In seeking to answer the devastating effects of the pandemic, schools have turned to tutoring. The U.S. Department of Education, for instance, has launched the National Partnership for Student Success, recruiting 250,000 new tutors and mentors, and reports that 56 percent of public schools are using “high-dosage” tutoring to combat learning loss. But “tutoring” is no one thing. It can be in person or virtual, one-on-one or in small groups, and work better or worse. To help better understand how tutoring works and how to maximize the chance it’ll deliver, I sat down with Chuck Cohn, the founder and CEO of Varsity Tutors—the nation’s largest online tutoring platform. Varsity Tutors has been providing tutoring for 15 years and today hosts more than 40,000 tutors. We discussed Varsity Tutors, what they’ve learned over time, and what lessons their experiences might offer for current efforts.
Rick: So what is Varsity Tutors?
Chuck: Varsity Tutors is a platform for online tutoring and live instruction. We offer 1-on-1 instruction and small-group sessions, as well as adaptive self-study programs, among other learning options. We’ve served students and families for the last 15 years—spanning K-8, high school, college and graduate school, and adult and professional learners. Our platform identifies a student’s academic needs and then matches students to the right expert. Our matching algorithm considers over 100 attributes, including the student’s subject requirements, schedule, learning needs, and even personal interests or career aspirations, so the match of student and tutor is strong and more likely to improve learning outcomes. So, for example, we will match an introverted student who doesn’t naturally participate and volunteer ideas with a tutor known for having an encouraging and patient approach, while a student in need of accountability and discipline will find a tutor who can give them exactly that.
Rick: How did you get started?
Chuck: Varsity Tutors was born out of my own experiences with tutoring. When I was in college at Washington University in St. Louis, I was taking a calculus course and couldn’t comprehend most of the material. To make matters worse, I couldn’t find the help I needed before the final exam. The night before the final exam, two friends who were academically gifted and had great communication skills graciously tutored me to a passing grade. I realized other students in the local community could also benefit from access to high-quality tutors like my friends. So, I borrowed $1,000 from my parents, launched a three-page website to find students, and created a comprehensive interview and vetting process for identifying similarly gifted subject-matter expert tutors. Very quickly, it became apparent how labor and data-intensive tutoring was, and I started investing in an underlying technology infrastructure to scale high-quality tutoring and make it available to more students.
Rick: Can you tell me a bit about the nuts and bolts of how this works?
Chuck: For families, we’ve launched a membership model, in which customers pay a monthly access fee for 1:1 tutoring, small-group classes, live-streamed classes, self-study, and more starting at around $200/month. We know that learning requires consistent engagement, good data, and multiple modalities for different moments. This model enables regular and recurring access to tutors so students get the right supports at the right time.
Rick: How is virtual tutoring different from in-person tutoring?
Chuck: We’ve learned that the same elements that make in-person tutoring effective apply online—consistent and recurring, face-to-face, and connected to the classroom. Of course, we’re all used to FaceTime and Zoom now, but when we first started our Live Learning Platform in 2013, we were one of the first companies in the world to leverage WebRTC technology—which was revolutionary by allowing video communication to work from a web browser or mobile application.
Rick: Have there been any evaluations of your services?
Chuck: We measure success in several ways: families’ customer satisfaction, students’ pre-and post-tutoring command of skills based on their grades or standardized score increases, as well as leveraging our proprietary adaptive diagnostic tests to evaluate progress and outcomes. In a recent analysis, we reviewed pre- and post-assessment data for 14,800 students: 91 percent of students mastered the skills they were struggling with in pretutoring. Eighty-six percent of students in grades 1-8, who were classified as behind grade level in math skills, reached grade-level benchmark mastery in math. Likewise, 84 percent reached ELA mastery by the end of their tutoring. UC Irvine has also launched several randomized control trials measuring the efficacy for K-12 students across our platform. We’re excited to share those results next year. We are also working with Learn Platform and our district partners to measure the impact of their tutoring initiatives over the course of the coming school year.
Rick: Can you say a bit about how your diagnostic assessments work?
Chuck: Our adaptive, diagnostic assessments take about 20 minutes to complete and give a tutor a clear, detailed report on what a student already knows and where they are struggling. This pinpoints the exact skills the student needs to work on and in what order, helping tutors provide personalized support from the very first session. For example, in the 4th grade, students learn numbers’ factors. Often, when a 5th grader struggles with adding and subtracting mixed numbers or a 9th grader is having trouble with algebraic equations, it’s because they never mastered how to break a number into its factors. In cases like this, all the time in the world spent studying 9th grade algebra concepts might not address this challenge. But if the student gets the attention, repetition, and personalized instruction they need to really solidify factors, they can be ready to build several years’ worth of math mastery on that foundation.
Rick: How has the pandemic affected your work?
Chuck: During the pandemic, the shift to online triggered an enduring shift in consumer preferences. Parents and school district leaders embraced online learning as a critical component of education. It also created a need for new solutions. In August 2021, when we saw how behind students across the country were falling during the first year of the pandemic, we began collaborating with districts to build a platform that would allow them to offer high-quality tutoring and small-group instruction at a districtwide scale for their students.
Rick: Last year, you started a new tutoring-partnership program for schools. Are there any plans to expand the program?
Chuck: We’ve partnered with about 200 school districts, and that number is growing quickly. This fall, we launched two new districtwide offerings: “On-Demand,” which allows students to chat with their tutor around the clock as needed, and “Teacher Assigned,” which allows any teacher in a school district to assign private one-on-one or small-group tutoring to any student in their class that needs additional, focused help with the same tutor on a recurring basis. These programs bring together multiple types of learning and allow teachers to decide which students receive additional support.
Rick: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to school leaders seeking to ramp up their tutoring efforts?
Chuck: Varsity Tutors facilitates, literally, millions of one-on-one and small-group tutoring hours each year in the United States. Despite that scale, we are humbled by the complexity of challenges that have been either created or exacerbated by the pandemic. We’re encouraging districts to embrace teacher-driven models that provide every student in the classroom access to learning solutions and empower teachers to assign tutoring hours to students individually. This doesn’t only benefit students, but it supports teachers in a moment when burnout is at an all-time high. My advice is: Make sure your tutoring effort is teacher-led. Consistent, live, face-to-face interactions between tutors and students matter. Certainly, some students may just need on-demand support to troubleshoot a concept they are stuck on, but for most kids, that ongoing relationship with a trusted instructor can make all the difference.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.