a given weekday, most working people are ready to head home. But on this Wednesday afternoon, Lorena Valdez's day is running a little longer.

She has forgone the luxury of home--and a visit with her jolly baby son--to explain the lofty goals and daily challenges of running the social science tutoring program at Berkeley.

Valdez, the senior learning skills counselor, has been with the Student Learning Center since her days as an undergraduate majoring in English and Chicano Studies.

For Valdez, tutoring her peers in English 1A and 1B was as much a learning experience for her as for them. "In helping other students to develop their writing skills, I learned a lot about my own writing process," Valdez explains.

This mutually beneficial relationship is a pattern she sees repeated with new student tutors she hires. "Tutors come in with the notion of wanting to help others and, inevitably, they learn about themselves."

Valdez points out that finding students who are academically qualified to tutor is really no challenge at all. "Part of the advantage of working at Cal is that I get so many applicants who are in superior academic standing and have excellent comprehension of the courses we offer tutoring in."

The center looks for tutors who are in touch with the issues faced by first- and second-year students, as well as those who can relate to different experiences and backgrounds, have good interpersonal skills and a positive and interactive philosophy about teaching and learning.

Once students are selected as tutors, the center invests a good deal of training in them to ensure their success. In the social sciences, Valdez runs weekly seminars covering a range of issues including basic tutoring and study strategies, tutoring philosophy, communication techniques, writing, working with students for whom English is a second language and gaining access to resources and technology on campus.

Perhaps most importantly, the seminars give tutors an opportunity to share experiences and assist each other with the obstacles they face in helping others.

Valdez explains the aim of the tutoring program in three parts. The most obvious is the academic goal of assisting students to perform to their fullest. To do so, the center has the second goal of helping students develop critical reading and writing skills. Finally, tutors work to instill confidence in students as independent learners and thinkers.

"Too often students feel like they don't bring anything important to the learning process. We try to show them that their views and opinions are valuable contributions," she says.

Undergraduates are offered one-on-one tutoring and small study groups in selected lower division courses. Other programs include review sessions, one-time workshops and drop-in writing, for which Valdez was one of two awarded the Undergraduate Affairs Distinguished Service Award in 1993-94.

Valdez notes that the smaller formats help students intimidated by larger groups to get involved, and they provide all students with added opportunity for discussion.

Despite all the good they do, center employees are often frustrated by others' misconceptions about the tutoring program.

"Some think that we just make it easy for lazy students," says Valdez, who explains part of the reason for the extensive tutor training program is to prevent this from happening.

"We employ a system that shows students they have many of the answers themselves.... Our tutors don't act as authorities on the subjects they tutor and our program is certainly not a replacement for class or for reading."

Another troublesome notion about tutoring is that it is only for students who are failing and that the program is centered around remedial instruction. Quite the opposite is true, says Valdez. A large percentage are work-ing to jump from a "B" to an "A."

"We try to reach out to students who are having particular difficulty, and we do have the resources to help them. It is absolutely an asset to bring these students together in an exchange with students who are doing well," she says.

Arash Ghadishah is a Public Affairs student intern


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