Interview with Susanna Loeb (Part III): Tutoring Strategies and the Effectiveness of Remote Learning

Interview with Susanna Loeb (Part III): Tutoring Strategies and the Effectiveness of Remote Learning

Across the country, education leaders are scrambling to address the pandemic’s detrimental impacts on student learning. One of the biggest questions school districts are trying to answer is how to find the most effective tutoring strategies to combat learning loss

Dr. Susanna Loeb, director of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, and her colleagues propose high-impact tutoring as the most promising, evidence-based solution. A second concern is whether online tutoring is proven to be as effective as in-person tutoring sessions. 

In our January 2022 Pearls of Wisdom webinar (embedded below), Dr. Loeb shared her thoughts on these vital questions with Pearl CRO Nate Casey.  We’ve summarized the webinar discussion into a three-part blog series to highlight Dr. Loeb’s key points. In Part I, we discussed the benefits of high-impact tutoring. In Part II, we reviewed Dr. Loeb’s work with the National Student Support Accelerator at the Annenberg Institute.  And now, in the third and final part of our webinar recap, we’ll be discussing the best tutoring strategies and comparing the effectiveness of online vs. in-person tutoring. 

Finding Effective Tutoring Strategies

In the webinar, Dr. Loeb revealed that she’s been “working with districts across the country to test the effectiveness of different approaches to tutoring (…) and to better understand the challenges of implementing high-impact tutoring to overcome those challenges.” 

Among the initial findings from the Annenberg Institute’s research was that “the desire to increase scale comes with a push to decrease quality.” That problem, in turn, quickly cascades into other issues such as assigning too many students per tutor, offering too few tutoring sessions per week, and providing insufficient coaching for tutors. 

By contrast, “high-impact tutoring focuses on quality,” by decreasing the number of students, increasing the frequency of tutoring sessions, and supporting tutors with training. Dr. Loeb noted, though, that “building tutoring into the school day can be tricky. Schools need to be creative to do this well.” 

The most effective tutoring times, her group found, were during homeroom or intervention periods, electives, or before and after school. However, having in-person tutors on hand during these times isn’t always easy, which is why the advantages of online tutoring options are being further explored.  

It is important to note that the problems with K-12 remote learning during the first year of the pandemic were not because online instruction is less effective; the issues were related to curricula not being designed for online lessons, teachers who lacked experience teaching online, and the use of platforms that weren’t designed for teaching in the first place. Online learning also suffered during the first part of the pandemic because of poor internet access and too few modern devices in the hands of underserved students.  These issues don’t necessarily apply to online tutoring, especially if the right tutoring platform is utilized. 

For High-Impact Tutoring to Work Online, Convenience Is Key

Accessibility is a crucial ingredient to making high-impact tutoring work. It also happens to be a key feature of online learning. Indeed, accessibility is one of the leading reasons why college students look for online degree programs. Per Inside Higher Ed, the Department of Education cited that “51.8 percent of students took at least one online course in 2019-20.” Among other benefits, there are no commutes involved, which saves time and energy.  

“Tutoring is an excellent way to increase equity in schools,” stated Dr. Loeb. “However, it can only do this if the students who need it the most get it. That is why it is important to offer tutoring as part of the school day for students who need it the most.” 

When attending tutoring sessions becomes a hassle, students and parents lose interest because access isn’t convenient. Convenience, therefore, is key — but scheduling in-person tutoring isn’t always convenient. That’s where flexible online sessions come into play. Online tutoring removes such barriers to access. So why aren’t more schools doing it?

“Most research on high-impact tutoring looks at in-person programs,” Dr. Loeb told us, noting EdResearch’s “Design Principles Series.” She added, however, that “we’ve seen a lot of virtual school work and virtual tutoring as a result of the pandemic and the initial evidence is very positive. Virtual tutoring can be very effective.” 

Dr. Loeb noted that tutoring during the day “can be virtual even if students are in school. Students would be in classrooms on computers, perhaps with a teacher monitoring the class while the tutors come in virtually.” She raised the idea that in-person sessions might be “ideal” when they “allow [tutors and students] to get to know each other better.” But even the most ideal scenario can’t be effective when all parties don’t show up. Strong tutoring relationships help address students’ academic needs, but this requires attendance and enthusiasm from all sides. 

The Importance of Tutoring Software

Reviewing benefits of online tutoring platforms and software like Pearl, Dr. Loeb pointed out that they “offer the possibility — through audio and video recordings of sessions, for example — of studying the interactions between students and tutors to see what is working and what isn’t.” This capability can greatly help tutors adjust their methods so their work is more effective with each student. 

“Technology-based programs could learn about students’ needs and make those tutors great on the academics while the students benefit from a much more diverse group of educators,” she said. “I’m excited for the learning that we can have from the tutoring that is going on at scale. I am excited about models that use new technologies so that the relationships can be even better and so that the tutor can focus on student needs.”

On How to Attract and Retain Tutors

Schools must not only ensure that tutoring sessions are convenient for students, but for tutors, as well. 

“Districts across the country are having trouble finding teachers, substitute teachers, and, relevant for us, tutors,” Dr. Loeb said. “They need to think about how they can attract and retain the tutors they need.” 

Perhaps the best way to entice qualified tutors is to offer remote work opportunities. This seems especially true given the fact that so many workers have fled the labor force during the “Great Resignation” and are looking for online work they can do from home. 

“A rural school looking for high school math tutors may be better off with virtual tutors,” Dr. Loeb said. “I wouldn’t rule out online tutoring, especially given the new evidence that it can be effective.” She went on to note that “it may be difficult for schools to find tutors with the skills they want — maybe they want tutors who speak a language other than English or tutors with strong high school math skills. In this case, they may attract tutors with these skills if they use online tutoring, but not if they use in-person tutoring.”

She also highlighted the difference between teacher and tutor education and training. “One of the great things about tutoring is that many people can be excellent tutors. Many people with less teaching experience or no teaching experience can also be exceptional tutors, especially if they get some initial training and have some coaching and oversight while teaching.” 

Final Thoughts

It seems certain there are many potential tutors out there just waiting for the right opportunities to come along where they can teach online. The challenge is integrating them into the school day and providing them with the most up-to-date resources so they can establish positive academic relationships with the students they tutor. This includes the right software (like Pearl!) to facilitate such positive learning experiences. 

We hope you’ve enjoyed our Part III recap of Dr. Susanna Loeb’s webinar with Pearl’s Nate Casey. If you missed them, don’t forget to check out Part I, How High-Impact Tutoring Helps At-Risk Students Impacted by COVID-19, and Part II on the Annenberg Institute’s National Student Support Accelerator. 

You can also watch the entire webinar below, and be sure to sign up to be notified of upcoming webinars!

Interview with Susanna Loeb (Part I): How High-Impact Tutoring Helps At-Risk Students Impacted by COVID-19 

Interview with Susanna Loeb (Part I): How High-Impact Tutoring Helps At-Risk Students Impacted by COVID-19 

Soon after the COVID-19 pandemic began, the combined consequences on health, the economy, and K-12 schools started to take their toll. Students around the country found themselves attending classes online from home, but while some thrived, many experienced hardships and struggled to stay engaged. The pandemic’s effects were especially hard on students from low-income families, with impacts such as more profound learning loss, wider knowledge gaps, and increased absenteeism. 

The country is now well into its third year coping with this continuing crisis, and many valuable lessons have been learned along the way. Several academic organizations have researched the above-mentioned impacts that remote learning has had on at-risk students and have explored ways to address the damage of learning loss and mitigate it moving forward. One such institute is the Annenberg Institute at Brown University in Rhode Island, whose director, Dr. Susanna Loeb, is featured in a Pearls of Wisdom webinar on our YouTube channel (full video embedded below). 

This article will summarize some of the key points on high-impact tutoring that Dr. Loeb made in the January 2022 webinar with our CRO Nate Casey. In the webinar, Dr. Loeb noted that “studies across the nation have shown that students this year are significantly behind similar students in their pre-pandemic learning.” Among the many studies which support her claim is one from curriculum provider Amplify. Amplify’s research revealed that of ~400,000 kindergartners whose data was reviewed, only 37% were on track in their early reading skills, equating to an 18% drop from pre-pandemic years. It further observed that students’ learning loss “due to COVID may have life-long consequences if they are not provided with additional instructional support.” 

McKinsey and Company published an equally alarming report entitled “COVID-19 and education: The lingering effects of unfinished learning” last year. McKinsey’s analysis concluded that K-12 students were left an average of “five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading by the end of the [2021] school year.” 

The McKinsey report further cited that the “pandemic widened preexisting opportunity and achievement gaps, hitting historically disadvantaged students hardest.” Black students experienced particularly harmful effects, with “six months of unfinished learning” in math alone (and seven months for those in low-income schools). 

As a result, McKinsey projected that affected high school students are more likely to drop out and seniors are less likely to attend college. As a result, long-term effects might likely include significantly lower lifetime earnings and putting future generations at risk by perpetuating a cycle of educational and economic obstacles. 

To break the cycle, Dr. Loeb has met with educators and education leaders to discuss and identify solutions. Chief among the listed possible solutions is tutoring. “Tutoring rose to the top,” asserted Dr. Loeb in the webinar, “because of the large body of research pointing to its effectiveness in catching students up across grade levels and content areas.” She praised tutoring as a “high-potential option for catching students up, re-engaging them in school, and broadly reducing some of the striking and expanding inequalities.” 

However, tutoring is not without its own challenges, which is why Dr. Loeb and others aim to avoid the mistakes of past decades. “Many of us remember the No Child Left Behind era in which billions were spent on a type of tutoring that turned out not to be terribly effective or equitable,” she cautioned. She also acknowledged the challenge of scaling tutoring efforts to a magnitude large enough to make a difference. 

To address these hurdles, Dr. Loeb suggests a method known as high-impact tutoring. “Effective tutoring requires more than just high-dosage (the amount of tutoring a student participates in). The consistency of the tutor, the tutor’s training and ongoing coaching, and the use of data and high-quality materials for instruction are also important to ensure effectiveness.” 

In the webinar, Dr. Loeb reviewed the hallmarks of high-impact tutoring, which include:

  • Embedded tutoring – done during the school day, a minimum of 3 days per week
  • Use of small groups – up to 3 students
  • Use of student learning data – to inform tutoring sessions and focus lessons on student needs, thus accelerating learning
  • Consistency – using tutors who are trained and supported, resulting in positive and effective tutor-student relationships

Discussing these highlights, Dr. Loeb noted the key element of maintaining quality while scaling. “The desire to increase scale tends to come with a push to decrease quality, increasing the number of students per tutor or decreasing the number of times per week or not providing coaching for tutors.” For this reason, she emphasizes “high-impact instead of high-dosage” approaches. 

“High-impact programs provide a lot of tutoring with quality,” she stated in the webinar. “It is clearly better to give a smaller number of students really high-quality tutoring than all students low-quality tutoring to increase equity.” 

“The benefit of tutoring,” she continued, “comes from two mechanisms: the close relationship that students and tutors develop, and the focus on the individual student’s specific needs. The tutor has to have the data and take the time to know what the student knows and doesn’t know.” Homing in more on the importance of data, she pointed out that “high-impact tutoring uses formative assessments to understand what students know and don’t know.” Thus, data is vital “to identify and address issues and to continuously improve.”

In closing, Dr. Loeb reiterated how modern research offers ample proof in support of her proposals. “Rarely in research do we have so much evidence pointing to the promise of a specific intervention. High-impact tutoring is really the only intervention that has proven effectiveness across a range of grade levels, content areas, and locations. The driving force behind its effectiveness is the excellent relationships tutors and students develop. Our goal at the Annenberg Institute is to provide all students with the same access to high-impact tutoring.”

Stay tuned for Parts II and III of our recap of Dr. Susanna Loeb’s webinar with Pearl’s Nate Casey. These upcoming articles will review how the Annenberg Institute’s National Student Support Accelerator aims to help students recover from learning loss (in Part II), and will offer a comparison of online and in-person tutoring effectiveness and how to find the most effective tutoring strategies (in Part III). 

You can also watch the full webinar below and be sure to sign up to be notified of upcoming webinars!

VIRTUAL SUMMIT: "The Future of High-Impact Tutoring with AI" | June 5 from 12-3 pm ET
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