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Student Mentors Recruited to Help Classmates Struggling in Principles of Finance Class

By Keith Morelli

Greg Smersh

TAMPA (May 4, 2017) -- 

Cold, hard data collected from a challenging online prerequisite finance course has revealed an unlikely variable that dramatically impacts student success:


The Principles of Finance class in the Muma College of Business is required for all business students and is pretty much dreaded, particularly by those whose majors may not be finance and don't have an affinity for numbers-laden spreadsheets and investment algorithms.

The course's demands mean a lot of students struggle and subsequently, they either fail or drop out, particularly those who take the 100 percent online class, begun last year by Instructor Greg Smersh.

"The percentage of students who didn't pass last semester was unbelievable," Smersh said.  "While keeping students motivated can be difficult in any course, it is much more challenging in the online environment and especially with a course like FIN 3043."

So, Smersh began looking at ways to increase student success in the course that typically has more than 300 students enrolled. He turned to big data, gathered through the on-line platform of the class, for answers. Data showed that students' progress in the online class can be tracked pretty thoroughly.

"Online courses provide in-depth analytics and give instructors the ability to identify at-risk students," he said. "We can track the amount of time students spend in the course and how long they are waiting to start assignments before they are due."

Smersh met with Jackie Reck, associate dean for financial management and academic affairs, and Jackie Nelson, senior director of undergraduate affairs, to discuss possible solutions and they came up with the idea of using student mentors, a concept that has been used in other challenging courses with success. These mentors are students who did well in a particular course during the previous semester.

Now, Smersh had to do some recruiting, a task he thought would be difficult. He contacted the top six students from the previous semester and each agreed to help current at-risk students.

"Apparently, these students regard being a mentor as an honor" Smersh said, "and have been much more helpful than I ever expected."

He let the numbers speak for themselves. Both semesters saw an initial enrollment of about 350 students. Last semester, almost a third dropped the course. Though the exact numbers aren't available, Smersh figures that so far this spring semester, he's seen a 30 to 40 percent decrease in the number of students dropping the course.

Pedro Padon was among the six chosen as the first crop of student mentors.

"It was a rewarding experience," Padon said. "I've helped about 20 or so students. The only difficulty was getting the students to be dedicated to studying ahead of time for each exam.

"It has really been a challenge to figure out new and different ways to teach each student because everyone learns in different ways and at a different pace," said the accounting major who graduates next spring. "This was an outstanding experience for me to go through and it has helped me develop some collaborative leadership skills that I will definitely carry with me along the way."

Not only did the number of drops decrease dramatically this semester, but grades had improved, said Smersh, who now wants to upgrade the program, since the initial results have been so encouraging.

For future semesters, Smersh hopes to make the role more personal and ask mentors to introduce themselves with short videos or Canvas messages.

The tweaking has already begun. Smersh said that Canvas administrators are willing to create a separate Canvas role of "student mentor" so that the mentors can be recognized by students in the class.  That role allows the mentors to access all online material, except student scores or grades.

So far, he said, at-risk students who might have dropped the course or failed, now are passing.

Smersh conducted a survey, asking students who were mentored about this initiative.

"Responses indicated that some students are too intimidated to ask the instructor or teaching assistant for help, but will turn to someone who they view as a peer" Smersh said. "It is easier for them to reach out to someone who has recently taken the class, because they feel that a peer has a better understanding of the difficulties that they might be experiencing."

Robin Sjöberg signed up as a mentor this spring.

"I think the student mentor program is a great resource for the students taking the class who aren't necessarily finance majors," he said. "For many of the students, Principles of Finance is a prerequisite course and the only finance course they'll take. I think it's great that the Muma College of Business has decided to implement this program. Student mentors will be able to act as a bridge between students and the teaching assistants and professors.

"By having undergrads help out," he said, "some students might be more willing to reach out with questions or concerns they might have regarding the class." Anyone offered the chance to take on the role of mentor should consider it, he said.

"You get more involved in your specific department, and you also learn a tremendous amount while doing it," he said. "Many times, it's not until you can explain the material to someone else that you fully understand it."