Support for Success

Mar 22, 2022

Peer-to-peer counseling helps students navigate tough courses.

tyton brunner

Tyton Brunner manages Supplemental Instruction at Cal U.

A 38-year-old cat lover is among those who found success thanks to Cal U’s Supplemental Instruction program.

Meet Nicole Shatzer, who’s enthusiastic about her career possibilities once she graduates from the veterinary technology program, but also realistic about academics.

This story appears in the Fall/Winter edition of the Cal U Review. For other articles about our campus and alumni, read the Review online.

She learns at a slower pace due to a medical condition. And – let’s be real, she says – high school chemistry was almost 20 years ago.

“A professor with 30 students in a class can’t slow down just for me,” Shatzer says. “And there was one concept, unit conversion, that I wasn’t understanding. Everyone else had already learned it in high school. But that was a while ago for me.”


No matter your age or major, the one-stop place for peer-based academic support is the Vulcan Learning Commons in Noss Hall. It’s home to the Foundry Writing Center and the Learning Assistance Center.

Within the LAC is a learning option called Supplemental Instruction, under the guidance of Tyton Brunner ’16, ’19, an academic achievement specialist in the Office of Academic Success and a first-generation college student.

Supplemental Instruction, or SI, is offered in person and online at Cal U through a five-year, $2.1 million grant awarded in 2020 through the U.S. Department of Education’s Title III Strengthening Institutions program.

It uses a group-learning approach designed to enhance student success in “barrier courses” – classes with higher failure and withdrawal rates.

Cal U offered 27 Supplemental Instruction courses in Fall 2021, from Arabic to vet tech.

Brunner recruits, hires and trains SI leaders – current students with a grade-point average of 3.0 or higher who already have passed these historically challenging courses with a B+ grade or better.

SI leaders take the course again, along with as the students in their group.

“They work hand in hand with the professors to figure out the most important content each week,” Brunner explains.

“It’s not tutoring. Neither is it re-lecturing of the course. SI leaders are using collaborative learning techniques and strategies that help students think critically for themselves.”

For example, students might work together in groups using a “Jeopardy!” answer-and-question format to learn a particular lesson.

“Leaders won’t give you the answer,” Brunner says. “They’ll allow the students to think before they answer, maybe send them back to the notes, PowerPoints, textbooks or sample equations.”


Sophomore Riley Bell is a health science major who’s interested in a career as a physician assistant.

He’s highly motivated, accumulating clinical hours as a rehabilitation aide for UPMC Magee Women’s Hospital and UMPC Rooney Sport Complex.

In Fall 2021, Bell was back in an Anatomy & Physiology I class three times a week and assisting a group of A&P students who were learning the fundamental systems of the human body for the first time.

“The students who attend the Supplemental Instruction sessions have a 5% to 10% higher exam score,” he says. “And I’m able to give them some direction so they don’t spend time overstudying for something that’s not going to be on the test and understudying for something that might be.

“I can give them some advice about approaching a professor with a question, which can be intimidating if you’re not used to doing it.”

As Bell explains a typical week in the life of a peer leader, it’s evident that they learn during the semester, too.

“You don’t realize how much you miss until you take a class again,” he says.

“I really love A&P. It’s the basis of medicine, and you really have to understand it before you can dig deeper into the mechanisms of the body and how things work. When I get to (physician assistant) school, it’s going to be very intense, and I want to make sure I have a solid background.”

One way to demonstrate knowledge, he says, is “being able to help someone else learn.”


Vet tech student Shatzer described her impressions of Supplemental Instruction an hour before her basic chemistry final, and she said she felt ready after a semester of hard work.

“I wasn’t doing the homework correctly,” she recalls, circling back to her struggles with conversions. “But then, at SI, the leader was like, ‘Oh, you have to multiply the top numbers and then the bottom numbers and then divide the top by the bottom.”

Finally, it clicked.

Shatzner attended a few Anatomy & Physiology sessions, too, only for animals, not people.

“I actually talked with Tyton about SI and asked him if maybe someday I could be (a leader) for our A&P class,” she says.

“The vet tech major is pretty new, so they don’t have someone who has taken that class specifically. I’m a little older, so I know how to study, and I try to help other students out the best I can.”