By Chrissine Rios Cairns, MA
The role of tutoring in student success has received renewed attention in higher education in recent years as more colleges and universities offer academic programs online and discover what established online schools such have known for more than a decade: Online support services are integral to a quality education and critical to student success.
Research I’ve conducted on student achievement shows that student services such as tutoring, library, and counseling are proven to “enhance enrollment, decrease attrition, . . . ease students’ adjustment to college, assist in their intellectual and personal growth, and contribute to their academic success” (Dirr as cited in LaPadula, 2003, p. 119). Student satisfaction at online schools has also been correlated to whether or not the students have access to online support services beyond admissions and financial aid.
Since tutoring is known to improve retention of at-risk populations such as developmental learners (Fowler & Boylan, 2010) and non-traditional learners (Goncalves & Trunk, 2014), it just makes sense to offer online tutoring at any school that offers online programs and degrees. Students who choose to study online do so for specific reasons, usually the same reasons that would inhibit them from driving to a campus tutoring center for help with a question.
My Writing Center colleagues Molly Starkweather, Kyle Harley, and Amy Sexton and I presented on the role of tutoring in student success at the 2015 General Education Virtual Conference at Kaplan University in June. We shared our research on the benefits of tutoring and showed how online tutors help in ways that might surprise those whose familiarity with academic support comes from their experience with student support services on ground campuses.
An especially important benefit and role of online tutoring is social connection. Even the most competent and high achieving students are prone to the isolation that is characteristic of online education. All students need to feel connected with their learning community in order to be successful. The degree of connectedness varies student to student, of course, but many of the students who come to tutoring have an “Aha!” moment after they’ve had the chance to simply talk to a tutor about what they are working on.
In the paper, “The Role of Tutors as an Integral Part of Online Learning Support,” researchers, McPherson and Nunes (2004) explain that tutors have social, organizational, and technical roles in addition to “pedagogical or intellectual roles.” From McPherson and Nunes’s research, the social roles “involve the creation of friendly and comfortable social environments in which students feel that learning is possible”; the organizational or managerial roles involve “encouraging [students] to be clear, responding to [students], [and] being patient” (p. 4); and our technical roles are especially important because tutoring and indeed learning cannot begin until the student “[becomes] familiar, comfortable, and competent with the . . . systems and software that compose the e-learning environment” (McPherson & Nunes, 2004, p. 4).
Tutoring online is therefore different than tutoring on a ground campus. Online tutors require a different and varied skillset beyond sound pedagogy and subject mastery.
At the Academic Success Center, whether we are tutoring writing, math, science, technology, or business, we begin our one-on-one live tutoring sessions by asking how we can help, and our students tell us. Students aren’t always sure how or even if we can help, but a conversation then begins. Sometimes it begins with helping the student figure out the microphone. Other times it begins by interpreting assignment instructions. Our sessions might also begin by telling a worried student, “It’s okay; I understand.” Meanwhile some students need immediate assistance with an academic strategy or the solution to a problem.
Whatever the problem, it’s never as hard when you have someone to talk through it with you—especially someone who is empathetic and patient while also being able to help you get from point A to point B in an assignment. Online students rely on online tutors to help them achieve their academic goals, and we do help. We have re-conceived and reshaped our roles as educators to what our unique, online students need to succeed.
Fowler, P. R. & Boylan, H. R. (2010). Increasing student success and retention: A multidimensional approach. Journal of Developmental Education, 34(2), 2-10.
Goncalves, S. A. & Trunk, D. (2014). Obstacles to success for the nontraditional student in higher education. Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research, 19(4), 164-172.
LaPadula, M. (2003). A comprehensive look at online student support services for distance learners. American Journal of Distance Education, 17(2), 119-128. doi: 10.1207/S15389286AJDE1702_4
McPherson, M. & Nunes, M. B. (2004). The role of tutors as an integral part of online learning support. Retrieved from http://www.eurodl.org/materials/ contrib/2004/Maggie_MsP.html