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Peer Tutoring as a Classroom Management Tool

Jordan Catapano

We typically imagine tutoring as an opportunity where a person knowledgeable about a topic, usually a teacher, spends time with a student who benefits from one-on-one explanation. While tutoring often takes place teacher-to-student, there are many advantages to having students tutor one another as well.

Peer tutoring is a classroom management tool defined by the Peer Tutoring Resource Center as, “A research-supported instructional strategy in which students work together, usually in pairs, for the purpose of practicing and mastering academic skills or concepts.” When students are strategically paired side by side, they may have a lot to gain from working together.

There are different models of student-to-student tutoring, including same-age tutoring, cross-age tutoring, lab models, classroom facilitation, and reciprocal tutoring. Each model has the same objective: Facilitating a space where one student can provide competent academic support to another student. Have you considered facilitating peer tutoring as a classroom management strategy in your school and classroom?

Classroom Management Advantages of Peer Tutoring

One of the first obvious reasons peer tutoring is advantageous as a classroom management device is because teachers cannot literally tutor each and every student in a one-on-one fashion. While it would be great if teachers could sit down beside each student when they need additional support, it is unlikely to be feasible. Teachers can multiply their presence, in a sense, by having students who can adequately substitute in.

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Peer tutoring can also lead to improved relationships among students and improved social development. Students are accustomed to interacting with teachers for academic tasks; students rely on their teacher to do the teaching and explaining. But when afforded the chance to be in a peer tutoring relationship, students have increased opportunity to interact with a peer in a meaningful manner. Students begin relying on one another instead of solely the teacher, and tutors experience a leadership role.

Peer tutoring ultimately helps students see one another as resources instead of mere classmates. It’s one thing to see other students as individuals just like you who are learning; it’s another to consider each peer as a potential source of support. It’s a good thing when students rely on additional aid from their teachers, but it’s even better when they recognize that their school day is full of individuals who can serve as tutors.

It’s Not the Same As …

One important distinction to note is that peer tutoring is not a form of differentiation. Well-intentioned teachers can sometimes make the mistake of using peer tutoring as a method to try to address all students’ needs. Jennifer Gonzalez describes this in "Cult of Pedagogy," “The teacher plans a lesson aimed at his ‘middle group’ of learners. Then, to provide extra assistance to students who need it and extra challenge for students who grasp the material quickly, the teacher plans to have students who finish the assigned task early help those who are behind.”

While there are advantages to peer tutoring, it’s not the same as differentiation. The middle and lower students may benefit from the strategy outlined above, but your higher-level learners will not be engaged in further learning. True differentiation would seek to challenge each student at his or her appropriate ability level.

Also, peer tutoring is not the same as students giving one another feedback. Remember that while it can be effective and appropriate to pair students together to review work, that doesn’t mean all students are ready to provide valuable feedback to strengthen their peer. Students are far less likely to identify core components needed for improvement or share insights that are on par with a teacher’s expectations. Get your students working together and give them guidelines for doing so, but do not assume that simply pairing students together transforms into peer tutoring.

Using Peer Tutoring Effectively

Whether you’re facilitating peer tutoring in a tutoring lab model or as a learning supplement in your classroom, you want to make sure that you are being intentional with your design. It is important to adequately equip both your student learners and peer tutors to successfully engage in the process.

Here are a few peer tutoring basics (mostly applicable to the lab model) that may help maximize your peer tutoring opportunities.

  • Have teachers or lead tutors facilitate. While you may have multiple student tutors available, don’t place the burden of orchestrating the tutoring lab on them. Provide them with an adult go-to for their questions, needs, and facilitation.
  • Distinguish your peer tutors. When a student walks in looking for a peer tutor, how will they know who can help them if the tutors all look like … other students? Provide your peer tutors with a simple identifier, such as a lanyard, name tag, shirt, hat, or sign.
  • Tutor to their strengths. Before peer tutors get started, have them identify their areas of strength where they feel most confident supporting fellow students. Are they best suited for assisting same-age students, or would they be more comfortable supporting younger students?
  • Application process. Depending on how many student tutors are interested, you might benefit from having an application process where potential tutors share their academic strengths and preferences, availability, reasons for wanting to tutor, and staff recommendations.
  • Train your tutors. Teachers have spent countless hours training for and practicing talking to students. Peer tutors on the other hand … have likely never done anything like it before. How are you training and supporting your new tutors? Consider how you can walk them through tutoring basics so they are making the most of time beside their peers.
  • Prepare your students to receive tutoring. And what are you doing to prepare students seeking tutoring? If they walk up to a tutor and say, “Tutor me,” neither one of them is going to know where to start. Instead, make sure your students come prepared to be tutored, having identified specific content they need explained or components of their work they need feedback on.
  • Regular tutoring times they’re available. The more consistent your tutors can be, the better. That way, your students seeking tutoring can come to anticipate when and where their favorite peer tutors can be found. This helps build predictability and routine into your program.

When students are helping students, the whole enterprise of education is strengthened. Students begin to recognize that they don’t always have to wait in line for a teacher to come explain something to them … they have their peers right alongside them and ready to help! When those peer tutors are equipped and prepared to make the most of their time tutoring others, everyone wins.

Do you have any classroom management experience facilitating peer tutoring? What are your thoughts on how to make it effective? Share your advice in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano taught English for twelve years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an Assistant Principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. Follow him on Twitter: @BuffEnglish.

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