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The 21st-Century Role of Peer Tutoring Programs in Higher Ed

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The 21st century continues to evolve in ways most of us wouldn’t have predicted in our wildest imaginations.

Whether it’s the rapid advancement of technology, the onset and impact of COVID-19, or even getting to know Generation Z, this is a time period marked by resilience and adaptability to global change. 

Just as institutions of higher education strive to innovate and become learning centers that prepare students for the modern workforce, individual campus departments are also wise to adapt their services to meet the needs of students in the 21st century. 

Digital transformation is no doubt a part of this era. Higher education must engage with digital technology not just to survive but to thrive as changes continue to emerge. In fact, Harvard Business Review argues that higher ed needs a long term plan for virtual learning and that “digital transformation is now risk mitigation.”

When it comes to peer tutoring, the opportunity isn’t to replace existing programs with technology, but rather to empower them with the kind of digital transformation that elevates their services above the fray to focus energy on the highest-impact tasks. 

In a time where internships are slowing down and other opportunities for students are changing, tutoring can truly take center stage. The educationally purposeful peer interactions (EPPIs) offered in tutoring are an underutilized, cost-effective resource for enriching student learning and success, benefiting both students receiving help and peer tutors giving it. Here are six ways that peer tutoring programs can continue to evolve to meet the needs of 21st-century college students. 

Initial Tutor Training and Ongoing Support

The tutoring role has long been overlooked on college campuses as an opportunity for student development and professional growth. While merely pairing students who have excelled in a class with students who are currently taking it is the foundation upon which all peer tutoring programs are built, it barely scratches the surface of what can be achieved with a thoughtfully designed initiative.

Turning tutoring into a valued campus role that provides leadership opportunities and mentorship support for peer tutors allows the position to live up to its true potential in the 21st century. Providing CRLA-certified training and ongoing support for tutors, using the Iowa GROW style of mentorship-supervision, propels this campus job into a student leadership role that helps develop the NACE career competencies employers seek. With this kind of framework, peer tutoring can help tackle the skills gap in addition to helping students persist to graduation. 

Added Optionality for Delivery of Services

As we’ve seen with COVID-19, institutions aren’t always able to deliver services in person or through traditional means. The truth is, however, that 21st-century students have long desired increased flexibility when it comes to accessing services. Before, during, and after COVID-19, students continue to demand that higher education adapt to the modern way of doing things. 

As such, innovative peer tutoring programs that integrate modern technology appeal to students because they provide them with the opportunity to choose how they would like to engage with services. When students can decide whether their sessions are in-person or online, for example, they are much more likely to consistently utilize tutoring services. Allowing students to choose between one-on-one or group tutoring is another great way to let students customize their peer learning experience.

The Tutor Feedback Loop

Peer tutoring programs in the 21st century should continue to enrich peer tutoring jobs, turning them into even better opportunities for leadership development and career preparedness. Creating a tight tutor feedback loop is one of the the best ways to make this happen. 

Combining post-session feedback from peers with guided reflection driven by supervisors is the best way to help peer tutors grow and improve in their roles. In fact, reflecting is a core component of the approach Iowa GROW uses in their mentorship-focused view of supervision with student employees. Peer tutoring programs can offer another avenue for tutor reflection and feedback by providing digital badge opportunities for demonstrated competencies. Pushing towards this direction allows peer tutoring to truly become an experiential learning activity, further increasing its value. 

While a limited model of peer tutoring might match students with peer tutors without much feedback or support for the tutors, the 21st-century job market demands that we include a steady stream of tutor feedback, training, and leadership development to help these student leaders develop the career skills they will need for the rest of their lives. 

A Focus on Awareness

Peer tutoring programs making smart moves in the 21st century will be focused on creating interest and increasing engagement, both for students needing academic help and for students looking to become tutors. This means establishing a more visible and active presence on campus, going to where students are rather than waiting for them to show up. 

A more active recruitment of high-achieving students as tutors should be a priority, especially as the role becomes more appealing with quality training and leadership development. Emphasis should also be placed on the economic mobility the role offers since it allows flexible opportunities for students to “learn and earn” via meaningful employment. 

In the modern age, peer tutoring programs can also work smarter to increase student engagement with services and uncover new opportunities for growth. With a concerted effort to reach the students you don’t hear about and a move beyond simplistic advertising of services, tutoring programs can lean on their marketing staff to better connect with more students. Marketing efforts for tutoring programs should broaden to include student stories and speak more directly to the needs of students and the obstacles that keep them from getting the help they need. 

Increased Student Intervention

The 21st-century role of peer tutoring programs should involve strategic internal referrals among other academic support services and more intelligent student intervention. This may look like following up with at-risk students who have been prescribed tutoring to ensure tutoring is being used and is helpful for them. It might also be triaged help or collaboration among support teams to help the student succeed. It might even be predictive analytics to identify students who need tutoring before it’s too late.

Increased student intervention could also mean getting more students in the pipeline for academic support who need help but are hesitant to ask. Promoting low-commitment options for students like a “brief 30-minute consult” presents students in the precontemplative or contemplative stages of change with the opportunity to meet with an expert, share their concerns, and receive a recommendation about services. Recommendations may include tutoring, supplemental instruction, student success coaching, or other services. This “consult” appointment is an option many counseling centers offer to give students considering help a chance to find out what might be right for them should they decide to pursue assistance. This also helps to reduce some of the stigma around asking for help

Data-Driven Decision Making

As we move further into the 21st century, peer tutoring programs have an incredible opportunity to better demonstrate the effectiveness of their services. As such, data collection and reporting should grow as a priority for administrators overseeing these programs. The more robust the data collection, the more leverage a given program has to get resourced rather than outsourced. Indeed, proving the impact of services empowers a tutoring program to preserve funding and grow resources to reach more students.

Tutoring programs that track student demand and student outcomes, for example, can demonstrate the effectiveness of current programs and make a clear case to scale services to help more students see the same result. Technology platforms that include an online dashboard to review data of student use, student outcomes, and student interest provide administrators the power to truly maximize the potential of their programs. Data analytics allow tutoring staff to understand academic roadblocks and flexibly adjust to serve ever-changing student needs in real time.

The targeted use of well-designed technology by tutoring programs will increase student success and help program leaders to showcase the value they create on campus. Students who utilized five or more hours of Knack Tutoring at FAMU, for instance, were nine times less likely to repeat their course. In addition, platforms that enable staff to scale the reach of their services without adding unnecessary overhead help to preserve resources while also providing the data necessary to demonstrate effectiveness.