SPARK has helped students like Aretha Floyd boost their grades and confidence.

SPARK has helped students like Aretha Floyd boost their grades and confidence.

Aretha Floyd’s anatomy notes cover the walls of her house — the bedroom, the kitchen, even the bathroom. This is how she studies. By surrounding herself with diagrams of the human body, lists of mnemonic devices and anatomy terms, Floyd can easily remember the content come test time. The proof is in her grades. After adopting this study method, her test score increased from a 71 to an 85.

“It boosted my confidence,” said Floyd, 38 of Gibsonville. “I wouldn’t be passing this class without SPARK. It has given me the tools.”

SPARK (Students Providing Alternative Resources for Knowledge) is a new program at GTCC that uses peer learning to boost students’ academic success in traditionally difficult courses, including the Basic Anatomy and Physiology course Floyd struggled in. In addition to attending the course’s class lecture, students are required to enroll in a supplemental instruction session led by a student peer leader – or SPARK Leader. During each SPARK session, students are able to learn from and with their peers and develop effective learning strategies and study tips. Think of it as one big study session with someone to keep you on point.

“The students have been presented with study strategies that aren’t stressful and that one may implement at home and carry forth into future classes,” said Guana Dixon, faculty coordinator for Supplemental Instruction at GTCC. “The SPARK sessions are assisting the students in increasing their skills and knowledge related to the content. The students seem to be putting more time and effort into it.”

SPARK is part of GTCC’s Quality Enhancement Plan, which focuses on student learning and their learning environment. SPARK was implemented first with Basic Anatomy and Physiology (BIO 163) in fall 2014, and Statistical Methods I in spring 2015. Implementation will continue with Anatomy and Physiology I (fall 2015-spring 2016) and Anatomy and Physiology II (fall 2016-spring 2017).

“STEM courses have some of the highest attrition rates,” Dixon explained.

SPARK Leader Brittany Gabriel.

SPARK Leader Brittany Gabriel.

SPARK is much more than a study session. It builds motivation, self-efficacy and community, all of which are essential to student success.

“One of the documented reasons that students leave college is because they don’t have that connection,” Dixon says. “I think SPARK provides an opportunity for collaborative learning to take place.  Students don’t feel like they’re in it alone.  SPARK is assisting in building community among students. In building community, these students depend on each other.“

The SPARK Leader is a key component in building that connection.

“Sciences are hard, and you need a community around you to support you,” said Brittany Gabriel, a SPARK Leader and dental hygiene major from Pfafftown, N.C. “I like being that support system for them.”

Because the SPARK Leader is a peer, students feel more comfortable asking questions and sharing their experience. If a student has a question, they’ll stop Gabriel on campus or send her a text. She also holds conferences hours each week.

A giver at heart and a self-proclaimed “anatomy nerd,” being a SPARK Leader has been a fulfilling experience for Gabriel. She’s learned to prioritize, organize and prepare. It’s also motivated her to invent creative ways to help students learn the material.

“I feel like it’s my little baby, too. I kind of birthed it,” Gabriel says of SPARK. “It makes you feel like you are doing right in the world. It is helping me help (students) get closer to their goals.”

For Floyd that goal is getting accepted into GTCC’s Radiography program, which requires successfully passing Basic Anatomy and Physiology. Floyd says she was lost the first time she took the course and couldn’t pass the class. But when she re-enrolled in the course the following semester in fall 2014, SPARK had just been implemented. It was a game changer for Floyd.

Aretha Floyd

Aretha Floyd

“Before SPARK, I didn’t know how to study,” she said. “I’ve learned tools that I’m going to use for the rest of my life. I know it works. I’ve seen a change.”

Passing the course means more to her than a letter grade. It means doing better for herself and for her family and being able to eventually leave her fast food job and live out her dreams. She wants to provide a comfortable life for her five children, make them proud and help them reach their goals. She sees a change not only in herself but in her children, too.

“My kids are seeing me push through. That motivates them,” she said. “Sometimes, we’re all sitting at the kitchen table doing homework. … I’ve learned a lot, and SPARK has taught me things that I can teach my kids. Ever since then, I’ve had no ‘D’s’ and ‘F’s’ in my house.”

To learn more about SPARK or how to become a SPARK Leader, visit


– Story and photos by Carla Kucinski/GTCC