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Peer Tutoring: Why it Works

By Deb Killion

There have been many approaches to learning over the years among schools and educational settings in an attempt to get kids to learn faster and more efficiently. Peer tutoring is one of the most talked-about methods of learning that is still often used in schools today.

What are the reasons why it is still considered one of the best methods of instruction that has nothing to do with the teacher?

Why Peer Tutoring Works

The research on peer tutoring is somewhat mixed but it seems that it is most effective when students are paired correctly. For example, pairing up a low student with another low student may often result in less learning because it could be compared to “the blind leading the blind.” Both students are struggling in this situation. Therefore, any learning that takes place between these two peer tutors is likely to be unplanned or accidental and therefore, not as effective.

However, when peer tutoring is used between two higher-functioning students, who can work together on problem-solving and inductive reasoning, there are usually better results. The average student struggles with something. So a peer who is on their same level may be able to explain a concept in a different way than the other student has heard from a textbook or their classroom teacher. Therefore, a peer who is working with someone on their same level, is more likely to focus on important concepts that the other classmate needs help with and may therefore improve the results.

When higher-level students work with lower or mid-range student peers, the results seem to be the best. This is because the higher-level student has a sense of mastery of important concepts that lower students need to achieve and they are more apt to be able to guide them in the right direction over time. Even on a simple concept and for a shorter period of time, peer-to-peer tutoring among high and lower range students appears to be highly successful for the lower student due to the difference in skill acquisition between the two, as well as the fact that often peers explain things in a much more understandable way than they may have heard from their teachers or textbooks.

The Social Factor

Another reason peer tutoring often works better than direct instruction alone is the comfort level at which students feel with their peers, as opposed to their teachers. This also helps them to increase their social skills by working closely with other students and develops rapport between peers in the classroom.

Improved Study Skills

Another factor that may influence the results of peer tutoring is the fact that the higher student may inadvertently ‘teach’ the lower student how to study better. By discussing concepts that are difficult for them, lower students may find their study skills improve after spending some time with the higher-performing students. Sometimes, the difference between a high and low student is their study skills. By using the higher students as a role model for better study practices, this may improve their grades over time.

Increased Self-Esteem

Finally, peer tutoring helps kids psychologically by increasing their self-esteem. This applies not only to the peer who is more in the tutor role due to their higher ability level in certain skills, but also to the lower student who is being tutored in the skill. You would think the opposite effect would occur since the lower student feels less capable in this situation and is relying on the skills of the higher student to teach them.

However, once the lower student feels they understand the skill better, it gives them the confidence to be more independent learners on other skills because they know that they can understand something if they work harder. Such a symbiotic relationship between peers in peer-to-peer tutoring is always good and like the classroom teacher, the higher level tutor in a peer-to-peer relationship often learns something too.