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Staying the course

Staying the course

The Center for Academic Excellence improves student retention with peer tutoring, which focuses not only on academics but also on relationships

CAEIt is common knowledge that the number of students seeking college degrees has risen to an unprecedented level: in 2013 more than 14.4 million students were enrolled in a college or university, working toward a bachelor’s degree. What is less well known is that, across the U.S., roughly half of the students who begin a bachelor’s degree never finish it.

Katie Bonner wants students at UMHB to beat those odds, and as the director of the university’s Center for Academic Excellence (CAE), she devises programs to help students succeed in their studies and complete their degrees.

“There is a big gap between high school and college-level work, and there are many students who
struggle with that transition,” Bonner explains. “Our goal is not to do the work for them, but to encourage them and help them develop the skills they need to do well on the college level.”

UMHB’s Strategic Plan of 2010 called for the university to ramp up efforts to improve student retention, and the CAE has been working hand-in-hand with the Office of the Provost to do just that. The center sought and obtained International Tutoring Training Program certification from the  College Reading and Learning Association in 2011 and implemented a new training program for tutors soon thereafter.

Coupled with efforts to increase student awareness of tutoring opportunities, the changes have generated impressive results. In the fall of 2012, the CAE held 950 tutoring sessions, an 83 percent increase over the fall of 2011. In the fall of 2013, the center logged 1,442 tutoring appointments, which was a 52 percent increase over the previous fall. Bonner attributes this growth to several factors.

“We have really excellent students working as peer tutors,” Bonner says. “We train them to make their tutoring sessions more than just subject  focused; we encourage them to build relationships with the students, so they will feel comfortable coming back for help when they need it. And our tutors often end up recruiting other students to come to the study sessions. We provided the tutors with hoodies that say “CAE Tutor” on the back; when they wear them around campus, they serve as human billboards!”

“We have also worked through the Freshman Seminar classes, which all freshmen must take, to emphasize where the CAE is and that it is not just for remedial students. We tell them that we can provide individual or small group tutoring for any of their core classes. As a result, we have had more and more freshmen coming in, and there seems to be less stigma associated with seeing a tutor than there was in the past.”

Another program contributing to the tutoring program’s growth is the “Grades First” early warning system which was instituted at UMHB three years ago. The system asks the professors in each of a student’s classes to report every two weeks whether the student is “at risk to fail” or “not at risk to fail” the class. The summary of each student’s reports is sent to his or her advisor and coach (if the student is an athlete), and students who are reported “at risk” are quickly issued an invitation to come in for tutoring at the CAE.

The system provides a “wake up call,” giving students a chance to seek help and turn their grades around before it is too late.

“All of these efforts are helping us reach more students with our tutoring program,” says Bonner. “It’s all in keeping with our mission as a university; we want our students to succeed in their studies, and we want to maintain our emphasis on academic excellence. The more we can help our students help themselves, the better job we’ll be doing on both of those counts.”





El Paso






“I was recruited to play right tackle for the football team. I love being at UMHB because it has really helped me grow in my faith. During football season, we do devotionals during the week and after practice you can choose to stay to pray. Even things as simple as attending chapel once a week and getting involved in a local church are things that I didn’t really have back home.”


“As a a tutor you aren’t just helping your peers academically; you are also building a relationship which hopefully makes them feel comfortable enough to keep coming back. With so many of the people I work with I am not just their tutor, but I am also now their friend. Not only does it benefit them, but it is also beneficial to me as well.”


“I am a part of the shared engineering program between UMHB and Baylor, which means I am taking the lower-level engineering courses here and, once I’ve completed those, I will transfer to Baylor for the upper-level classes. A great perk to this program is that, once you graduate, you qualify for automatic acceptance into Baylor’s master’s program, so in just a couple more years I will leave with a master’s degree. After that, I hope to go into civil engineering.”










“When I first started college, I didn’t really transition well. I was introduced to [CAE director] Mrs. Bonner, and she hired me as a tutor, which typically doesn’t happen to freshmen. I did well in high school and I had already taken a lot of AP courses in high school, which made it possible for me to tutor those subjects. I tutor all prerequisite courses to nursing and then actual nursing classes, too. The CAE allowed me to work and sharpen my study skills.”


“I am really close with the other tutors. When I started I was the youngest one there, so the older ones served as mentors to me. They helped me adapt to college life, and now I feel fortunate to be able to do the same thing for our younger tutors.”


“As a tutor, I get many questions about what my experience has been like as a nursing major. It is so rewarding to help someone begin the nursing program because I wish I would’ve had someone to do that for me. I definitely can relate to the students, and I love that I have the opportunity to provide them with not only educational help, but also advice on the paths to follow to be a successful nursing major.”











“I love sitting down one-on-one with students and watching the light bulb click. I’m always trying different things and figuring out new ways of teaching when I can tell they are not getting it. For example, when I am tutoring someone for New or Old Testament class, sometimes they have trouble understanding the stories just from reading them in the Bible. So I tell it to them in a different way, and you can just see it click. I love working with people until they get it and can turn it around to make the grade they need. I want to work as an accounting professor one day, so tutoring is great experience and also confirmation that this is the career path I should take.”


“I worked with a football player who was an opportunity student and was on academic probation. I told him, ‘We are going to change that.’ Even though I couldn’t tutor him in all of his classes, I made sure he was also working with other tutors and was on top of his work. He would check in with me. He ended up getting his grades up, off of probation, and back on the football team. Now a lot of people look up to him as an example and a mentor. Stories like that make the work worthwhile. ”