Occasionally, at the beginning of a course, we hear that familiar announcement: “There are FSGs offered for this course and I’d encourage you all to attend.” Some students scoff at that announcement—why give up an hour of your precious time for a facilitated study group when you could dedicate it to finishing a long-procrastinated assignment or eating lunch? If there are no participation marks, why bother? Some believe that FSGs aren’t for them and that studying independently is simply their style. Others aren’t aware that this resource exists or don’t understand what exactly it entails.

So what can an FSG do for a student?

Thomas Klubi, the learning strategist here at the Robert Gillespie Academic Skills Centre, who is also in charge of FSGs, believes they’re the best approach in terms of creating a link between first- and second-year students.

“Over the years, we [at the RGASC] have tried a number of different approaches,” he says. “We’ve tried a mentor approach where we would include the mentors in workshops, or we’d have mentors run workshops within specific disciplines, and it was a hit-or-miss type of thing. Sometimes we got students; sometimes we didn’t.”

The peer-facilitated program is based on the Supplemental Instruction model developed by the University of Missouri. This model was first applied in Canada by the University of Guelph. In 2003, UTM started offering the FSG program. Initially there were 26 facilitators for 17 courses. Today, the program has grown to 31 sessions with about 200 volunteer facilitators. UTM was the first of U of T’s three campuses to implement the program; FSGs have now spread to the Scarborough campus and the Faculty of Engineering and Medicine on the St. George campus.

The idea behind SI is that senior “model” students are trained in a specific discipline for a course. Training consists of two days of intensive workshops and activities to prepare the facilitators for what might be their first classroom-leading experience. These facilitators then work with the instructors to plan and run weekly sessions. The intent is to embed academic skills rather than reteach specific content.

Facilitators are recommended by the course instructor, though students can sometimes approach Klubi directly. Farah Badr, a fourth-year biotechnology specialist with a minor in chemistry, was one of the latter; following her own experiences with FSGs, she decided to contact the RGASC to discover how to get involved with the program. “I thought that my grades were high enough in calculus, so I was curious as to how I could become a student leader,” she says.

Badr went on to be an FSG leader for MAT135 and CHM243 for two years. “I believe that for a student to enjoy FSGs and attend regularly depends partially on the facilitator,” she says. “With some facilitators, students can just click with them, but some of the time the facilitator’s approach isn’t very helpful and students end up not attending FSGs.”

“I do enjoy the group learning style that FSGs provide—it’s very different from a typical lecture,” says Fatima Alvi, a first-year life sciences student. “But at the same time, it honestly depends on the course, too. If I believe that I need to study individually, then that’s what I’ll do.”

Maram El-Salamouny, a first-year computer science student, noted that FSG facilitators are not meant to be a substitute for TAs. “It’s helpful to get your questions answered in a group style environment,” she says. “But in my experience, if you have tricky questions, an FSG may not be the answer to your problems.”

Sania Shenwari, a first-year life sciences student, agrees that the FSG environment is not for everyone. “I prefer studying independently as it allows me to go at my own pace, rather than spending an hour going over questions that I may already know beforehand,” she says.

A major part of the FSG mandate is to provide senior students with the chance to develop classroom-leading skills and become comfortable with a classroom environment. This experiential activity can also be entered on the co-curricular record. Some FSGs are also tied to courses; for example, LIN495Y consists of running an FSG for LIN100Y and involves extra responsibilities, including a review of the literature on SI and its effectiveness at UTM.

A common misconception I found among the students I interviewed was that FSGs are only held for courses that require problem-solving. This is not true; whether FSGs are offered or not is entirely up to the instructor’s approval. For example, BIO207 (Introductory Genetics) and BIO210 (Fundamentals of Human Anatomy and Physiology) are very different courses; the former requires heavy problem-solving, while the latter stresses processing material. “For a course like BIO210, I would work with the facilitators to adapt the FSG to emphasize memory skills,” Klubi says. “Each FSG emphasizes the types of skills students need to enhance in each respective course.”

Can attending FSGs improve grades? The answer is yes—but it depends on how frequently you attend. Attending an FSG once is not believed to produce an impact. To reach this conclusion, the RGASC has been compiling a database over the years, which (anonymously) correlates the grades of students in a course with how often they attend FSGs for the course. On average, there is a 2–3% improvement in marks for those students who attend FSGs.

“I’ve also seen up to 10% improvements for students who have regularly attended a FSG session for a course,” says Klubi. “That’s a letter grade change.”

According to Klubi, the assumption is that if a student regularly attends at least one FSG activity a week or more, they will start to improve, in the sense that they will start to make better choices on how they use their hours. “The facilitators are not meant to be teachers, tutors, or TAs; they’re actually designed to help the students focus in that one hour within that community,” says Klubi. “We’re hoping that the students will develop their own learning networks. I’m hopeful that what will happen is that if we model proper study activity within the context of a study group, it will provide a ripple effect. The students will book a room in the library and then they’ll continue the practice.”

FSG attendance is usually about 10–20% for a course, but as Klubi says, it isn’t for everybody.

Obviously, a lot of students prefer to study on their own rather than in a group, but it’s an option available to all. If a student goes to a FSG and they find that it was a positive experience, they will be our best source of advertising,” Klubi says. “We leave the choice to the student.”