How to devise a successful peer tutoring scheme

Sophia Birk argues that peer tutoring should be a vital component of higher education - particularly during a pandemic.

Higher education, historically the purview of the privileged few, has been open to the public for over a century. In all of that time, there has been relatively little increase in resources or programmes available to instructors facing growing student numbers.

That is why peer tutoring should be a vital component of higher education.

Besides ensuring that every student fully benefits from their university learning, peer tutoring schemes develop leadership qualities and a sense of achievement from helping their fellows’ academic success. Furthermore, by tutoring others, peer tutors reinforce what they have learned.

It doesn’t take much to develop a peer tutoring programme in your course. Here, I detail the necessary steps to make yours successful.


University students are considered adults; ostensibly in charge of their learning and presumably already having study strategies in place. By the time they enrol in their degree programme, they are expected to be primed toward academic excellence and take full responsibility for subject mastery.

Yet there is no switch in students’ heads that flips from child learner to adult student on their first day at university.

And, while great strides have been taken to ensure that students with educational needs and disabilities students have a place at university, there is still an ongoing discussion in academic circles about how such students could best assimilate in the higher education classroom.

For students of all stripes, going from the sheltered environment of compulsory education where following directions is the norm to suddenly having to take ownership of their learning is disconcerting. Indeed, it can have a profound effect on their ability to keep up with their studies.

From the lecturers’ perspective it is challenging to focus on individual students in a room of fifty or more and with limited time to deliver the lesson.

Devising an effective peer tutoring scheme could be the bridge lecturers have been looking for between teaching the curriculum and knowing your learners have understood every aspect of it

Setting up your peer tutoring system

Assuming there is not already a peer tutoring system in place in your department or via the students’ union, you can still set one up exclusively for your classes.

As such a programme tends to develop leadership qualities in tutors, you might even charge senior students with developing your peer tutoring scheme under your guidance and oversight.

First, find out if there is any interest in such a programme among your students. Although unlikely, perhaps your students don’t feel the need for any supplemental instruction.

Once you’ve tested students’ enthusiasm, the next step is to identify suitable candidates to become tutors. The tutors need not be in the same student group as their tutees; you may draw on more senior students who have taken your classes too.

Once you have established who will become tutors, you will need to train them. Peer tutoring is not simply a matter of gifted students assisting peers who struggle academically. Tutors need to learn the skills needed to successfully connect with their tutees to make for a positive learning experience.

Training could include:

  • Learning how to give positive feedback: what to say, when to say it and how often to give feedback
  • Giving corrective feedback: when and how to respond when students have misunderstood or not yet grasped a concept
  • Modelling behaviours: peer tutors need to assume a mantle of authority based on how you conduct your interactions with students
  • Role-playing: you and your tutors can role-play tutoring scenarios, allowing students to explore the experience of being a tutor and tutee in a managed space. As training progresses, peer tutors will role-play amongst themselves while you observe and critique.

Peer tutoring strategies

Once training is complete, establish students’ one-on-one learning sessions, always mindful that such pairings might need to change depending on how well things work out.

Not every student pair will work well together; you should have some flexibility built into your tutor assignments to compensate for the odd mismatch.

You might also keep in mind that not every tutor you train will have a student to work with but having a few tutors in reserve would work well in case one of your student-tutors gets sick. It is also a good idea to have a few tutors available around test-taking time.

Students who might fare well under normal academic pressure might suffer unduly when it comes to taking exams; providing such learners with a few weeks of one-on-one tutoring might make the difference between a passing grade and a poor showing that could mar their future learning endeavours.

Remember that this training is not ongoing. Initially, you will only need to allow for a few hours outside of class to instruct your cadre, after which your scheme can become self-perpetuating, meaning seasoned tutors may induct newcomers.

Peer tutoring in the virtual classroom

There is certainly not much to be gleeful about in these times but, if you are an academic contemplating a peer tutoring programme for your students, you might find relief in knowing that you can still provide tutoring to students declaring a need.

Online tutoring has proven to be an effective learning solution for students in remote areas where there are few tutorial services, for those with mobility issues who find it difficult to get to tutoring centres and for learners whose schedules are so packed they have little time for commuting to and from extracurricular lessons. With the wealth of academic resources available online many students may feel more comfortable interacting online.

You only need to watch for two potential pitfalls: technical issues and an inability for peers to create the type of supportive connection with their tutees that engenders a productive working relationship.

Unfortunately, there is not much to be done about the first problem but you can easily solve the second matter by simply letting the tutors find ways to establish rapport. It might not be a bad idea to incorporate online training into your tutor training plan even if your campus will be open this September.

Far better than an unaffiliated academic tutor who surely knows the subject material but not your specific pedagogy or your exact focus on it, your peer tutoring initiative will promote academic achievement both for tutored students and those that mentor them.

One response to “How to devise a successful peer tutoring scheme

  1. We have set up Peer Assisted Learning for our students on clinical placements, developing a bespoke PAL placement training based on our UEA based PAL training content. The PAL approach enables students to develop critical employability elements of learning around mentoring/leading/being mentored etc but also has a positive impact on placement capacity – being able to double up students on the same placement. We are currently evaluating this model of delivery. There is significant evidence around the positive learning from peer assisted learning models but it is essential that the student understands the pedagogy and are adequately prepared for the experience, to maximise this potential.

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