Something for everyone: UAA’s Learning Commons is the university’s hidden gem

by cmmyers  |   

UAA's Learning Commons, formerly known as the Learning Resources Center, is a space for students to study and receive tutoring in a range of subjects from writing to math, and general help from learning how to navigate Blackboard to checking out a laptop. (Photo by Brett Rawalt / University of Alaska Anchorage)

UAA's Learning Commons (LC), formerly known as the Learning Resources Center, is a resource gem for university insiders. But with a newly redesigned space and program updates, the LC is hoping to reach the wider campus and Anchorage communities.

"We help all levels of students and community members - I think that's what's important to know about the Learning Commons," said Maegan Cieciel, associate director of the LC. Cameron Nay, director of the LC, further explained that the resource center helps fill in some of the gaps that aren't always necessarily covered in class - general knowledge that's expected for students to know, but is not always intuitive. Additionally, Nay said the LC provides free tutoring from peers, which provides students with a less stressful environment to come in and ask questions about coursework.

"It's very personalized, so students can come in and work on assignments wherever they're at," said Nay, explaining that LC provides help for students at all levels of coursework, depending on their individual need. "The LC provides students with what they need at any given moment, which is harder to do as a professor in a classroom, where you're trying to balance several different students who are at different levels of understanding. It's the one-on-one aspect that appeals to students."

Five for the price of one

The newly renovated Learning Commons is an open and bright space where students can spread out and do their homework. (Photo by Brett Rawalt / University of Alaska Anchorage)

The LC houses five centers, plus computer labs and study rooms, which can be checked out for individuals or groups working on class projects. In addition to the five centers, the Academic Coaching Center (ACC) is a resource that helps students refine academic skills not necessarily taught in a classroom, like note and test-taking strategies, time management skills or general assistance with navigating the university website and software programs like Microsoft.

Tutors are always on hand in any of the tutoring centers for students to ask questions on homework assignments or group projects. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Students looking for help writing a paper or editing a project can visit the Writing Center, which provides tutors for guidance on everything from basic grammar and punctuation, to full-on research papers. Additionally, the Writing Center also offers assistance to students whose first language is not English.  

The Math Lab has tutors who provide help with introductory math courses to upper division math heavy classes, such as engineering courses, and even has a separate group of tutors dedicated specifically to physics.

Lastly, the Communication Center, the LC's newest addition, provides students assistance in helping prepare for and present speeches, individually or in groups.

In addition to the five centers is the Information Desk, where students can check out laptops and reserve study spaces throughout the LC, as well as ask general question about the university.

The tutors

Alexander Ridal, Lead Writing Consultant 

Alexander Ridal is a Writing Center tutor in the Learning Commons and helps students on everything from basic editing to refining resumes. (Photo by Brett Rawalt / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Major: Business Administration, Management Information Systems

Minor: Japanese

Year: Junior

"Whenever someone seems unsure of what they've written I find the good points of the paper and point those out," said Ridal, of when he helps nervous students in the LC's Writing Center. "I try to say something like, 'Alright you've done a fantastic job at the introduction, but the body of the paper needs a little work.'"

Ridal said that no student is 100 percent bad at writing - everyone he helps tutor has their strengths and weaknesses. He says it's about playing up the student's strengths and helping them fill in the cracks for the parts they might be struggling with, like grammar, sentence structure or paragraph flow.

Ridal has always had a knack for writing, and credits his teachers in middle school and high school for his writing acumen, saying they were the "cool teachers" who inspired learning through unconventional teaching. When he arrived at UAA, Ridal tested into technical writing, which gives him an edge to assist a wide range of students in the LC. He also said that just by working in the Writing Center his own writing has improved. Ridal said he enjoys working in the Writing Center, that the staff is friendly, the work environment is relaxed and that sometimes it clicks just right with a student.

"I like walking away from a session knowing that I've helped someone and that I've changed how they write for the better," said Ridal. "When you see the same student three or four times over the semester, you start to see them improving their writing."

Hannah Crayton, Math Tutor

Hannah Crayton is a Math Center tutor who focuses on helping students who need help with physics. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Major: Computer Systems Engineering

Minor: Math, Physics

Year: Junior

Although Hannah Crayton works in the Math Lab, physics is her focus and specialty.

"I love physics - it's my favorite subject," Crayton said. When she started at UAA as a freshman, she came to the Math Lab for tutoring for her Math 105 class. Math is not Crayton's favorite subject, but through the peer tutors her attitude changed. "I had the most positive experience in the LC, did really well in my class and I didn't dread doing math anymore."

The bonus? She made some lifelong friends, who became her core group at UAA, and she continued to hang out and do homework in the Math Lab.

Once Crayton was further along in her career at UAA, she was taking harder classes and began diving into research with professors on campus. She had a full time job, but needed to find one that was more flexible with her increasingly busy schedule, so she went back to where she began - the Math Lab.

"I had such a positive physics class experience at UAA and learning about what I am excited and passionate about, it's exciting to now be the helping hand and tutor doing the same thing I was," said Crayton. "When I took my first physics class, I had a tutor that I worked with in the Learning Commons and he was a big reason why I was so successful in that class - he gave me the extra help and resources that I needed, so it's neat to come full circle and do that for other students."

Crayton says she knows it can be intimidating to come in and ask for help - she's been there herself, first for math tutoring and then for physics - but that it's important to have an academic support group.

"It's still the beginning of the semester, but we're starting to establish a good little community in here of consistent people coming in," Crayton said. "We watch them make their friendships - we help introduce them and they realize they're in the same class and then the next time they come in together. I think the community is so important."

Elena Peyton-Jones, Lead, Academic Coaching Center

Alena Peyton Jones is the lead academic coach in the UAA Learning Commons. (Photo by Brett Rawalt / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Major: Journalism and Public Communication

Minor: Working on Anthropology

Year: Junior

Elena Peyton-Jones is from Washington state and is attending UAA on the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE) scholarship. She started working in the LC last year and was promoted to lead in the Academic Coaching Center (ACC) for this school year.

The ACC is different than the other centers in the LC, whereas the Writing Center, Math Lab and Communication Center all offer course-specific tutoring, the ACC is non-course specific, according to Peyton-Jones. She said the ACC helps students "learn how to student."

For example, she said a student may come in asking for study tips, or how to write a notecard for a test or how to schedule a time for tutoring at one of the other centers. She said these skills are all expected from students, but not something that's ever clearly lined out. Those who are just coming back to school after a long break, have just graduated from high school and are not used to a university environment, or are just new to big city life, can sometimes slip through the cracks in day-to-day classes. That's where the LC's ACC comes in.

"We offer a low-stress environment for students to study, and if they do have questions or concerns, they can always ask us," said Peyton-Jones. "I keep the lights low and try to have an inspirational quote up each day."

With fall semester underway, she said that she and the ACC coaches have been getting a lot of questions about Blackboard and how to print on campus, but that it fluctuates throughout the semester. Towards midterms or finals they start getting questions on test-taking and time management.

"We get an influx of students coming in terror right around midterms saying, 'I didn't know how to take good notes and now I'm realizing I should have come in earlier' - we get that a lot," she said.

Peyton-Jones enjoys her job in the ACC, helping students feel more comfortable on campus and learning how to do all the things students are expected to know, but no one is taking the time to really show them how. She says she loves when people come back and tell her that the ACC helped them get through a tough transition or class.

"I think it's really important for students to know that we're available to help and that it doesn't cost extra," said Peyton-Jones. She wants students to know that the LC is a great resource and is there to help with all facets of a person's education, whether that's setting up a student email account, needing help with a writing assignment or having someone go over physics equations, the LC has something for everyone.  "We're here and we're willing to help."

Written by Catalina Myers, UAA Office of University Advancement

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