Supplemental Instruction: A Guide for Academic Advisers

Kristin A. Abbe, University of South Carolina

Editor's note: This is the ninth in a series of articles written by graduate students enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's student affairs administration course at the University of South Carolina for the fall 2009 semester. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publication for consideration.

Advisers strive to keep up to date on campus and community resources that are available to students. Advisers typically refer students to a wide variety of campus resources, including financial aid, counseling, tutoring, career advising, etc. Another campus resource that is increasingly popular on many college campuses is supplemental instruction (SI). Supplemental instruction is a proactive program designed to support students�usually in their first year�during introductory courses in which they historically earn Ds, Fs, and withdrawals (DFW rates). Although they may be familiar with supplemental instruction in general, many advisers are unaware of the reasons so many schools have SI programs. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to give an overview of supplemental instruction, share some of the data about its effectiveness, as well as provide specific tips on encouraging students to attend SI.

History of Supplemental Instruction

Supplemental instruction began at the University of Missouri�Kansas City (UMKC) in 1973 (Martin, Arendale, & Associates, 1993). The initial goal of the program was to decrease the high attrition rate of students enrolled in UMKC�s medical and dental schools. These students were experiencing high failure and withdrawal rates in their introductory science courses. Deanna Martin, a doctoral student in education, received a grant to create a program that would support these students and fix this retention problem. With the grant money, Martin created the first supplemental instruction program, and the early results were encouraging; the percentage of top grades increased and the number of withdrawals decreased (Stone & Jacobs, 2008).

The program hires supplemental instruction leaders who will offer weekly sessions for students to attend. SI leaders go through a hiring process and are selected based on previously having excelled in the course and demonstrating interpersonal skills. There is no cap on the number of students allowed to attend, ranging from a couple of students to hundreds of students at one session. There are usually three sessions a week facilitated by SI leaders who are monitored by supervisors. SI leaders promote learning by utilizing collaborative learning techniques they learn in required training rather than strictly repeating what a professor presents in class. In 1981, the SI program, along with only a few other postsecondary programs, was validated by the U.S. Department of Education when SI was named an Exemplary Educational Program (Martin, Arendale, & Associates, 1993).

Today's Supplemental Instruction Programs

Since then, institutions all over the country have received grants or some kind of financial support to implement their own SI programs. Institutions have received funding through external sources such as Title III, Special Services, and the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. Internal reallocation by higher education institutions has also helped to fund SI programs (Martin, Arendale, & Associates, 1993).

Most institutions� supplemental instruction programs focus on introductory courses that typically enroll first-year students. Examples of these classes would be introductory science, math, and psychology courses. Most institutions select courses for SI based on their DFW percentage rates. Stone and Jacobs (2008) found that courses with DFW rates around 30 percent are likely candidates for SI support. These supplemental sessions are not just open to students who may be struggling academically. They are also open to students who perform well but choose to attend SI to ask questions, double-check their work, and/or confirm that they understand the material. SI serves a multitude of student groups, including first generation, underrepresented populations, adult learners, and scholarship students. At most institutions, anyone enrolled in an introductory course can attend SI.

How Do Student's Benefit from SI?

Stone and Jacobs (2008) found a number of benefits to students participating in SI. For example, SI students are less likely to earn grades of D or F or withdraw and are more likely to earn higher final grades than students who do not participate in SI, and their institutions are more likely to retain them.

Although there are not many research studies focusing on benefits to the students who serve as SI leaders, some studies have shown that SI increases communication skills, faculty interaction, and knowledge of the material (Stone & Jacobs, 2008).

The University of South Carolina (USC) Columbia has had a successful supplemental instruction program for approximately five years. In fall 2004, USC analyzed the grades earned in all of the introductory courses, including the DFW rates, to discover which classes would benefit most from adding an SI leader. The results identified twelve introductory courses with DFW rates of 30 percent or higher and an additional ten courses with DFW rates close to the 30 percent mark. Six courses (CHEM 112, MATH 141, BIOL 101, BIOL 102, CSCE 145, and MATH 115) had DWF rates of 40 percent or above. In the five years since SI began, DFW rates in these courses decreased. For example, in 2009, BIOL 101 and 102 reflected DFW rates in the 14 percent range. Although SI may not be the main reason this decrease in DFW rates occurred, it could be a contributing factor. The data that USC collected also shows that students who participated in SI earned half a letter grade higher in their final grades than students who did not participate in SI (Holliday & Associates, 1994�2009).

Holliday and Associates (2008) surveyed students who participated in SI sessions at USC during the fall 2008 semester and results indicated they were satisfied with their SI experience. Of the students who attended SI, 72 percent agreed or strongly agreed that SI helped them earn a higher final grade than they would have earned if they had not attended SI. One student reported, �I felt like SI provided extra practice time and time to further engage in the material� (Holliday & Associates, 2008). Another student commented, �SI benefited me by being able to get a better understanding of my studies. Attending SI sessions allowed me to score better on my tests� (Holliday & Associates, 2008).

How Advisers Can Encourage Students to Participate in SI

Below are specific tips for advisers on encouraging students to participate in SI.

Be Prepared

How to Encourage Students to Attend SI

Follow Up

Creating Future SI Leaders

Advisers can also encourage students to apply to become SI leaders after they successfully complete courses that offered supplemental instruction. Some campus SI programs require a formal nomination process before students can participate, while other programs encourage faculty and staff to e-mail nominations to the director of the SI program.


Supplemental instruction has become increasingly popular on college campuses, and academic advisers should encourage students to take advantage of this service if it is available. SI is an effective way for students to be successful in their introductory courses. Advisers are ideally positioned to suggest to students that they participate in SI sessions. This article has highlighted the history and the benefits of SI participation as well as provided specific tips for advisers to encourage their students to attend SI sessions. Which of your students should you refer to SI today?


Holliday, J., & Associates. (1994-2009). [Visits to SI by subject]. Unpublished raw data.

Holliday, J., & Associates. (2008). [Responses for SI participant evaluation (fall 2008), as of December 23, 2008]. Unpublished raw data.

Martin, D.C., Arendale, D.R., & Associates. (1993). Supplemental instruction: Improving first-year student success in high-risk courses (Monograph No. 7, 3rd ed., pp. 1-16, 95). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

Stone, M. E., & Jacobs, G. (Eds.). (2008). Supplemental instruction: Improving first-year student success in high risk courses (Monograph No. 7, 3rd ed., pp. 1-16, 95). Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

About the Author

Kristin Abbe is a graduate student in the University of South Carolina's Higher Education and Student Affairs program. She is also a graduate assistant in the university�s Student Success Center. She can be reached at .

Published in The Mentor on April 14, 2010, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
Available online at
Privacy and Legal Statements | Copyright | © The Pennsylvania State University | All rights reserved