Alex Quigley analyses the power of peer tutoring…
Have you heard of the ‘learning pyramid’? The one that states that students remember a mere 5% of lectured content, only 10% of what they read, but a gargantuan 90% of what they teach? Well, it is phony research. It is a leaning tower of hearsay, passing itself off as evidence. And yet, there is a reason why this pseudo-research has stuck in the collective psyche of teachers. Peer tutoring – the act of students teaching one another - can have a tremendously positive impact on learning.
Peer tutoring is not simply paired work, although they share obvious similarities. It is not lumping students into small groups; instead, it is a highly structured teaching method that engages students in a stepped process where they teach and learn together. Most often, peer tutoring is an intervention undertaken outside of typical lesson time - such as first thing in the morning, before lessons start - but not exclusively so.
The evidence of its positive influence on students’ learning is clear. The Education Endowment Foundation estimate peer tutoring has a whopping six months of additional positive impact on learning. They describe it thus: “Peer-Assisted Learning is a structured approach for mathematics and reading with sessions of 25-35 minutes two or three times a week.” The evidence that has been evaluated includes cross-age tutoring and same-age tutoring.
One large scale study, in Fife, Scotland, involving over 129 primary schools, showed significant gains in learning. They ultilised Paired Reading and Duolog Maths programmes, which gave real structure to the tutoring tasks. Like most peer tutoring projects, the tutors themselves improved as much, if not more than the tutees.
Time and time again, the evidence shows not only that peer tutoring can improve the knowledge of the given subject, like reading or maths, but that it can also improve the communication skills of students. Not only that, other benefits attend peer tutoring too. The process allows for students to consistently gain one-to-one feedback (often without the intimidation that can attend feedback from the teacher) that simply isn’t possible with one teacher and a legion of students.
When, where, how?
So how do you go about planning and structuring peer tutoring successfully? First, it is important to consider how you would integrate it into the school day. Would it replace some teaching time, or would it be outside it, perhaps during morning registration, for example? Consider the logistics of the peer tutoring, particularly if it is outside of conventional lesson time:
- Where would it take place?
- What time would it take place and for how long?
- How frequently would it take place?
The evidence shows, rather counter-intuitively, that doing peer tutoring for short, but regular spells is just as effective as longer sessions. This is especially helpful as it makes peer tutoring manageable as a proportion of our curriculum time.
Students are the core of peer tutoring, but of course, the teacher is essential in effectively structuring each step of the tutoring. Like with most effective learning, young people need to be well trained in each aspect of the tutoring. They require a plan and steps to follow to ensure they maintain the focus on the learning. As every teacher knows, it takes real skill to maintain the interest, focus and motivation of students – they need support in doing this well.
The most effective peer tutoring is cross age tutoring, like a year 12 student teaching a year 11 learner about tackling an English Language GCSE exam effectively, or a GCSE candidate doing paired reading with a new year 7 pupil. Still, you can utilise same age tutoring regularly in your classes too. It can prove an excellent method of differentiation. Pairing up high attaining students together for peer tutoring can free the teacher up to work with students overtly struggling with a concept.
The success of peer tutoring also has implications for our typical day-to-day teaching. Paired work, or ‘think-pair-share’, has long proven a staple for teachers to get students meaningfully discussing an idea. It often proves a quick and effective method for targeted collaborative learning, without the hassle of selecting and arranging larger groups.
We know that too often we fail to give students the adequate amount of ‘wait time’ when we ask questions (the average time we give students to answer questions is a paltry 1 second!) ‘Think-pair-share’ provides the time and space for students to formulate their ideas and give better quality responses. This in turn raises the quality of dialogue and feedback in the classroom. The power of our peers is obvious.
Like peer tutoring, ‘think-pair-share’ is most beneficial when it is organised with explicit clarity of structure and timing. Give students a chance to chat with their friend with little recompense and they surely will; give them responsibility and support, and they will rise to the occasion.