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The Power of Peer Tutoring

By Drew Bent | Tuesday, August 24, 2021

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” — Nelson Mandela

Education may be one of the most effective ways to change the world—but how do you change education?

It’s not so clear. Researchers have long studied ways to improve education—what social scientists would call “interventions”—yet few interventions seem to truly make a dent.

Things you think would work, like reducing class size or introducing summer school, often have marginal impact at best.

Yet there is one intervention that consistently nets out at the top. Study after study, it’s shown to be incredibly effective in improving student outcomes.

In the world of education, where consensus can be hard to find, this is one area where just about everyone agrees.

Tutoring

The idea behind tutoring is simple: pair students with well-trained tutors and provide them with the individualized support they need.

Educators have known this ever since Benjamin Bloom conducted his famous 2 sigma study in 1984 and found that the students who received individual tutoring in a mastery-based class, on average, performed better than 98% of those who were taught in a traditional, lecture-style class.

For a while, the edtech world interpreted the Bloom study as proof that an AI tutor, one that could correct a student’s every misunderstanding, would reign supreme. However, with time, it has become clear that just as important, if not more important, to the personalization in Bloom’s tutoring program was the human connection.

Tutoring works because it is an inherently human enterprise. There’s accountability. Ava, a 9th grader falling behind in her algebra class, improves when she is paired with a tutor because her tutor is a person. She doesn’t want to let her tutor down. She has someone looking over her shoulder and rooting for her. That human connection matters.

Tutoring works. So why haven’t we invested more in it?

The Catch

As economists would say, you need to do a cost-benefit analysis. In an ideal world, every student in the world might be paired with their own individualized tutor. But we unfortunately do not live in an ideal world.

Tutoring is costly. There is a reason why schools in the US often have a student-to-teacher ratio of 20:1 and higher. The majority of education costs are human capital—i.e. people—and small-group tutoring would dramatically increase these costs.

Then add to that the challenges of scaling solutions in education, and the prospects look bleak. An intervention may work within a particular context, but how do we scale it while maintaining quality?

The Solution: Peer Tutoring

We can now start to connect the dots. Small-group tutoring is one of the most effective ways to move the needle in education, but we don’t have enough teachers to do it cost-effectively and at scale.

What if students tutored each other?

There are millions of students who need help, but also millions of students who can and want to help. All we need to do is to effectively train them how to tutor (more on that below).

In other words, a key lever for improving the education system now becomes increasing the supply of well-trained tutors in the world. And those could be the students themselves.

The benefits of peer tutoring are hard to ignore once you take a closer look:

  • The students who need help (“the learners”) receive the individualized support and human touch they couldn’t find in their larger classrooms.
  • The students who become peer tutors (“the tutors”) reach the highest level of mastery in their own education by teaching others. As anyone who has ever tried to teach something knows, the best way to learn is to teach.
  • The learners receive help from someone who may have very recently gone through the same frustrations as themselves. That empathy is invaluable.
  • Peer tutors can relate to one another. The tutors look like the learners they are tutoring.
  • The tutors are empowered by the opportunity to give back and help others.
  • Peer tutoring can be done at scale and for little-to-no cost. Both the learner and tutor benefit from the act of tutoring.
  • Each student can play the roles of both learner and tutor. Felipe may be struggling in Algebra II but can help Cheryl in Algebra I. Indeed, through tutoring, Felipe reinforces the base concepts that will help him understand Algebra II.

The best way to learn is to teach. (docendo discimus)

Right now, we think of learners and tutors as disparate categories. But what if the goal was to turn every student into both a learner AND a tutor? In other words, increasing the green overlap. Always learning. Always tutoring.

An Unambiguous Good

How we educate children and adolescents is a controversial topic. Who can be a certified teacher? How much testing should we do? Should we have charter schools or private schools, or just traditional public schools? There are no easy answers.

High-quality tutoring is not like that. It’s just about as close as you can get to an unambiguous good in education—something that no matter who you are and what you believe, you can get behind.

Some schools use tutoring to help struggling students catch up in their classes. Others use it to prep students during the summer for the upcoming year. Review or preview. Both work.

And that’s the thing: tutoring doesn’t replace teaching or the core of schools. The goal of tutoring is to supplement, not supplant. No matter how a school or school system is set up, high quality tutoring plays an important role.

If high-quality tutoring is an unambiguous good, then free, high-quality peer tutoring is undoubtedly an even more unambiguous good.

In our work at schoolhouse.world, where we provide just that, we have seen tremendous enthusiasm for it. We are a free peer tutoring platform with volunteer tutors hosting small group sessions over Zoom. As COO of the non-profit, I see firsthand others’ excitement for these offerings.

10 US state departments of education and non-profits have partnered with us to provide free tutoring to students in their state. Red states. Blue states. It doesn’t matter. They all see high-quality peer tutoring as an unambiguous good.

The state departments of education and non-profits that have partnered with schoolhouse.world.

Colleges are interested, too. UChicago and MIT are the first two universities to formally ask for schoolhouse.world tutoring profiles on their undergrad applications. In other words, they see peer tutoring not just as a way to help learners, but also as a way to demonstrate tutors’ own mastery of a topic. Tutored 100 other students in calculus? Odds are you may know calculus pretty well and could be a good fit at a top university.

Training a Generation of Tutors

If you’ve been following the logic here closely—the case for peer tutoring—you’ll see it hinges on one key point: we need to be able to train students to become effective peer tutors.

Tutoring ability does not come naturally to people. This is true whether you’re a kid or an adult. When people think of tutoring, they often confuse it with explaining. Don’t understand how to factor this polynomial? Let me show you how to do it.

But learning happens within a learner, not the tutor, and so tutoring must be an interactive process. It requires understanding what the learner already knows and what they’re stuck on. As much as possible, it requires helping the learner come to a better understanding on their own. That means listening as much as talking. Tutoring is a conversation.

Indeed, some of the most effective tutors may spend only 20% of the time talking.

It’s not immediately obvious that one can train people, let alone young people, in these tutoring skills in a reasonable amount of time.

Unless you see it as a mindset shift. That was Soren Rosier’s insight, a grad student at Stanford who researches peer tutor training (and is now working on PeerTeach).

Many may know the concept of Carol Dweck’s growth mindset. A short training on the differences between fixed and growth mindsets can have substantial long-term effects on how students approach problems in their lives.

What if tutoring ability were the same? It turns out it is.

Before I met Soren, I thought ability to become an effective tutor was reserved for a special few. But Soren put that idea to the test. He ran controlled experiments in Bay Area middle school classrooms to see if certain types of tutor trainings could greatly improve the tutoring ability of middle schoolers.

The results were shocking. Short trainings—we’re talking only a couple hours—were able to transform how these middle schoolers thought about peer tutoring. By dispelling their prior misconceptions, and letting them see how effective tutors ask good questions instead of spending all their time explaining, it prompted a mindset shift. Not only that, the mindset shift lasted. The middle schoolers continued to use best practices, and the learners they peer tutored did better on exams than those who had been tutored by tutors with more minimal training.

Two 40-minute trainings. Entire mindset shifts. Here I had thought that effective tutoring skills were out of reach for the vast majority of people. Soren showed me how even a preliminary attempt at training students to tutor could have tremendous impact.

The truth of the matter is that I’ve easily had over 10,000 hours of schooling in my own life. The number of hours where I’ve been taught how to effective tutor others? 0. Not a single minute has been spent on it.

As a society, we haven’t even begun to experiment with turning our students into effective tutors. What if we tried?

A Live Experiment

Can high schoolers really be effective tutors? Will there be enough people out there who want to volunteer tutor? Won’t learners want tutors older than themselves?

These are questions we hear every day. Our team has also asked them. But sometimes the best way to answer such questions is to go out and build.

Our ongoing live “experiment” is schoolhouse.world, a global community for virtual, small-group tutoring sessions in SAT prep and math. It’s more than an experiment, though. As of today, we already have supported 1.8 million learning minutes on the platform and reached thousands of learners from 80+ countries.

Our volunteer tutors range in age from 13 to late 70s. They hail from dozens of countries. And a surprisingly high number of our users are both learners and tutors. Perhaps they came to learn one thing and ended up tutoring another.

Sometimes we see professionals tutoring 10th graders in SAT prep. Other times we see 14 year olds tutoring adults who went back to study for the GED. And most often we see high schoolers tutoring one another.

Not only that, some of the most popular and effective tutors are the high schoolers. Kate P from Arkansas has tutored 300+ group tutoring sessions, received 600+ “super helpful” ratings and has 160 followers. She’s a junior in high school.

Kate P, one of our many high school tutors.


“The tutor was amazing! She provided us with an engaging session wherein she cleared all our doubts. The slides and the annotations were exceptionally informative. I hope to attend many more sessions by this tutor” *— a learner after attending a tutoring session with Simran R, a high school student from India.


“She is so kind enough and was ready to answer whatever doubts you have. Good teacher : )” — a learner after attending a tutoring session with Michelle L, a high schooler from Ghana.

Michelle L, a high school tutor from Ghana, leading a simulated session as part of our training modules.


We have recently piloted a program with Success Academy charter schools in New York where they had their students attend our SAT prep sessions over the course of a few weeks leading up to their exam. Not only did the students who attended 3+ schoolhouse.world tutoring sessions do significantly better on the SAT (around 50 point improvement in math compared to those who received less tutoring), they emphasized how much they appreciated the peer nature of the tutoring. A common reaction was surprise at realizing that the tutors, who they found so helpful, were their same age. Inspired by this, some of the Success Academy students are now becoming tutors on the platform themselves.

Onwards

At schoolhouse.world, we are still in the incipient stages of growing a global peer tutoring platform. But one thing is clear: how we train our tutors will be the key for unlocking the potential in millions.

As our platform grows, we continue to ask ourselves:

  • What makes an effective tutor?
  • What’s unique about tutoring in a global online environment?
  • How can we grow every person into an effective tutor?

We’re just getting started, but I am confident that peer tutoring is an under-explored area with much promise for changing education as we know it.


Written by Drew Bent, COO of schoolhouse.world

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