My College:

Peer Tutoring Helps Students Succeed — and Make Connections

Vicki Nelson

Students often need a little help with their schoolwork, and there’s nothing quite like working one-on-one or in a small group with someone who can help you reach your goals.

According to Dr. Ross B. MacDonald, Director of the California Tutor Project and author of The Master Tutor, tutoring is “an act which facilitates or provides a structure for another’s learning.”

Tutoring has a long history in education. Most of us are familiar with the idea of students working with a tutor to get a better grasp of their subject, and often to get better grades.

Most colleges offer either professional and/or peer tutoring services for students, usually included as part of their tuition. Occasionally, this tutoring may be mandated, but most often it is up to your student to take advantage of the service.

No matter what form tutoring takes, there are two basic principles your student should keep in mind:

  1. The earlier a student begins to work with a tutor the more effective the process can be.
  2. Your student needs to want to make it work and be open to help.

How Is Peer Tutoring Different from Professional Tutoring?

Peer tutoring is not a new concept. Students regularly turn to their peers for help with schoolwork — often informally. They may seek out a friend, ask someone in their class, or be assigned by a teacher or professor to work with another student.

Professional tutoring is also a common approach. Professional tutors are “adults,” often teachers themselves, who work with students to help them learn their material and sharpen their skills.

The goal of all tutoring is essentially the same: to help your student master their subject — and eventually not need to work with a tutor.

Colleges use peer tutoring because it works. A student with strength in a subject, usually someone who has done well in certain classes, is paired with a student who needs help in that subject. Most peer tutoring programs provide training for their tutors.

You may worry that your student would fare better working with a professional tutor than with another student. Although this may sometimes be the case, there are compelling reasons why peer tutoring may be just the thing for your student.

Are There Advantages to Peer Tutoring?

Peer tutoring isn’t intended to replace professional tutoring, but it offers students some distinct advantages.

  • Peer tutors are students. They may have struggled with the same issues as their tutee. This shared experience helps the tutor understand potential roadblocks. They know what your student may be feeling, and they speak the same language.
  • Because peer tutors are students, they approach the tutoring process differently than professional tutors. Professional tutors are often teachers and may approach the material in the same way they would in the classroom. Your student may benefit from a fresh perspective.
  • Your student may be more relaxed and less anxious working with a peer. They may be more willing to share their struggles, ask what they think are “stupid” questions, take risks and make mistakes. This will help them get at the heart of their challenges.
  • Your student will have a learning partner and role model. Working with a successful student may do more to help your student engage in their learning and be able to view firsthand how successful students function.
  • Peer tutors are usually excited about the job and approach it with enthusiasm. An excitement for learning can be contagious.
  • Peer tutors can provide social connections as well as academic support. Tutors and tutees often become friends.

As a parent, you can be confident that, if your student is working with a peer tutor, they're likely getting quality support from a student who is trained and dedicated to the task.

What’s It Like on the Other Side of the Tutoring Desk?

Joseph Joubert, a French essayist, may have said it best: “To teach is to learn twice.”

Perhaps one of the most obvious reasons why your student might consider becoming a peer tutor is because they will learn their subject material better than ever. Having to explain something to someone else demands clarity.

One of the best things about peer tutoring is that both the tutee and the tutor benefit from the relationship. There are some reasons you might want to encourage your student to consider becoming a peer tutor.

  • Your student will gain essential interpersonal skills. Tutors need to sharpen their skills at listening, communicating clearly and accurately, being sensitive to intercultural differences, and creating a positive working climate. All of these skills will transfer to the workplace.
  • Your student may gain greater self-awareness. They may discover their own strengths and weaknesses as they help tutees consider theirs.
  • Your student will increase their abilities in goal setting and problem solving and gain a better understanding of the balance between support and challenge. Knowing your material and helping someone else gain mastery of that material require different skills.
  • Your student will gain a greater sense of empathy and will increase their self-esteem and confidence.
  • Peer tutors are usually paid. Obviously, this shouldn’t be the primary reason for becoming a tutor, but it's a nice benefit. Tutoring provides a good campus job with a flexible schedule.
  • Your student will have valuable experience to add to their resume.
  • Your student may make some new friends. Working consistently with another student can often lead to lasting friendships.

Being a peer tutor is often a coveted position. By becoming a peer tutor, your student will have the opportunity not only to help others, but to grow personally as well.

Value Added: Building Relationships

Relationships matter to today’s college students. Corey Seemiller, who wrote the book Generation Z Goes to College, found that relationships are one of the highest values held by this generation of students.

In their book Relationship Rich Education, Peter Felton and Leo M. Lambert reinforce this idea:

“Relationships are the beating heart of the undergraduate experience. . . Many people can recall specific faculty and staff members, peers, advisors, mentors, and coaches who profoundly influenced their time in college, but also who they became after graduation. . . Indeed, scores of students we interviewed told us of moments when they were one relationship, or one conversation away from dropping out of college. Relationships matter.”

Peer tutoring helps students grasp their material and probably get better grades. But the bonus of the peer tutoring relationship is in the connections.

Not every peer tutoring relationship is going to be life-changing — it may not even be grade-changing. But when it works, as studies show us it does, the relationships and connections that it builds can lead to your student’s success on many levels. It can break barriers for the disengaged student, improve a student’s attitude toward learning, and increase a student’s sense of belonging to a community of learners.

Isn’t this what we wish for our students?

Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.
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