As a professional tutor, it may seem odd for me to support expanding college peer tutoring programs. After all, it’s partly what I do for a living as an adult, and, what’s more, how can a 20-year-old student possibly possess the subject matter or pedagogical expertise to successfully teach others? Shouldn’t someone with a teaching credential — or at least a bachelor’s degree — be the one performing tutoring services?
Yet for college students relegated to online learning in the age of the pandemic, especially freshmen who have not yet integrated into their college communities or acclimated to the rigors of college-level work, peer tutors may be exactly what they need. Indeed, several studies have shown peer tutoring to be quite effective. So how do these relatively inexperienced tutors get such great results in subjects ranging from multivariable calculus to organic chemistry? Research suggests the following might be at play.
Students often perceive peer tutors as less threatening. Because many peer tutors are close in age to their tutees, they can often better form personal connections that transcend the tutoring relationship. A peer tutor bridges that gap between a quasi-authority figure and a friend, who can serve as an educator and therapist of sorts.
Students will often vent to me about their problems and ask for advice. Social isolation can interfere with learning, and for some students, peer tutors may be their first major social connection at college, thus diminishing their feelings of loneliness. Students with at least one or two meaningful friendships are more likely to succeed academically and, in turn, contribute meaningfully to the classroom and campus (or during these times, virtual campus) community.
Peer tutors can serve as role models. Sure, professors can be role models for what students can become “one day.” Peer tutors allow students to see what they can accomplish soon. This can increase students’ self-efficacy, or belief they can be successful. Students who believe in themselves are more likely to put in the work they need to improve academically. Students who do improve as a result of peer tutoring may be more inclined to give back to their college communities, such as by tutoring or mentoring future students, as they grow more comfortable in their own skin and confident in their skills.
One of my friends initially struggled with organic chemistry, but a peer tutor helped her get an A. She went on to become a peer tutor in this subject herself, which she found really fun and rewarding. She is now a doctor, making her alma mater proud!
Peer tutoring has motivational benefits, and it has been associated with lower test anxiety and higher student engagement in the learning process. In other words, quality peer tutoring can make students feel less intimidated by the material they are studying and more likely to engage with it deeply, including through in-class discussions or simply in their own studying and research. Students who are more active and engaged learners can better contribute to the college community both inside and outside the classroom.
Peer tutoring takes away the stigma of asking for help. Students may be more inclined to seek other forms of academic support, such as by going to faculty office hours or the school’s writing center, if they see that getting help is a normal process and nothing to be ashamed of. In the process, some of these students may find themselves with faculty mentors, who can grant them new opportunities, such as research assistantships or internships.
Peer tutors can help their tutees become better learners. Peer tutors can also give students insights into how to navigate their academic and personal responsibilities, including useful study and time management strategies. The parent of one student I worked with said that I helped him not just with math, but with the overall way he approaches his studying. Students who develop better learning habits are more likely to do well both in school and in their careers. And students with fulfilling careers often give back to their alma maters with donations that allow them to build facilities, implement new programs and recruit or support underserved populations.
I should note that it is not just the tutees who benefit from peer tutoring. The tutors, who are college students themselves, can also refine their subject matter expertise. The peer tutoring relationship at its best is a mini learning community in which both parties learn from each other.
For example, when I tutor math, it always excites me when a student shows me a new way of solving a problem I had never considered, allowing me to tweak my instruction for other students based on my newfound knowledge. Tutors can also improve their communication skills, develop empathy and find a sense of purpose.
Back when I myself used to tutor my friends as a high school or college student, it made me feel proud to help my classmates succeed. Even though my students weren’t paying me, the reward for me was seeing them earn higher grades and become more confident individuals. I remember one instance in which I spent many hours informally tutoring one of my classmates in our college biology class for nonmajors. She was so grateful for my help that she bought me coffee one day since she couldn’t afford to pay me and insisted that I accept it. That I was able to make someone’s life just a little bit less stressful was extremely gratifying. As an added perk, explaining and discussing the concepts with her helped me better solidify my own understanding of the material.
Clearly, if colleges want their students to thrive, instituting formal peer tutoring programs seems like a no-brainer that can be done at relatively little cost. Peer tutoring programs in colleges have been documented as far back as the 18th century, and they have grown increasingly popular in recent years, with hundreds of institutions having some form of peer tutoring or peer learning.
While peer tutoring models vary in structure, research suggests that they are often most effective when a single department administers and evaluates an institutionalized program that aligns with the institution’s values. Student affairs and academic affairs should coordinate with departmental faculty members in the subjects for which peer tutoring will be offered to plan the programs and establish learning goals. Peer tutors can be paid or offered experiential course credit, as is the case for peer tutors at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Ideally, the tutors should be screened to make sure they are qualified to tutor the subjects and given ongoing training and support in best tutoring practices. Some higher education institutions, like Duke University, have been doing this successfully already. For example, all students in the mathematics department can get up to 12 free hours of tutoring from a trained peer tutor who earned a high grade in the relevant class. Just as the peer tutors provide moral support to their tutees, faculty advisers should reaffirm peer tutors’ own credibility and expertise. Advisers should provide tutors with clear expectations for their responsibilities and ongoing support.
In the era of online learning, peer tutoring relationships can prove pivotal in making some struggling students feel more connected to their college community and better positioned to tackle academic challenges. Colleges should jump at the chance to adopt this high-impact and relatively low-cost opportunity.