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Supplemental Instruction

A page within CATL Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence


Supplemental Instruction (SI) has a solid track record of success in narrowing equity gaps at the course level, and improving student persistence in a course, especially for students of color. "SI leaders" work with students in a specific course with a specific instructor. They attend the class, read the assigned material, and conduct 3-4 review sessions each week at times that work for most of the students in the course. In most SI models, students opt in to SI sessions. SI sessions are scheduled during the first week of classes. SI is designed for courses in which students are likely to struggle.

SI was developed by a team led by Dr. Deanna Martin at the University of Missouri at Kansas City in the early 1970s. The program intentionally shifted away from idea that students who struggle are deficient. This is often how students view tutoring programs -- one needs tutoring if one is "dumb," so a recommendation from an instructor to seek tutoring implies that the student is "dumb." Thus, students can easily view their struggle to understand new material as evidence that they lack intelligence (rather than as evidence that learning hard new stuff is hard). Students of color may also further worry that others will see them as confirming a stereotype about their group. Students tend not to view SI programs this way. SI intentionally focuses on the institution by providing academic support for courses with historically high rates of Ds, Fs, or withdrawals (called "the DFW rate"). SI, from the perspective of students, is evidence that the institution knows that learning hard new stuff is hard. SI programs tend to attract high-achieving students first, and that sends an additional message that SI is not "remedial."

SI leaders work with students on both the course content and the discipline's foundational skills. They model, teach, and monitor students' development of effective reading strategies, note-taking methods, and ways to frame new information and connect it to prior knowledge. SI leaders may also be trained to pay attention to the kinds of questions students asked in review sessions in order to identify students who had not yet made the cognitive leap from concrete, detail-oriented learning to abstract conceptualizations that facilitate transfer of knowledge from one setting to another, and to provide the instructor with feedback on how the class is moving on that learning task.

Because SI programs pay SI leaders to attend lectures and read textbooks, they can seem costlier than traditional tutoring. But because SI programs are less likely to be viewed negatively by students, SI leaders are more likely to serve multiple students in each review session than are tutors, to reduce the numbers of Ds, Fs, and Ws in gateway courses that are foundational to a major, and to retain students into the next semester after such courses.

Summary of Research

Subsequent research on Supplemental Instruction programs indicates that these elements appear to be most crucial to their success:

  • SI leaders attend the class -- SI leaders thus know what happened in class because they were present
  • SI leaders are "near-peers" -- undergraduates who have taken the course, but are not experts yet
  • SI sessions are announced during the first week of the semester -- students are thus less likely to view SI as remedial
  • Review sessions are discussions -- students working together and discussing academically important topics can not only break down stereotypes and assumptions, but also eliminate the isolation that many students experience if they struggle alone
  • Content plus skills -- SI sessions focus not solely on understanding concepts and course content, but also on the range of skills necessary to college (e.g., reading in a discipline, note-taking from a lecture, note-taking from a text, study skills and habits, developing mental frameworks for the topic that permits higher-level thinking, etc.)
  • Training for SI leaders -- especially on the role SI leaders play in developing skills, including making the cognitive leap to abstract thinking from concrete thinking:  "The former more readily perceive a series of concepts as an integrated system, whereas the latter may see only a series of facts to be memorized under an arbitrary heading" (Blanc, 1983). Noting that this is a developmental leap that perhaps as many as half of all entering college students have not yet made this leap, the original SI program assessed in see Blanc et el, 1983 focused on helping students make that leap during the first year of college. Hence, SI's emphasis on reading in a discipline, note-taking, constructing mental frameworks for incorporating new information, study skills, and the like are among the learning skills that SI leaders are trained to develop.
  • The course is fully aligned with advancing this cognitive leap -- the cognitive leap is also one that instructors can inadvertently fail to promote. Too much focus on graded recall tasks can produce too little focus on problem-solving, constructing mental frameworks for information, or problem-solving. When students are tested primarily on their ability to recall facts, match ideas to terms, explain processes, they may earn excellent grades in their lower-level courses, but find themselves lost as they advance in the major to courses that assume they have already made a cognitive leap necessary for advanced intellectual tasks of upper-level courses.
  • SI leaders communicate frequently with instructors -- learning hard new stuff is hard for many reasons, and SI leaders can help instructors know what concepts might need more class time, whether students seem to believe misinformation, whether particular students are struggling with the cognitive leap.

Finally, studies that examine help-seeking note that instructors who take steps to normalize help-seeking in their course find that students are more likely to seek help (including tutoring) before they are so far behind that they cannot recover.


  • Departments that have historically hired advanced undergraduates to tutor in lower-level courses might find switching to Supplemental Instruction produces better results for their students. Courses that use a common syllabus across all sections may find that SI leaders need not be tied to any particular instructor, but can instead serve any of the students in a course, thus maximizing the number of review sessions the department can offer for each entry-level course. 
  • Write exams (see also 5 Ways to Improve Objective Exams) and assignments that emphasize abstract thinking along with factual knowledge.
  • Monitor which approaches to reading, note-taking, and studying the students who do best in your course use (see the Exam/Assignment Wrappers here for ideas about what to monitor). Help students understand that these skills will develop further as they advance in your major;  understand for yourself the ways in which taking notes from a textbook or a lecture differs from taking notes for research projects.
  • Train SI leaders to teach the foundational disciplinary skills you've identified as effective. Teach these skills yourself, and check how students use them.
  • Normalize help-seeking. Research indicates that students from historically underserved groups tend to feel some pressure to "do it on my own." The sources of that pressure are usually multiple, and may include concern about enacting a stereotype. The result can be that students struggle all alone to understand something, only to fail and fail and fail, not understanding that they need some feedback to help them see where they are going wrong.  Instructors can help to normalize help-seeking.  Consider these possibilities:
    • help students understand that people who learn well are the ones who seek help; draw on multiple examples from your discipline
    • tell your own story -- was there a time when you struggled, and someone was able to show you where your mistake was?
    • set up study groups yourself, based on students' availability outside of class, and assign study groups the tasks they should do each week, starting with the harder tasks. Help-seeking becomes easier when solitary students don't have to decide when they need help.
    • connect the study groups you've created to SI.


Blanc, R. A., DeBuhr, L. E., & Martin, D. C. (1983). Breaking the Attrition Cycle: The Effects of Supplemental Instruction on Undergraduate Performance and Attrition. The Journal of Higher Education, 54(1), 80.

Grillo, M. C., & Leist, C. W. (2013). Academic Support as a Predictor of Retention to Graduation: New Insights on the Role of Tutoring, Learning Assistance, and Supplemental Instruction. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice.

Karabenick, S., & Newman, Richard S., eds. (2006). Help seeking in academic settings: Goals, groups, and contexts. Mahwah, N.J. : Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers.

Martin, D. C. |Arendale. (1992). Supplemental Instruction: Improving First-Year Student Success in High-Risk Courses. The Freshman Year Experience: Monograph Series Number 7. Retrieved from

Shaw, C. S., & Holmes, K. E. (2014). Critical Thinking and Online Supplemental Instruction: A Case Study. Learning Assistance Review (TLAR), 19(1), 99–119.

UMKC. (n.d.). International Center for Supplemental Instruction at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Retrieved December 5, 2017, from

Hoskins, D. (2017). Supplemental instruction. In Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from