The Learning Center is here to help

Exeter's expanding academic support resources offer something for everyone.

Patrick Garrity
February 23, 2022

Students review an assignment in Phillips Hall's Elting Room during open hours of The Learning Center.

It’s quiet for the moment in Room 106 of Phillips Hall as Kira Ferdyn ’22 does homework on a Thursday evening. An English classroom by day, Room 106 is the Spanish peer tutoring section of The Learning Center on this night, where students seeking help with a Spanish assignment can find support from Ferdyn, in her sixth year studying the language.

Down the hall, other peer tutors offer help in Latin, Chinese, French and German. Support from instructors in math, the sciences and writing is available in the other direction. A dry-erase board in the first-floor lobby steers drop-ins to the appropriate room.

This Phillips Hall transformation occurs each weeknight throughout the school year to become a designated space for anyone who wants academic help. The Learning Center program is a student-focused pillar of The Center for Teaching and Learning — Harkness outreach and programs for educators are the others — and is an expansion of what began for writing and math a few years ago. The recurring evening hours at the one location are meant to provide structure and predictable opportunities to seek help — or simply to keep kids on track.

We want to build on our existing culture that asking for help is just a regular part of a good education.”
Meg Foley, instructor in history

“Our goal has always been to have the CTL’s student support to be for every student. It’s not intended to be only for times when a student is struggling,” says Meg Foley, the Michael Ridder ’58 Distinguished Professor in History who has spearheaded the center’s development. “We want to build on our existing culture that asking for help is just a regular part of a good education.”

That can be a big adjustment for students arriving at Exeter who are accustomed to excelling. “They know they are here to stretch themselves, but when the stretching is happening, sometimes they doubt themselves, and we want to help them with that adjustment,” Foley says. “Part of that adjustment is asking for help, not just worrying or struggling alone.”

Laura Marshall, a math instructor and the dean of academic affairs, says the situation can be challenging for a student who suddenly needs to work to earn the grades that once came easily. “On top of that, they look around at their friends who seem to be doing just fine and they are not going to the Learning Centers. So, they then develop more doubt and it begins to feel as though the centers are only for those who are really struggling and they do not want to identify as that student and are convinced that they can turn things around on their own. It becomes this cycle.”

The inclusion of peer tutors has helped. Ferdyn, a two-year senior day student from Exeter, was identified as a top student in Spanish and invited to join the center as a peer tutor. She says some students feel more comfortable revealing their struggles to schoolmates.

“I think often, when meeting with teachers, there can be pressure to seem fully prepared, and to understand what's going on right away,” she says, “but with peers, you can be a little bit more candid. I think this helps people actually get the help they need, and potentially connect with someone new along the way.”

The peer tutoring aspect of the center is a formalized extension of what has been happening organically in dorm common rooms for decades. Many dorms keep lists of which students are strong in specific subjects and can assist with a homework assignment or problem. Those impromptu tutorials provide the faculty with a blueprint.

“There’s a healthy culture of getting help from peers in the dorms, at least there is in Webster, where I’m dorm head, so one of the inspirations for my work is talking to the students about the kind of help they ask for from their peers,” says Alex Myers ‘96, an English instructor who is working with Foley and Marshall to develop the center. “What I’ve observed is that students like to start the work on their own, work until they get stuck, and then ask someone for a little nudge. So, in thinking of the Learning Centers, we wanted to have a space where students could sit and work and just easily lean over and ask for help — it didn’t have to be a big deal.”

English Instructor Genny Moriarty helped to introduce a series of seminars for writers to entice students to visit the center. Featured topics have included journalistic writing; digital literacy and information fluency; proper citing of sources; and submitting work for writing contests. “Genny really envisions building the writing center into a ‘place for writers,’ which includes but is not limited to a place to get help on an assignment,” Foley says. “Some of the sessions are working in that direction and we hope to do more of that.”

Exeter's academic support resources extend beyond The Learning Center, of course. Academic advisers are constant advocates in students' lives, and Learning Specialist Jonathan Nydick is dedicated full-time to work with students in select content areas and in study skills development, including memory, note taking, test taking, reading and time management. 

All of these efforts show progress, even on a relatively quiet Thursday evening mid-term. A half-dozen students are spread around the Elting Room working alone or in pairs while Science Instructor Shimaa Ghazal helps a student. Next door, History Instructor Kirsten Russell meets with a student working on a paper. The Learning Center is gaining traction.

What I’ve observed is that students like to start the work on their own, work until they get stuck, and then ask someone for a little nudge."
Alex Myers '96, instructor in history

“One of my favorite success stories comes from an earlier iteration of the writing center,” Myers says. “We had a senior who came in because his college counselor told him he needed some help on his college essay. … He had a session, and sort of sat in stunned silence for a moment and then said, ‘That was so helpful,’ like he couldn’t believe that academic assistance would be useful.

“He came back several more times and then became a kind of Johnny Appleseed in his dorm, bringing uppers and lowers over to the writing center and telling them how great it was and not to wait until senior year. That was really gratifying.”