Tutoring can be pricey. But it works. Here’s what you need to know.
In the 21st century, tutoring is frequently seen as a necessary cost. Private tutoring is a price many parents pay for students’ entry into elite colleges and universities. Tutoring, if done right however, offers highly effective results. Small student-to-tutor ratios in targeted subjects have been shown to seriously improve students’ grades and scores.
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 learning is becoming the norm, not the exception. Online tutoring and education options are often more reasonably priced than their in-person counterparts.
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 post-Coronavirus.
Students who fell behind specifically due to school closures may benefit from high-dosage tutoring in the short term. These same students will likely not require this kind of tutoring long term.
Parents are also getting into the act. 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 a.m.
In the initial stages of implementing a high-dosage online tutoring program, schools might consider including a wider variety of students in tutoring programs (with various achievement levels and academic backgrounds.) The student demographic most likely to have fallen behind during the pandemic are English language learners, students with disabilities, and those with limited access to the internet at home.
Over time, after students who usually achieve at grade level, or above, have caught up on missed material, tutoring programs could prioritize low-performing students. This goes also for students who particularly struggled with distance learning during Covid-19, and require longer term curriculum support.
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.
Certain public school districts have started pilot programs paying with tax dollars for tutoring programs all students can access. The online version of tutoring programs are also the most viable option in the context of Coronavirus, when schooling is already moving online. The Gates Foundation among others has begun to fund online tutoring or instruction programs like Tutor.com and Khan Academy.
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 four-to-one student-to-tutor tutoring for middle school students. The approximate cost per student was $2,200 per year.
New York City schools used a guided reading model, with one-on-one “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 latino 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 three-to-one 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 percent and 13.42 percent.
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: knowledge of common misconceptions, common weak areas, understanding how to diagnose what’s holding a student back, and knowing strategies to 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 hiring 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.
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.
Several studies demonstrate online tutoring can improve learning outcomes—but it is more effective when mimicking aspects of in-person tutoring. The key to online tutoring is to identify which elements are typically missing from online experiences, and add these as platform features.
Does online tutoring work? Are there any marked disadvantages to online tutoring?
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, 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.
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.
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.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the major online tutoring platforms:
If parents are looking for a tutoring marketplace with requisite background checks, Wyzant is a good option. For tutoring in middle school math, Cignition is a strong option. Learn To Be is a non-profit focused on underserved students, but is still relatively small.
Many of these platforms are not directed specifically at K–12 subjects, so it will help to do some browsing on any platform you choose to make sure they have what your child needs.
Tutor.com — Part of a larger education platform, the Princeton Review. This platform offers student-tutor individual matching, among other services. Tutor.com has relationships with K–12 schools, for on-demand 24/7 tutoring, scheduled tutoring, drop-off essay review, and diagnostic quizzes. Overall, they have roughly 3,000 experts covering sixty K–12 subjects.
Wyzant.com — A student-tutor matching service. Wyzant does both in-person and online tutoring, and invests heavily in the online component. Like most other online platforms, they have their own online tutoring software (a white board and streaming video with various bells and whistles; lessons can also be recorded and re-watched.)
Chegg.com — Part of a larger education platform, Chegg.com offers both text, audio, and video tutoring, by using an online whiteboard. Although they offer both on-demand and scheduled lessons, their focus is on-demand. The focus is more on high school and undergraduate student tutoring.
Tutoreye.com — A good option for those looking for different tutoring possibilities: several models are available from student-to-tutor matching model (Tutoreye vets the tutors), to support for libraries and homeschooling. As with most platforms, Tutoreye uses an interactive whiteboard, and the ability to record and replay sessions.
Skooli.com — Students do the matching by looking at a handful of recommended tutors and picking which tutors to request. Skooli has an interactive white board to facilitate lessons, which notably integrates with the Google suite of Docs, Slides, and Sheets. The emphasis is on safety and security, with a capacity for up to 300,000 students.
Revolution Prep — Places emphasis on test prep. Small group tutoring available for up to eight students, but only for test prep. One-on-one tutoring covers test prep and academic subjects for a decent amount of subjects. Individual students can purchase a bulk buy in hours, e.g., twenty-four hours of tutoring or thirty-six hours of tutoring. They use a Zoom browser plug-in—unclear what affordances that platform has (beyond screen sharing and video discussion). All tutors are full-time employees.
Club Z! — For individual students seeking tutors both in-person and online tutoring. Club Z! in-person tutoring franchises exist throughout the U.S. Standard range of academic topics. No specific online tutoring platform, and it wasn’t clear from our analysis what their process is for vetting tutors.
Tutorme.com — On-demand student-to-tutor matching. Interactive whiteboard available. Scheduling ahead seems possible. Students can stick with tutors they like. Wide variety of academic and professional subjects, plus career counseling, but emphasis is on high school and adult education. No elementary or middle school subjects.
Smarthinking.com — Wide variety of tutoring services: “drop-in” tutoring (when a student needs help immediately), scheduled sessions, space for questions for tutors to address later, and recorded sessions. Part of a larger education platform (Pearson). Tutors are part-time, but most have advanced degrees, and cover a wide range of subjects.
Cignition — One-on-one online tutoring in math, primarily to middle-school students. Tutoring is available 24/7, with a collaborative workspace for students and tutors during the tutoring session. Student-tutor matches are made after inquiry sent by parents. Access to their math game (Fog Isle) and diagnostic information can help personalize learning. The majority of tutors have Master’s degrees.
Learn To Be — A non-profit organization focused on tutoring under-served students. Tutors are volunteers and about a quarter of the families using tutoring services pay a small monthly fee. The rest do not have to pay.
SpecialEdTutoring.com — Student-tutor matching program for students with learning disabilities. Matching process is based on a consultation. All tutors have at least a B.A. in Special Education.
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 learning is becoming the norm, not the exception.
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 one-to-one 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.
Editor’s note: This article was first published by The Learning Agency.