Apr 15

Study Hall

I have had the pleasure of describing and discussing what follows with quite a few folks. They have, of late, all said that it is time to publish this which, for public education, is both minimally evolutionary and potentially revolutionary. In what follows, I am not going to overplay that last adjective; I’ll let you decide that on your own.

The concept starts with a study hall, one which exists today on Rochester, Minnesota’s UCR (University Center Rochester) and elsewhere. This study hall – called the UCR Math Learning Center and led by JooiTow Goh - has the usual hardware: tables, white boards, books, calculators and computers. Key to this paper, it is also staffed with subject-expert volunteers. I happen to be one of them. We are all retired professionals. Our education and long experience assures that we also know our stuff; most of us use the opportunity to teach ourselves more. As you might expect, the subjects covered span Pre-Algebra, Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, multiple levels of Calculus, but also Statistics, Computer Science and computer-based tools, and Physics. Partly, simply because we are there, we also help with writing. The students, I’ll note, also come from very diverse backgrounds. We will, if asked, tell you that being part of this is a joy.

Each table and each computer workstation also includes two cups, one red and the other green, one upon the other. If the green cup is up, the students there are also saying “I/we are doing fine here”. A red cup tells the volunteers that the student(s) need some assistance. A volunteer normally reacts immediately, often simply because we hear the cups flip. A quick outline of the question or problem, typically followed by a quick determination of what the student knows, is followed by some form of situation-appropriate assistance. The assistance might be as little as a quick review of the student’s work or as much as a white-board tutorial of the underlying concepts. We might visit for a moment, or stay with the student for an extended period. We do not grade and certainly do not judge. We offer encouragement. Occasionally, upon parting, we might add “You didn’t really need me did you?”

I’ll add that occasionally we just chat with the students, often, though, with a purpose. “Why are you here?” “What is your major?” “Where do you plan on using this education?” Having lived a life, we’ve been there. We offer perspective. We suggest alternatives and perhaps even a plan. I recall recently even discussing mortgages and investment strategies for retirement.

The key point to observe here is that the student(s) is not stuck in their studies for long. Frustration remains minimal. Progress continues. This produces real self-esteem which breeds more success. More students succeed, see the benefit of the time and money they are spending, and so stay in school. Of course, the university sees the economic benefit of this last, but it’s clear that so does society. We, the volunteers, are there for the students – each and every individual that we help – but we are also well aware of the broader implications of what we are doing. We have, again, lived a life.

And so have a lot of other retirees in our communities. Many have used what we have learned for a lot of years. A significant potential pool of sufficiently skilled and available people exists. More on this fact shortly.

This little study hall is a microcosm of something potentially much bigger. It is an education resource waiting to be matched with a real need.

Observe first, though, that clearly the student’s teachers – their professors – exist and have been teaching well for, well, forever. Many of us have dear memories of some of them from our own past. Clearly, the institutions and the entire teaching institution exists to serve these same students. Similarly, for many of us, being an alumnus of our own institution remains a big deal for us. They have served us well. Still, I for one – and I suspect most of us – would have wanted to do better and even more successfully learned more. Why didn’t we? And what of those that didn’t successfully graduate. Some won’t, but for the remainder, why didn’t they succeed? I’ll accept that there are often better or perhaps just alternative ways for the true teaching professionals to teach, but wouldn’t we all have been well served by having non-judgmental mentors available, and available just when we needed them. (And, maybe, some of us really did.)

So, in the following sections, I am going to attempt to outline some thoughts on enabling this meeting of subject professionals – mentors if you like, people quite distinct from our also needed education professionals – with the students who need them.

The Traditional Study Hall

At Rochester’s UCR, the study halls are generally available and staffed. Given the typical college experience, students take classes throughout the day, whenever the classes they need just happen to be available. In between, and, of course, before and after such classes, they can use the study halls. For the previously mentioned math subjects, they may use – individually or as study groups – the UCR’s Math Learning Center. It is worth noting that this study hall does also get used because, when students do have time for studying, their preferred teaching professional might not be available to assist.

Of course, this notion of available time for studying is not limited to UCR, nor to colleges in general. At the university level, it is clear enough that each college would or could have its own subject’s study halls. As with UCR, they would be staffed with subject professionals. For universities with graduate schools, graduate students are often motivated financially with teaching assistantships to help staff such facilities. Even at smaller institutions, advanced students – also then considered subject experts - can often be similarly motivated. But, notice that UCR still considers it important to include subject professionals with significant life-long experience.

So what of high school and middle schools? There are study halls, certainly, but here with less flexibility for the students. It is a limited-time resource for the students, time during which to maximize the completion of their assignments. Study halls, or learning resource centers if you prefer, with subject professionals present (recall their own teachers are likely not), time spent unproductively – and with frustration – become increasingly periods successfully making progress and of improving the student’s knowledge base and resulting self-esteem.

The Knowledge Base

I had introduced this notion as being associated with various level of mathematics. Some may expand this to being appropriate for all of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects. I am sure that this could be the case. There is, however, no real reason to stop there. Even students desiring a STEM-like background are best served if they can also write clearly, collect their thoughts, and present well. Skill in the “softer” or related subjects is just as important. Consider the importance of understanding financial, social, and historical issues as well, and having mentors available for such.

The point is, the experienced subject professionals being sought here clearly include those from the STEM backgrounds, but skilled people from practically every other background are needed as well.

Electronic Education

I happen to be a big fan of online education resources and am a frequent user. I especially like the opportunity to repeatedly review some concept until I’ve got it. I also, though, find that it can take me hours of searching to find the kernel of knowledge, that underlying concept that finally clearly explains just what it is that I am missing. Sometimes you need to know something in order to even ask the question about it.

I am also intrigued by teacher-assisted on-line education, otherwise known at the Flipped classroom. Picture also here classrooms using iPads with educational applications. I won’t here get into the discussions on its pros and cons, but I will observe that part of its intent is to ensure that the professional teachers have the time to provide one-on-one assistance in further explaining the concepts first provided by the on-line education. This is highly desirable and is, in essence, related to the reason for having subject professionals in a study hall. Notice, though, that this is at least partly an economic issue. A professional teacher’s time is finite, and the number of them available is constrained largely by financial considerations. What I am writing on here provides at least an enhanced variation on this notion of a flipped classroom. The subject professionals are available when and where they are needed for such one-on-one assistance, especially to that set of students needing more direct assistance.

Also for largely economic reasons, and partly to experiment with the new forms of electronic education, many institutions are investing in creating largely on-line-only classes. In some cases, this also implies the financial benefit to the student of strictly on-line written resources (i.e., no books) as well. Even the best of these carry with them the assumption that the student should not progress until they have mastered the understanding of some preceding concepts. Unfortunately, mastery for many students does not imply that they further understand that what they had learned – hopefully successfully – can be applied to what it is that they are about to learn. Then, being strictly an online course, the student is stuck. What is it that can quickly remove such impediments?

Now picture a resource of subject professionals, whatever the subject(s). The student has already seen and been introduced to the needed concepts in various ways, perhaps once, perhaps multiple times. The student is doing exercises and is stuck. Ideally, the (or a) professional teacher, one who really knows the curriculum and the progression of the concepts, is available to assist. But, if not, a subject professional might also be available. Perhaps this is via a study hall, perhaps as needed in a flipped class, but it might also be as part of the actual electronic education as a truly on-line resource.

General Assistance

Did you know that …

  • The Rochester Public Library supports a Homework Help period most every school day evening staffed by volunteers?
  • Rochester Public Schools offer Volunteers In Education intended to provide the means by which community members can provide their time to the local schools?
  • Rochester Public Schools offer Community Education as general enrichment for adults, students, preschool children and parents of very young children?

The library’s Homework Help is a minor variation on what I have been writing about. It’s got the right heart. For a class of students, it is providing exactly the right support. Ask yourself, though, how many students, how many families will regularly carve out a block of their evening’s time to use the local library to do homework. Shouldn’t the schools offer a means to such?

With Community Education, community members with some skill can provide classes – often at some nominal charge – to other community members wanting to learn that skill. This, of course, is a good use of the otherwise unused resources of the school district.

With all of these, we see demonstrations of community members wanting to help in some capacity with the education of our children.

On-Call Tutors

The first place for a student having difficulty grasping a concept to go is – and should always be – that student’s own teacher/instructor/professor. But, as can be noted from the number of for-profit professional tutoring originations, the needed help is not always available nor does the professional teacher always have the time or availability when needed. But now picture our schools staffed with volunteer subject-professionals. These are people who know their stuff, ideally having also shown this to the professional teachers, and are available on-site, normally for general assistance as noted earlier.

Let’s also assume that these subject professionals have created a personal relationship with some related teaching professionals. These teachers have come to know that these subject professionals know their stuff. Now picture a set of students needing some additional assistance. At the professional teacher’s discretion and direct guidance, a relationship is created between the student and the subject professional to do limited tutoring. Ideally, if the student is willing, more students remain successful.


The essential claim of this discussion is that there are older, nominally retired people both with the heart and the subject knowledge to be the subject professionals needed as described above. The trick is to provide the path and the motivation to actually be part of this. As noted at the very beginning of this paper, this is being done at a number of institutions, but why not more? Why is it that of education systems don’t have a general call out to people like this? And why is it that it is not a very natural direction for our skilled and experienced people are not automatically thinking in terms of such assistance?

So how do we motivate both those with the need of such assistance and those with the time and skills to provide it? One way, of course, is simply for the education systems to enable the processes to welcome appropriate people in; this includes advertising, security assurance, and knowledge-level assurance, and integration processes at the very least.

Screened and willing volunteers would, of course, be ideal, but why not increase this pool of subject professionals via some very nominal financial incentive as well? For example, our tax system effectively motivates financial giving. Why not motivate giving of skilled time into our education systems in a similar manner?