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April 1, 2011
Vol. 53
No. 4

How To / Increase Student Engagement and Achievement with Peer Tutors

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What if every school in the United States could develop a simple program that would engage and motivate students, reinforce the work of teachers, increase achievement, and promote communication and social skills?
In the recent ASCD Express article "Peer Tutoring: What Can Be Done Tomorrow Morning in Every School," Syracuse University professor emeritus Gerald Grant strongly advocates for peer-tutoring programs.
Grant is the author of Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh, which is an analysis of the success of socioeconomic and racial integration in North Carolina's Wake County Public Schools. He challenges school leaders to consider peer tutoring for their schools and districts, and he says these programs would go a long way toward helping schools engage all students in the enterprise of learning while raising academic achievement.

What Is Peer Tutoring?

In a peer-tutoring program, one student teaches another in a school setting, and tutoring can take a variety of forms:
  • In cross-age tutoring, older students tutor younger students.
  • In cross-ability tutoring, the student acting as tutor has already attained greater mastery of the subject or material being taught, while the other student might be struggling.
  • In reciprocal tutoring, students of the same age or ability take turns being the tutor.
Peer tutoring also goes beyond pairing students to correct each other's test papers or share reflections in small groups, and it doesn't need to be limited to academic issues. Peer tutoring provides a clear structure for interactions between tutor and tutee and specific goals tied to the teacher's instruction, classroom or school culture, or student motivation.
The structure of a peer-tutoring program is often derived from its goals. The goals of peer tutoring can go beyond academics to include increasing student motivation, improving collaboration, or fostering a more positive social and emotional classroom atmosphere. Some schools have used peer tutoring to increase friendships and mutual understanding between students of different grade levels, or between students with disabilities and those without. These programs may be less tightly structured, especially among high school students, with the students themselves setting the learning agenda with minimal guidance from teachers.
On the more formal side, the Peer-Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS) for reading and math are aimed at K–6 learners and require explicit training for both teachers and students, says Lynn Fuchs, who developed the approach with her husband Doug Fuchs. Both of the Fuchs are professors of special education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. PALS also has secondary-level peer tutoring.
PALS "are more complex and based on validated research," says Lynn Fuchs, noting that students tutoring each other are required to read the text aloud, retell the reading material in their own words, suggest the text's main idea, and do prediction activities that move beyond answering questions about the 5Ws (who, what, when, where, and why) found in other tutoring programs. For example, in PALS for math, the player, or tutee, works through a math problem with the help of a coach, or tutor. The tutor can pose questions about the problem and check his partner's work during the half-hour sessions held twice a week. Students then switch roles. Teachers designate a new skill for pairs of students to work on for two weeks, and students may switch partners as well.

Why Use Peer Tutors?

For many schools facing greater socioeconomic and ethnic diversity, peer tutoring can allow teachers to reach more students and thus raise achievement and promote inclusion, reports Keith Topping, a peer-tutoring expert and author of the book Peer Assisted Learning: A Practical Guide for Teachers. Topping heads the Centre for Peer Learning at the University of Dundee in Scotland.
Peer tutoring offers a means for differentiating the curriculum, is usable across the curriculum, and helps students develop their communication and social skills. Topping explains in the Literacy Today article "Peer Assisted Learning for Inclusion" that peer tutoring is different from traditional high school models in which older volunteers act as "teacher surrogates."
For example, he points to Birmingham, England, the largest local education authority in Europe, which has used high school students with emotional or behavioral problems as tutors in primary schools or at schools that have students with special needs. The students "present a completely different and much more positive aspect of their personality and capability," Topping writes.

Changing a School's Culture

In his book Peer Tutoring: A Teacher's Resource Guide, author Edward Gordon points out that peer tutoring can motivate K–12 students to "learn how to learn" and internalize the need for learning. Although parents may worry that their children who are tutors will neglect their own work, he notes, the exact opposite happens: tutors develop even stronger content knowledge and motivation as a result of their efforts.
In one high school in Mexico, school leaders sought to turn around the school culture through peer tutoring. The high school, the Preparatorio of the Universidad de Valle de Mexico (UVM) at Campus Cumbres in Monterrey, Mexico, had been the poorest performer of eight similar schools attached to a network of private universities in that country.
The curriculum, which is uniform across the campuses, couldn't be changed, so the school superintendent had to "work outside the classrooms," says Alline Sada, a technology integration specialist at the Euroamerican School of Monterrey in Nuevo León, Mexico, who helped UVM Preparatorio plan its peer-tutoring effort.
Sada helped school superintendent Ana Kane work with other school leaders, students, and parents to talk about school spirit and pride and the importance of study skills. The school asked its student council to create a directory of students willing to be tutors and designated tables in the library, empty classrooms, and picnic tables in the school courtyard for tutoring sessions. The student council runs the program by responding to students' individual requests for tutors, and the school's monthly monitoring system also flags students who are falling behind and refers them to the student council. The participating students receive neither money nor extra credit, and about 20 percent of the 1,500 students are involved in tutoring, usually in math, chemistry, physics, and Spanish grammar, Sada says.
"As soon as our first evaluation results were in, the improvement was obvious. With this victory, many more students joined the effort, offering their spare time to help each other," Sada says. "It's been three years since the program started, and it continues to be a success. The students have a great sense of empowerment and that keeps its momentum going." For three years, the school has ranked first or second in academic performance, and school leaders say that peer tutoring was the decisive variable.

Taking the Work Seriously

Gail Gilmartin teaches in an early intervention program for grades 2–5 at Haw Creek Elementary School in Forsyth County, Ga., and uses the PALS math program. She spends one to two weeks role-playing as coach and player with her students while they practice the component parts of the PALS approach, which includes coaching, self-talking, and practicing.
"I connected the roles of players and coaches with sports, telling students that coaches have to work harder and smarter than the players. It's the coach's job to help the player improve or think of a strategy to make them a better player," Gilmartin says.
Paying attention to the player, or tutee, is crucial, she adds: "I asked my students what would happen if their football or soccer coaches came to practice and talked on the phone, looked around, or talked to a friend instead of working with them. This comment seemed to help."

Planning a Successful Peer-Tutoring Program

Advocates of peer tutoring suggest a number of ways to help ensure that a tutoring program is successful.

Set Clear Goals

The goals—whether they are to improve students' social, communication, or collaborative skills or to provide student enrichment—must be clear when you are planning and implementing a peer-tutoring program.

Train Peer Tutors

Peer tutors benefit when they receive training in general skills, including how to present tasks, how to give clear explanations, how to demonstrate tasks and skills, how to prompt, and how to give feedback, among others, according to Topping. Teachers should identify for tutors the skills and learning goals to be covered in a session, and they should show tutors how to use any materials (e.g., flash cards, list of prompts, cues).
Topping suggests that peer tutors use a signal, typically nonverbal, to let a student know she's made a mistake, locate the error, demonstrate or model the correct response, allow the student to imitate the correct response, and then later check to make sure the student can do the work on her own.

Monitor Daily Results

In addition to observations by the teacher, students should keep records in the form of a log or diary, tutoring experts suggest. Entries should detail the materials and tasks covered and provide a summary, comments, or words of praise. As teachers analyze both the records and observations, they can determine not only progress and difficulties on the part of the tutee but also whether tutors need to be retrained.
"The main reason peer-tutoring programs fail is that tutors aren't retrained," Gordon says. He recommends peer-feedback sessions so that tutors can learn from the pooled experiences of the group, rather than just from the teacher.
Gilmartin videotapes her elementary math student coaches and players, and as the group reviews the video, each student jots down a note for each interaction. "When students started addressing how many coaches weren't 'watching and engaged,' they could see what great coaching looked like compared to others," Gilmartin notes. "It's crucial to have coaches watch students every step of the way and know when a player makes a mistake, rather than waiting until the problem is finished."
Sustaining a peer-tutoring program depends on the results it has achieved, which requires concrete data, Topping says. Increasing student achievement is a measurable goal, as is increasing social and emotional skills. Peer tutoring implemented to improve the social or emotional culture in the classroom can be measured in a variety of ways, including a reduction in discipline problems, observations of students, and various forms of questionnaires and self-reporting. Topping notes that in some projects, participants in tutoring make audio or video recordings of themselves for later review and rating.
Because of the tremendous gains her students have made, Gilmartin, a teacher for 20 years, calls the peer tutoring in PALS "hands-down, the best intervention I've ever implemented."


Rick Allen is a former ASCD writer and content producer.

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