Reading: Online Tutoring

How To Learn Online


No matter how well designed and conducted an online learning course is, students do miss important social connections when they’re not physically present in their classes. Perhaps the most vital social connection they lose is one-on-one interactions with their teacher. Fortunately, online tutoring can fill in some of these gaps. 

Private tutoring, of course, is a price many parents pay for students’ entry into elite colleges and universities. And it works. Tutoring offers highly effective results. Small student-to-tutor ratios in targeted subjects have been shown to seriously improve students’ grades and scores. 

Fortunately, the idea that tutoring is solely for the elite is also rapidly changing. This is particularly true in the time of COVID-19, when online services of all kinds are rapidly changing. Tutoring is no exception. And new and emerging online tutoring and education options are often more reasonably priced than their in-person counterparts. 

"Tutoring has a big impact on outcomes."

It’s not just parents who are looking into the possibilities of online tutoring. Around the country, schools are considering tutoring to address the problems brought about by the pandemic. Since COVID-19, more students than ever are falling behind grade level. This is true also for students who previously did not have difficulties in school. Success rates for tutoring in schools make this an exciting possible solution to raise student achievement in the aftermath of coronavirus. 

Parents, too, should consider the benefits of online tutoring as a way of addressing problems that emerge with online learning, and giving their students the added motivation that comes with social contact. This is what I did in my family, paying for a tutoring to help my kids learn German. I made sure to do my homework, interview a few different ones before settling one a woman who helped my kids each morning at around 11 am. 

What the Research Says

What's clear is that tutoring has a big impact on outcomes. A 2016 study found that tutoring for ninth and tenth graders creates the biggest impact.  According to interviews with schools with current programs, and another study, a two-to-one ratio is optimal for effective tutoring. 

In 2017, a study examined the impact of high-dosage tutoring (i.e., frequent sessions) on student achievement in New York City Public Schools. Over a three year period, schools offered up to 130 hours of 4:1 student-to-tutor tutoring for middle school students. The approximate cost per student was $2,200 per year. 

"Part of what makes tutoring and one-on-one teaching especially effective is pedagogical content knowledge: knowledge of common misconceptions, common weak areas, understanding how to diagnose what’s holding a student back, and knowing strategies to address those misconceptions."

New York City schools used a guided reading model, with 1-on-1 “read aloud” sessions, independent reading, vocabulary reviews, and group discussions. The project proved a highly effective effort to reckon with disparities in reading ability for Black and Latinx public school students. The experiment was twice as effective at increasing reading comprehension as the Promise Academy Middle School in the Harlem Children’s Zone, and KIPP Charter Middle Schools. Typically it is higher income families who have access to such benefits for their children, but the tutoring experiment showed what a difference it might make if that weren’t the case. 

In Houston, Texas in 2014, school districts had success using a 3:1 student-tutor ratio program, at $2,500 per student. A related study, found the return on investment for intervention and tutoring in secondary schools, to be between 12.93% and 13.42%.

​For parents, the cost of a private tutor can range from $11 to $30 per hour. As previously mentioned, the positive effects of tutoring increase, according to the session frequency. Yet, even a few sessions can also have an impact, and make tutoring accessible to a wider range of families. 

What Makes for a Good Online Tutor?

Expertise. Part of what makes tutoring and one-on-one teaching especially effective is pedagogical content knowledge: that is, knowledge of common misconceptions and common weak areas, as well as an understanding of how to diagnose what’s holding a student back and what strategies will address those misconceptions

Collaboration. Tutoring works best when tutors support students in solving problems themselves. This creates a more active learning environment. Tutors have to hold back however on telling students how to perform a procedure correctly. Knowing how to let students solve problems is really the hallmark of a good tutor. That also means learning methods of giving feedback should be a major area of training for new tutors. 

Engagement. Tutors will be more effective if they can spot disengagement or low self-efficacy in students. Lack of engagement often manifests as low-effort responses, diminished communication with the tutor, or signs of frustration. Tutors who know some strategies to re-engage students (e.g., switching topics, reframing the problem, etc.) are likely to be more effective.

Understanding. Tutors ought to have a solid understanding of how students improve over time. For instance, creating space to review prior material, even if students seem to have “mastered” it once, is critical. Simple blocked time working on a topic often leads to a false sense of long-term mastery. 

Other Things to Look For. Motivation is important. For a while, I would just hire kids on the block to tutor my kids because it just helped with motivation. 

That said, tutors need to enter tutoring sessions with a strong sense of what concepts and skills the student lacks, and be prepared with activities to address those misconceptions. Those who come to every tutoring session knowing how students are doing on the assessments are likely to be much more effective. This should go beyond just “the student didn’t do fraction multiplication very well, so let’s have them practice more multiplication problems.”

The more that tutors can pinpoint the type of error (for instance, the student still occasionally finds common denominators instead of multiplying them), the more effective tutoring sessions will be.

"Several studies demonstrate online tutoring can improve learning outcomes – but it is more effective when mimicking aspects of in-person tutoring."

Research into math teaching strategies illustrates that students often use “blended” strategies as they move from an inferior (or incorrect) strategy to a superior (or correct) strategy. The change doesn’t usually happen all at once. Tutors are in a great position to help students understand what they need to work on, or to develop study habits that will continue to pay dividends into the future.​

Does Online Tutoring Work? What Are the Disadvantages?

One recent study found that online tutoring worked quite well. It looked at Cignition, used a good study design and found solid results. Older research looking at computer-based tutors found similar results.

But tutoring programs, whether online or in-person, are not without their challenges. Online tutoring of course has potential disadvantages. The body of research on tutoring effectiveness has relied mostly (but not exclusively) on in-person experiences. Several studies demonstrate online tutoring can improve learning outcomes — but it is more effective when mimicking aspects of in-person tutoring.

Be sure to test out your tutor. Ask for them to give you a trial lesson. Often times, tutoring is a matter of getting a good fit. 

The key to online tutoring is to identify which elements are typically missing from online experiences, and add these as platform features. 

In person, for instance, tutors can watch as students solve problems in real time, stepping in as needed. An online tutoring platform where tutors can see students solve problems (via an online whiteboard, or a webcam to view student problem solving) would offer an equivalent.  

Keep in mind, using an online whiteboard strictly for live demonstrations by the tutor (i.e., for how to solve problems) is likely to be less effective. An alternative or complementary approach might be for students to submit work to the tutor beforehand, letting the tutor review it, and advise the student during the tutoring session. This kind of strategy might work well in subjects like writing.

Will My School Pay for Online Tutoring?

Maybe. But it will be a hard slog.

To explain, states and school districts have the ability to use existing federal funding streams to fund tutoring programs (both on and offline.) High-quality academic tutoring is considered an acceptable use of funds for school districts under Title I of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Tutoring is also an allowable use of funds under the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program in ESSA. 

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) can further fund academic and social-emotional-behavioral interventions to help students access grade-level standards. As needed, individualized education programs (IEPs) could require students to receive 1:1 intervention in some academic areas. School districts can blend funding from ESSA and IDEA to expand tutoring programs. 

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Stimulus (CARES) Act is another possible funding stream. The stimulus package allocates roughly $31 billion to states and school districts to adjust instruction and school services in the face of COVID-19. ESSA provides more funding for economically disadvantaged students, and both states and school districts have significant flexibility in how they spend those funds. States and school districts could use a portion of this funding to scale tutoring programs.

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