Filling Minds with Knowledge and Skills at the Think Tank

Nov. 5, 2011

Juan originally came to the Think Tank when he was taking college algebra. He was having a bit of trouble since English wasn’t his native language. He met with Math & Science Specialist Sarah Hunter who helped him focus on these great blue boxes in his textbook that had wonderful hints and tips.

“He’d come here and I’d see him working away,” she says. “He took 120 and he’s now in 124. He comes in every day to do his homework. He’s working incredibly hard—and he thinks we’re the ones who helped him!” Hunter’s comments show her caring, as well as a keen understanding of why she’s there. The way she sees it, her job is to help students learn how to take control of their own success.

Stories like Juan’s abound at the Think Tank, a department within UA Student Affairs that streamlines and centralizes academic support services for students across the university.

Taped across the modern glass walls of the Think Tank’s Nugent Building location, visitors can read thank you notes from satisfied student clients:

“Leighann, you are awesome! Thank you so much for your help with calculus one and your study tips.”

Another says, “Thank you for saving my 115b grade.”


Behind those glass walls, a large space buzzes with students discussing calculus problems. In the room to the left, three small groups focus on writing assignments. Students and tutors in other rooms focus on other subjects, but all are there to do one thing: improve learning.

The Think Tank endeavor was born from an innovative combination of legacy student support programs and modern business and branding. Before the Think Tank was developed, student support was offered through various offices and organizations.

“The student experience was spread out all over campus,” says Lynette Cook Francis, assistant vice president for Student Affairs. “It wasn’t cohesive.” 

To address the issue, a Learning Services Council was convened with Student Affairs leadership along with faculty representatives from English, math and other departments. Together, they talked about and examined student needs, zeroing in on what was working as well as what wasn’t. Based on their findings, they developed the concept of the centralized Think Tank to consolidate and streamline tutoring and support services—and present it in such a way as to appeal to all students.

“The brand has a lot to do with the success,” according to Think Tank Director Dorothy Briggs. “We pulled the services together and did orientations and faculty outreach to get into the mainstream of conversation. By having the ‘Think Tank’ brand instead of just being a learning center, it’s become a catchy concept.”

A relatively new enterprise, the Think Tank is just over a year old, but given its well-thought underlying business strategies and deep understanding of the needs of the student body, the center has achieved great success in a short period of time. During the 2009-2010 academic year 4,683 students came to the UA’s learning center to access its top-quality academic support services. Student use of the Writing Center, now part of the Think Tank, has increased nearly 50 percent from 2008.

Today, the center offers tutoring in writing, math, science, Spanish and general education courses; supplemental instruction; graduate school test preparation; peer mentoring; and even help with college survival. With free drop-in hours, three locations and fee-based individualized sessions, students can call ahead or just show up and get the assistance and individualized attention they need. Students of all levels and abilities use Think Tank services, from those who are struggling to those who want to take their existing success to the next level.

According to Melissa Vito, vice president for Student Affairs, “It was built around a need for centralized, money-saving student support. It’s really for increasing retention rates. How we assess the work is about how we impact student success. That’s the ultimate goal.”

In preparation for reaccreditation by the Higher Learning Commission’s North Central Association (NCA) in 2010, the University of Arizona has crafted a Self-Study Report documenting and evaluating performance in each of five key criteria: Mission and Integrity, Preparing for the Future, Student Learning and Effective Teaching, Creativity and Knowledge Discovery, and Engagement and Service. In this report, the UA Think Tank was cited as it demonstrates the quality of the University for NCA re-accreditation. The complete 2010 Self-Study Report can be downloaded at