By: Rachel Brown, Ph.D., NCSP
One of the challenges to providing individualized instruction and feedback to all students is the reality that in every classroom there is usually only one teacher and many students. Although instructional practices such as rotating small groups among individual work stations, as well as carefully-planned large group activities, can support most students. Teachers might not be able to give immediate feedback to all students as often as students would like. One method to increase the amount of student practice with immediate feedback is to use peer tutoring. Peer tutoring involves having students work in pairs or small groups to practice new skills and give feedback to each other. These methods have been shown to be very effective in boosting student learning outcomes above and beyond those obtained from teacher-based instruction. There are a number of specific peer tutoring models that have been found effective across numerous students. All of these evidence-based methods share certain common features, including (a) intentional matching of students to teams, (b) instruction about the tutoring routine before it is used by students, and (c) regularly scheduled daily or weekly time blocks when peer tutoring is used in the classroom.
Matching Students to Teams
Before using peer tutoring as part of classroom instruction, a teacher needs to decide how the students will be paired or grouped. The type of tutoring activity will determine how many students work together. However, it is usually best to have no more than four students in any one group. When the goal of peer tutoring is to have stronger and weaker students working together, an approach to matching students can be used. This approach involves rank ordering the students according to their scores on a specific measure, and then split the list at the middle student in the list so that you have two shorter lists of students. Then match the students together in the order they appear in the lists. For example, the highest scoring student will be matched with the first student on the list of lower scores. This approach has the benefit of all teams having a balance of higher and lower achieving students. In other cases, it might make more sense to assign students to teams based on their interpersonal skills or other features related to the assignment such as students’ areas of interest. Regardless of the specific method used to assign students to teams, it is always important and appropriate to take into account situations when certain students should not be grouped together due to personality conflicts or other factors.
Teaching the Tutoring Routine
After students are matched to teams, but before they actually engage in peer tutoring, it is very important that the specific steps in the peer tutoring process or routine be explicitly taught. Such instruction is built into some peer tutoring manuals such as the Peer Assisted Learning Strategies (PALS) published by Vanderbilt University (2016). If the peer tutoring process that you want to use with your students does not have ready-made lessons for teaching the routines to the students, it is very important to create lessons about the routines so that they will know how to work with each other effectively. Teaching the routine is often done over two or more days so that students can have time to consolidate their learning about the steps. Younger students are likely to need more instruction about the steps than older students. Nonetheless, teaching the routines is important for students of all ages. One of the best ways to teach a peer-tutoring routine is to model the steps with another teacher or a student in front of the entire class. In some cases, there might be peer instruction materials that the students will use for their tutoring sessions. If this is the case, it is important to have those materials copied and ready to use during the lessons to teach the tutoring routines. Even when students have previously used a specific peer-tutoring method, it is always best practice to teach or re-teach the routine with all participating students so that all students, regardless of prior experience, will have the same expectations about the tutoring sessions.
Regular Tutoring Sessions
A final key to making peer tutoring effective is to incorporate peer-to-peer lessons into the regular class schedule. As with any skill, when peer tutoring is done regularly, it will be more familiar and easier for students. Although daily peer tutoring sessions might not be needed, having them at least weekly will help students retain knowledge about the session procedures as well as benefit from the additional practice and feedback that working with a classmate provides. Peer tutoring can be included as part of daily class activities as a way for students to practice new learning and get immediate feedback from a peer. Research clearly indicates that immediate feedback is an important part of effective instruction and it is this feature of peer tutoring that is most valuable. When students work with one, two, or three other students, and know how to provide accurate and timely feedback to these peers about their skills, it means that there is a more frequent “feedback loop” about their mastery of the skills. Such feedback loops are a key part of any learning activity but it is hard for one teacher to give all students immediate feedback all the time because there are so many more students than teachers. Using peer tutoring multiplies the amount of feedback that students can receive each day.
Peer tutoring is an effective way to give students more opportunities to practice and get feedback on recent learning. To be effective, teachers must plan out the peer tutoring method to be used and how students will be assigned to teams. In addition, it is important to teach students the specific steps and routines that are part of the peer tutoring process. Peer tutoring will also be the most effective when it is used regularly as a way for students to practice newly learned skills. Notably, peer tutoring is a low-cost instructional method and can give students more frequent feedback about their progress than teachers can provide for all students.
Dr. Rachel Brown is FastBridge Learning’s Senior Academic Officer. She previously served as Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Southern Maine. Her research focuses on effective academic assessment and intervention, including multi-tier systems of support, and she has authored several books on Response to Intervention and MTSS.