The Evolution of an Established Academic Support Unit | Knight

written by: Graham R. Knight, Ph.D


Programmatic change on a college campus is often hard to come by. Using my story of evolving an established academic support unit I hope to provide general guidelines that can be used by others who also hope to effect change on their campuses regardless of the type of program they lead. I begin by introducing myself and the campus context followed by the process of the change itself. I then include considerations about next steps for a changed program, acknowledge the influence of campus context on one’s ability to create change, and finally a few takeaways.

The Practitioner

My entry into student affairs came as a Graduate Assistant for the University of South Carolina’s Student Success Center. The next year and a half working for the nationally recognized, College Reading & Learning Association (CRLA) – certified learning center would arguably be the most formative experience of my professional journey. In my next role at the Ohio State University’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion I grew ODI’s Supplemental Instruction (SI) program and led it through 14 months of COVID-impacted delivery. While there I introduced the structures for assessment, evaluation, and data-informed decision-making that supported sustained programmatic success after my departure in May of 2021. My next position, and the one of interest here, was at Dartmouth College’s Academic Skills Center (ASC) as an Assistant Director where I began in week four of Dartmouth’s 10-week fall term quickly learning new things and meeting new people. By week six I began to take ownership of the program, and the following story conveys some of what I did, and much of what I learned.

The Center

Dartmouth’s ASC has existed in some form since the 1960s and has continually evolved. Since its inception, the ASC included the Tutor Clearinghouse, which sought to match all students who made a request with a tutor. In the mid 1980s the ASC added study groups to support larger, introductory courses via a group delivery format. This basic formula changed little until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. COVID catalyzed the closing of the Tutor Clearinghouse and the study group program in favor of the newly created Peer Tutoring Program which focuses on group tutoring supplemented by individual tutoring – a reversal from the prior structure.

In addition to the programmatic change, three staff members departed in the wake of COVID, taking with them over 45 years combined experience with the ASC. The Associate Director then became the Interim Director until the interim title was removed. The new Director and the Program Coordinator alone piloted the ASC until the three open staff positions could be filled. I became the first of these hires and was handed the keys to the Peer Tutoring Program. My understanding upon my hire was that the ASC wanted me to consider every aspect of the program and had given me the license to make whatever changes I deemed necessary. As I began learning about the program I wanted to consider ways I could operate more efficiently, meet student demand, stay within budget, and provide expanded opportunities for program staff – all of which were aspects that emerged as potential avenues for improvement.

The Impact of Potential Change

COVID-induced understaffing meant that much of the program’s functionality had been paused. As such, the time was ripe to consider what could be changed, but also what should remain. As I became acquainted with each programmatic aspect, I had to consider the needs of those who would be impacted by the decisions I made. The primary stakeholders are always our students, including the student-staff. The primary constraint was the programmatic budget. With this in mind, I compiled a number of questions to consider: how many classes can/should we support? How many tutors would we need? How many tutor hours can we afford? How should those hours be structured and allocated?

Although the ASC is the college’s central academic support unit, many of the academic departments provide their own tutoring services. Therefore, I also had to consider the other learning support units across campus and potential sources of collaboration or contention with services offered through the other learning support units . Our faculty are primarily responsible for fulfilling the academic mission of the institution, and it is their courses I was working to support, so gathering their insight and feedback was also vital.

The Process of Retooling the Previous Model

My initial tasks were to listen and learn. The tutors who were working when I began had been hired under a specific set of expectations which I felt obliged to uphold through the fall term. Waiting gave me time to run a series of budgetary scenarios and to be able to make more informed decisions. I was able to factor in compensation for preparation time and other factors related to the future of the program.

One change I was able to make during the fall term was the removal of the groups’ cap sizes, Previously, groups had been capped at five students. There were group waitlists so if a student was removed from the group (For unexcused absences) only then could a waitlist student be added.  I also eliminated the attendance requirement because I felt that it reinforced compliance rather than encouraging attendance for the sake of learning.

With no more cap sizes, we were able to do away with waitlists. The rationale behind these tweaks was that I had come from two large public institutions whose group tutoring models were often open to 100+ students, and I knew that tutors could expect anywhere from two to five regular attendees even from a large pool of students. I also knew that there would be increased attendance prior to exams that we could easily account for with appropriate planning.

Rather than relying on the existing model of course selection that was primarily informed by ASC’s historical usage data, I prioritized institutional data regarding student grades supplemented by the historical data. I wanted to know about student performance in courses with enrollment of 30 or more as evidenced by final grades so I looked at the number of students who received C’s, D’s, failed, or withdrew from each course. What emerged was a list of fewer than 50 courses.

I was off to a good start because fewer courses and no cap sizes meant I could contract the size of the staff. Tutors are hired on a termly basis so when we transitioned into my first full term I reduced the staff size to a third of what it had been. With that change, I could afford to raise the pay of tutors and pay them for three hours each week rather than 90 minutes. Instead of one session, I had them hold two, one-hour sessions and was able to allocate one hour of paid prep time per week because pay for prep time was among the first, and loudest, demands I heard from the staff. Sessions would initially be offered on Zoom with the opportunity to move in-person following college COVID policy and tutors’ own comfort level. These sessions were scheduled such that they did not conflict with other learning support programs on campus and staggered such that students would hopefully be able to make at least one session per week.

I also constructed a new two-hour training for the beginning of each term, compulsory for all new and returning staff. I wanted to meet the staff and wanted them to meet me. With the way I was retooling the program everyone was effectively a new tutor and had to be introduced to the new systems, expectations, and philosophy of the program. Training began with introductions among the staff as well as to the program. In addition to the programmatic mission we also covered what it means to be a peer educator. I made sure to stress the importance of making students feel welcome and empowered as prerequisites to learning the material itself, and then how to implement active and collaborative learning within a shared space. We concluded by covering the administrative tasks and expectations and discussing how to approach their first sessions.

Finally, in week three, the remodeled program was up and running and it was time to begin assessing how things were going. There are several forms of assessment that I currently have in place, a few of which I retained from the previous model while others I introduced. On the administrative side for the tutors, the staff and I reviewed prep time submissions not only to verify work hours claimed, but also to hold them accountable to a standard of preparation. We also continued to collect attendance information, and now I use that information, once final grades have been posted, to get a sense for the efficacy of the program. In terms of service delivery, I strive to observe every tutor’s session at least once a term and provide constructive feedback. I also ask the tutors to perform midterm self-evaluations, and I solicit evaluations about the tutors from their tutees. Both of these evaluations can serve as topics of conversation for the tutors’ continued development, and for the development of the program; I am adamant in reminding the tutors that they are the ones who are doing the work and so I need their feedback to continue improving the program.

The Next Steps for the Program

I am always focused on what still needs to be improved, so keep a mind towards structural changes that improve how the program functions. The work involves sustained attention and commitment to cross-campus relationship building and is necessary for the optimal functioning of an academic support program.

Most major changes happened in the first two terms as we were beginning the process. Since then, I have been collaborating with other units to create training materials that can be shared among our staffs. I have also noticed that the initial budget scenarios I ran were conservative estimates of actual spending and that I could afford to pay the tutors for two hours of prep time and two hours of sessions. Similarly, by beginning my hiring and recruitment process earlier I was able to begin Group Tutoring in the second rather than third week of the term which is especially important given Dartmouth’s terms are 10 weeks long. Over time, I hope to plot the actual versus expected budget numbers so that I can maximize service delivery based on usage data rather than projections.

Looking ahead, I must address perceptions about the legitimacy of the program. I have learned from faculty, staff, students, and tutors that many faculty are skeptical of the tutoring offered through the ASC. Some faculty go so far as to advise students against using our services. I believe the main reason for this is that our Group Tutors are not embedded in the courses they support. Much of the success of the program depends on how engaged and communicative faculty are, and whether or not they encourage students to attend tutoring. Given the ASC is within the Division of Student Affairs, I must build relationships with those in academic affairs so tutors can develop closer relationships with faculty. This will help tutors and the students they serve in supporting student learning.

The Influence of Campus Context

I quickly discovered the powerful pull of tradition on Dartmouth’s campus. I was bold enough to make extensive changes simply because I did not know any differently, and I was supported by my director. Just as I learned “the way things are done,” I was also reminded that reputation matters considerably. This insight reminded me to move with caution and diplomacy, but it also meant that if correctly done the weight of a good reputation could work in my program’s favor, and by extension the students’.

I recognize those factors because of the way they frame what I have been able to do. Yes, I used my prior experiences to update the program by using data- and experience-informed decisions. However, my unique context inspired me to make those decisions. By learning the history of the program I established where it was and created a vision of where I wanted it to go. Since then I have been able to chart the way forward by meeting and developing relationships with cross-campus colleagues, sharing my vision for the program, asking follow-up questions, and communicating about the changes that I have made.


While this is from the perspective of an academic support unit, much of what I learned throughout the process can be useful for various academic and student affairs units. My steps for recreating the program were as follows.

  1. I began with considering the program’s needs, constraints, and stakeholders to compile a list of questions to address.
  2. I then listened to and learned from those impacted because they were in the best position to provide feedback.
  3. I respected the campus and environmental context to create and sustain mutually beneficial relationships.
  4. I strive to adapt expectations and behaviors based upon actual experience and data.

As you seek to address your own situation, listen to and learn from students, faculty, data, other practitioners, books, and other resources. Consider the feasibility, benefits, and potential drawbacks to your decisions. Build a case for what you want to do and why, and then share your case with your supervisor. Take data-informed risks. The changes I have made were informed by my personal experience, peer-reviewed research, avenues for staff development, and budgetary considerations including appropriate compensation for staff.

I hope my experience changing an established program serves as a useful reminder of what is possible within the realm of academic and student affairs. Yes, there are hard constraints like budgets, but there are also soft constraints like what we, and sometimes our colleagues, think is possible. I had the advantage of stepping into a new role at a new institution, both of which allowed me to focus on what I would do rather than what others thought I could do. There is always a learning curve, but do not get discouraged and continue asking questions. Think outside the box (of your institution) and, where possible, take ownership over your program.

Reflection Questions:

  1. What are some of the programmatic possibilities you have been considering? Which ones have you assumed were not achievable? Why?
  2. What elements of your campus context can you capitalize on to make your program more effective? Who are the key stakeholders who can help you achieve your goals?
  3. What advice would you give a successor to your role in their first few days on the job? Have you been following that advice yourself? Why or why not?


Graham R. Knight, Ph.D., is currently the Assistant Director for Academic Enrichment & Learning at Dartmouth College. Graham received his B.A. (’14) and M.Ed. (’17) from the University of South Carolina. Having majored in history, he gave historical carriage tours in Charleston, SC before returning for a Master’s in Higher Education and Student Affairs. He transitioned straight into Ohio State where he completed his Ph.D. in the same field in May 2021. His professional work centers on creating conditions for active and collaborative learning environments where students feel comfortable, cared for, and like they matter at the institution, as he firmly believes that those are prerequisites for learning most effectively.