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How High-Quality, Small-Group Tutoring Can Accelerate Learning

Northwest | May 15, 2023

Since the COVID-19 pandemic first affected schools and student learning time, educators and policymakers have given serious attention to increasing the number of high-impact learning opportunities to improve student outcomes.

Students in specific demographic groups (e.g., Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and low-income students) were disproportionately affected by disrupted learning time during the pandemic, which meant they fell farther behind in core subjects.1 High-quality tutoring is one research-proven approach to provide support and customized instruction for students that can help close opportunity gaps.2

High Impact Tutoring District Playbook cover

Key Considerations for Designing a Tutoring Program
How can district leaders start designing and implementing a tutoring program to accelerate learning? One resource, the National Student Support Accelerator's High-Impact Tutoring: District Playbook, can guide school district staff in implementing high-impact tutoring. The playbook includes resources, guiding questions, and tools to support the process, from identifying a focus area to ensuring staff capacity to scheduling tutoring sessions.

The National Student Support Accelerator also developed a Toolkit for Tutoring Program Design, which includes a planning tool (pages 22-38). This resource helps district and school leaders consider the design elements that constitute a tutoring program: target student group, content area, grade level, tutor type, delivery mode, dosage, student-tutor ratio, tutor consistency, setting, and take-up. For each element, leaders will want to consider the evidence of effectiveness along with any potential tradeoffs.

The following four elements, for example, require thoughtful consideration:3

  • Dosage: Tutoring can be effective 1-2 times per week, but it is most effective when it takes place 3-5 times per week. While the evidence suggests that 30- to 60-minute sessions have the most impact on learning, younger students may benefit from shorter, more frequent sessions.
  • Tutor-Student Ratio: One-on-one tutoring is typically most effective, but it is also more costly. Small-group tutoring (with 2-4 students per tutor) is still quite effective with reduced costs. Group tutoring with more than four students is less personalized and requires a high degree of skill to do well.
  • A teacher and student in class, having a conversation
  • Tutor Type: Programs with teachers and paraprofessionals as tutors have generally been shown to have the highest effectiveness, while programs with volunteers, college students, parents, or peers have generally been less successful. However, when volunteers are given adequate, systematic training and ongoing support, these programs also show improved student outcomes.
  • Setting: In-school tutoring tends to have a greater impact on improving student outcomes than out-of-school tutoring because attendance is usually higher. In-school tutoring is often more easily integrated with the school curriculum and environment. However, to have the greatest impact, tutoring sessions should not replace class time.

Adjusting Your Tutoring Program Based on Student Needs
While evidence shows high-quality tutoring is effective across varied contexts, school and district leaders may need to adjust programming based on specific student needs. REL Northwest recently heard from Montana's Arlee Joint School District (Arlee) about how it used ESSER funds to support and customize a tutoring program. Arlee, located on the Flathead Indian Reservation near Missoula, serves 416 students, 36% of whom are American Indian.

In designing a math tutoring program, Arlee leaders considered their context. As a district administrator from Arlee described, "We've noticed that a lot of our Native Americans do not feel comfortable in a large group setting when they're lower in their educational attainment ... yet they don't necessarily like the one-on-one tutoring either. We're doing small groups, 3-4 kids max with one staff member, and we've really discovered that's paying off."

The district administrator noted that in spring 2022 American Indian students in grades 3-6 scored higher in math for the first time than non-American Indian students (read more in the Montana ESSER School District Spotlights).

Additional RESOURCES

See below for more resources about designing and implementing a tutoring program:

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1 Lewis, K., & Kuhfeld, M. (2021). Learning during COVID-19: An update on student achievement and growth at the start of the 2021-22 school year. NWEA Brief.

2 Robinson, C. D., Kraft, M. A., Loeb, S., & Schueler, B. E. (2021). Accelerating Student Learning with High-Dosage Tutoring. EdResearch for Recovery Design Principles Series; Nickow, A., Oreopoulos, P., & Quan, V. (2020). The impressive effects of tutoring on prek-12 learning: A systematic review and meta-analysis of the experimental evidence; Dietrichson, J., Bøg, M., Filges, T., & Klint Jørgensen, A.-M. (2017). Academic Interventions for Elementary and Middle School Students With Low Socioeconomic Status: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 87(2), 243-282.

3 National Student Support Accelerator. (2021). Toolkit for Tutoring Programs. Retrieved from National Student Support Accelerator:


Sierra McCormick

Sierra McCormick

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