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Rethinking Community Dynamics in Peer Tutoring Programs: Part One

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In our recent report “Impact and Efficacy of Peer Tutoring in Virtual and In-Person Settings,” we were delighted to see the high levels of satisfaction and effectiveness that peer tutoring with Knack delivers to tutors and tutees alike. 

In many ways, peer tutoring produces better learners and campus citizens. Tutees indicated high levels of agreement with the statements "Tutoring helped me become an independent learner" (giving it an average score of 4.28), "Tutoring helped increase my subject matter knowledge" (4.54), "My tutor(s) made a point to help me improve my overall approach to learning instead of just covering course content" (4.38), and "Tutoring helped me build my self-confidence" (4.30). But we noticed something interesting about these results: they seemed confined to either an individual’s sense of self, or to a result that came from their being paired with a tutor. These sorts of relationships are valuable, and can encourage students to persist. But what about a wider sense of community, one that stretches beyond a one to one relationship?

For professionals who recognize how essential a sense of connection to a larger community is to student success, this might seem concerning. But, when considered in the era of post-lockdown learning, it makes sense that these students aren’t creating community through this particular method of campus engagement...and it may not make sense to ask them to.

Vulnerability in Community is Difficult

In a 2022 op-ed for Slate Magazine, college professor Christopher Schaberg reported the findings of several conversations he had on campus about the developmental milestones of college students in the pandemic era—or in some cases, the lack thereof:

So when it feels like students are overwhelmingly lacking skill sets that should be ingrained (or at least initiated) by the time they get to college, the lacuna of the pandemic years has most likely been a contributing factor. There is good reason to be patient with these students, then, because they are literally making up for lost time in their personal development.

As he goes on, he mentions circumstances that might drive a student to seek out tutoring, but also points out why the experience may be a challenging one to make communal:

Often what first appears as a simple time management issue or an academic challenge can end up being part of a deeper mental health concern. For example, an instance of a student not communicating with an instructor might be due to a lack of training or fluency with a school’s messaging software, or to not understanding basic etiquette. But it could also be due to anxiety from cumulative time not communicating (or communicating in endlessly permutating ways) with others. Such cases can be incredibly difficult for both students and instructors to navigate, much less redress in real time.

Grappling with these issues is a deeply vulnerable process. It stands to reason that tutees or tutors going through it might not want to do so in view of their peers. However, having the support of a dedicated individual can serve as an on-ramp to more meaningful community building.

One-to-One Support May Be More Fitting for Tutees’ Academic Vulnerability

Peer tutoring, especially when conducted with one person over an extended period of time, can provide a type of support that a tutee may not feel comfortable seeking from a larger group. This notion is supported by research from Dr. Tara Suwinyattichaiporn and Meredith Turner, whose “Just Text Me: Investigating the Effects of Computer-Mediated Social Support on Mental Health Outcomes Among Millennial and Generation Z Populations” elaborates on the role that sustained connection can have not only in student success, but in lessening the impact of mental health challenges:

The statistical findings suggest Millennials and Gen Zers who reported receiving more computer-mediated social support from their friends and family tend to report lower levels of suicidal ideation, social isolation, stress, and depression. This result is consistent with previous research findings on perceived social support that focuses on face-to-face method of communication (Cheng et al., 2014; Hollingsworth et al., 2018; Lamis et al., 2016; Rains et al., 2017). Numerous studies confirmed social support is a vital part of mental health, thus, it makes sense that computer-mediated social support would yield similar effects on mental health as well.

Computer-mediated support doesn’t have to be confined to the actual act of tutoring as supported by a platform like Knack. For tutees, working with a tutor who not only assists them in their preparation for exams but also sends a message afterward to ask how it went can make a great deal of difference in their sense of belonging and adjustment. And for tutors, learning how to effectively offer this support can make an additional difference. 

One-to-One Support May Be More Fitting for Tutors’ Sense of Competency

While we naturally account for the learning that is happening with tutees in peer tutoring relationships, we don’t always acknowledge that the same is happening for tutors. Even with a strong command over the material, and even with a relationship with their tutees that provides extra-tutorial support, they may have less experience or confidence with the act of tutoring itself. Roscoe and Chi (2013) acknowledge this gap and the vulnerability that may accompany it:

Tutors may initially rely on favorite scripted or well-understood explanations and examples, but persistent tutee confusion may force tutors to generate a revised or novel explanation to help their pupil understand. Similarly, tutee questions might indicate areas where tutors’ knowledge is flawed. Tutees might become confused because the tutors’ explanation is contradictory or incomplete. Thus, tutees’ questions may provide a metacognitive cue, or source of cognitive conflict, leading peer tutors to revise their own understanding and knowledge deficits to provide better explanations for their tutees. 

Working through the machinations of feeling less qualified than expected, or seen as a faulted authority, is a difficult experience for tutors to grapple with. In addition to training that normalizes this phenomenon, providing ample support to tutors as they process the feelings associated with this reality is essential.

In the second half of this post, we’ll explore an alternative way to think about community among those embarking upon the peer tutoring experience.

Learn more about Knack programs and how Knack can empower tutors and tutees alike on your campus by visiting joinknack.com/partner.