Many districts have invested in online tutoring as an academic recovery strategy, partly because staffing shortages make it difficult to find in-person tutors.
But research says it will take more than on-demand homework help for most students to make academic gains. That’s because online homework help doesn’t ensure a consistent relationship between student and tutor and often has low engagement.
There are ways for districts to optimize the impact of online tutoring, however. And, if done well, online tutoring can help schools reach more students through services with multiple languages, flexible schedules, and the ability to get help from home.
“Online tutoring doesn’t have to mean after-school tutoring; it doesn’t have to mean opt-in tutoring,” said Susanna Loeb, the director of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, which has produced research on effective tutoring practices. “It really can be very similar [to in-person tutoring].”
Here’s how districts can ensure they get the most out of online tutoring programs.
1. Be strategic about who receives tutoring
One problem with on-demand tutoring, in which students must opt in to receive support, is that it requires students to take the initiative to receive help.
That often leads to already high-achieving students utilizing tutoring instead of students who need it most. It also requires students to know where they need support, which can be difficult for young students especially, Loeb said. Instead, districts should select who receives tutoring based on students’ specific academic needs.
The Jefferson County school district in Louisville, Ky., uses this approach to identify students for its online tutoring program with FEV Tutor. Around 7,000 students receive high-dosage tutoring through the program, and those students are chosen on a school-by-school basis.
Often, teachers identify students in need of tutoring based on their scores on MAP, an assessment given three times a year, said Dena Dossett, the district’s chief of research.
“We rely on the schools,” Dossett said. “They know the students best in terms of which students need what types of support.”
2. Develop relationships with consistent tutors
Effective tutoring is relationship-based. That’s why in-person can be so much more effective than online tutoring, Loeb said.
But online tutoring can still provide students with those relationships by having them work with the same tutor every session. Some online tutoring companies, including Varsity Tutors and FEV Tutor, offer this approach, citing evidence that shows relationships improve tutoring outcomes.
“It’s very much a relationship-based activity; that’s what makes it impactful,” Loeb said. “So, you want to make sure they have that same tutor.”
Not only can this help students improve their academic outcomes, but it also gives them access to a mentor, who can help them with their social-emotional well-being.
3. Ensure tutoring is high-dosage and done during the school day
Low engagement is one of the most common issues with online tutoring. When tutoring is used as a resource for students when they’re at home, it’s nearly impossible for schools to ensure they are engaging with the program.
The best way to get around that is to build the tutoring into the school day, Loeb said. Often, teachers set students up for online tutoring during work time in class periods. This allows students to get the one-on-one help with the tutor without taking the teacher away from their duties.
“The benefit of offering online tutoring during the school day is that the students who may need it the most usually have a much easier time engaging if they’re at school,” Loeb said.
4. Involve teachers
To embed online tutoring into the classroom even further, districts can weave teachers into the virtual tutoring process.
Varsity Tutors recently launched a teacher-assigned tutoring program to help with this. The program allows teachers to get students targeted help as soon as the need arises.
For example, a teacher may notice during a lesson that a particular student is struggling with multiplication. Instead of waiting until that student’s test scores show they need improvement in math, the teacher can reach out to Varsity and have the student work one-on-one with a tutor right away.
“The teacher can go on their portal, upload the lesson, click a button, and say ‘I need three sessions with Billy,’ and the tutor is right there to reinforce, provide notes to the teacher, et cetera,” said Anthony Salcito, the chief institution business officer at Varsity Tutors. “So it’s giving tremendous power to teachers to help individualize instruction, not only reactively, but proactively.”
The teacher-assigned tutoring approach can also give teachers the opportunity to challenge students who are advanced with different materials, Salcito said.
5. Evaluate throughout the school year
It’s important for districts to know how impactful their online tutoring programs are.
The first step to that process would be to look at engagement, Loeb said.
“I would start really simply by seeing, first, which students are receiving tutoring,” she said. “Are you getting tutoring to the students who need it the most? Are they attending? Those two ways of assessing are really important before you get into its effectiveness.”
Then districts can look at how tutoring is impacting students’ academic achievement and well-being. Assessments given periodically, such as MAP, can be helpful tools to see how tutoring is impacting student academics, Loeb said.
Tutoring can also positively impact indicators of student well-being, such as attendance and behavior. It’s important for districts to assess students who receive tutoring on those factors as well, Loeb said.
“You can just ask them some questions about how well they feel supported, how much they like school, some of those softer measures that importantly capture students’ engagement and general well-being,” she said.