From chalkboards to smartboards and textbooks to e-books, the tools educators use are expanding and becoming more student-centric.
While these changes offer opportunities to adapt curriculum and approach subjects in novel ways, there remains a challenge: how do we provide every child with the most effective teaching methods for his or her individual needs?
Some children grasp concepts immediately and are eager for more; some require additional attention and time to gain confidence in a subject area. Parents strive to give their children the best education possible and help them achieve academic success, and schools and teachers work tirelessly to develop the most creative and effective learning environments, but research tells us that some children need supplemental academic support to reach their goals.
In the 1980s, Benjamin Bloom, a professor at the University of Chicago, compared student outcomes among three different teaching environments: those who were taught in a conventional classroom, those who were taught with a “mastery learning technique,” and those who were tutored one-to-one. His research revealed that the average student who was tutored came out two standard deviations (2 sigma) above the average student in a traditional classroom. This means the average student who received tutoring performed better than 98 percent of the students in the control class. Bloom called this difference the Two Sigma Problem[i].
Bloom set out to uncover how to combine the efficiencies of classroom teaching with the efficacies of tutoring, and his recommendations included strategies to be applied outside of the classroom. Among them, Bloom recommended helping students to develop better study habits, improved educational materials and technology, and providing a more supportive home and peer environment. In making his recommendations for teaching, Bloom concluded that the constant feedback, correction, and reinforcement in one-to-one tutoring are what make the tutoring environment so much more effective than group learning in a classroom[ii].
Today we recognize that the majority of students will learn in a conventional classroom, but we have discovered that by supplementing the passionate effort that goes into teaching with 1:1 support, many students will meet their goals and exceed expectations.
In Asia, tutoring is an integral part of the educational system. A recent report by the University of Hong Kong’s Comparative Research Education Center estimated that in Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea between 85 and 97 percent of students receive tutoring outside of their traditional classroom studies.[iii] Students attend many different kinds of supplementary education after school, ranging from private, one-on-one tutoring, to group enrichment programs, to large lecture-style sessions. And with the advent of technology, some students work virtually with tutors from all over the world. [iv]
The outcome of their intense focus on academics is well-known. A report from the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Government in 2012 titled “Achievement Growth” explored U.S. and international trends on student performance. Among the top performing countries? Hong Kong, Singapore, and Korea.[v] The report showed that U.S. student improvement rankings fell directly in the middle of the countries studied. Put simply, half of the students in the world are improving more dramatically that our students here in the US.
In addition to stronger academic improvement, when comparing test scores, students in Asian countries rank higher than American students, too. The Program for International Student Assessment, part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), compares student performance in reading, math, and science across the globe. Not surprisingly, Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore rank among the top performers out of the 65 nations in the study, and the U.S. falls close to the middle of countries surveyed.
What accounts for this discrepancy? Some might argue it is the length of the school year. In the U.S., students attend school for 180 days per year. Our Asian peers dedicate 208 days to school—nearly six weeks longer over the course of the year. [vi]Asian students, most of whom receive supplemental tutoring outside of their regular school day, consistently rank at the top worldwide. Conversely the American students, who spend fewer days in school and focus less on academics outside of the classroom, are hovering in the top third. What will it take for our students to soar beyond their current place globally and move into the top spots in worldwide academic achievement?
Changes in attitudes
In American culture, tutoring is often either as an expensive luxury available only to affluent families, or as a last resort effort to help a child in danger of failure. In Asia, where nearly every child receives some form of supplemental educational experience, it is a way of life. Imagine if tutoring was a resource available to every child? If it were as synonymous with the start of school as kindergartners swarming on a soccer field early on a fall morning? If every child had access to affordable tutoring we could show student improvement in test scores and a gradual move toward the top in global academics. Academic success leads to future economic success. For our children and our nation to compete successfully in a global economy, we need to support our students and promote their academic achievement.
A recent study shows that just 11 percent of K-12 students in the U.S. have received tutoring as a supplemental educational tool outside of the classroom. [vii] The American picture is nearly the exact opposite of that of Hong Kong, Singapore, and Korean students.
The transition to a culture where tutoring is universal will be a slow and incremental one. We are starting to see tutors emerge more frequently and in new roles. In December, 2012, the New York Times described the expanded role of tutors in the U.S. No longer designated to meet with students for assistance with a single academic subject, the tutor has become more of a mentor and role model who helps to teach a range of academic subjects and often assists with more than just school work—tasks like SAT prep and college applications. Tutors serve as a liaison between parents and students, or parents and schools, facilitating communication between the different parties.[viii] As the job description expands, the emphasis on subject matter expertise and measureable improvement is diluted.
Enter the modern world of tutoring: rather than having one tutor with limited expertise in a wide variety of subjects, people are turning to the world of online tutoring, with sites like TutaPoint.com and Tutor.com, which aim to streamline the process and allow their children to achieve their academic goals in several subjects. Families may choose to work with a single tutor who is an expert in one subject, or enroll their children in multiple tutoring sessions, selecting several tutors with significant expertise in various disciplines.
As online learning environments become more common, research is beginning to enlighten us to its benefits. Five years ago, a survey estimated that more than 1 million K-12 students in the U.S. took online classes, and that number continues to grow. The rapidly increasing number of students involved in online learning has initiated more research on its efficacy. The U.S. Department of Education’s evaluation of online learning in 2010 noted, “Students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction.” [ix]
Although it can be difficult to extrapolate information from evaluations of online classes regarding the efficacy of online tutoring, according to experts, “The real promise of online education…is providing learning experiences that are more tailored to individual students than is possible in classrooms.”[x]
Benjamin Bloom’s ideal learning environment, once perceived as unattainable, has become a reality. The one-to-one teaching environment, which offers constant feedback, correction, and reinforcement, is possible through personalized virtual tutoring sessions. Online tutoring is an extraordinary way to provide supplemental education to students in a way that is convenient and cost effective.
The research is still emerging, but a recent study offers some hope. A study, published in 2012 considered the effects of online tutoring among fourth-grade students at risk of reading failure. All of the students in the study exceeded the expected gain and all made significant improvements. [xi]
As we begin to see quantifiable measures of success in individual online tutoring sessions, we will learn what the true impact such personalized teaching can offer. In the short term, we know that as we help students who are disinterested in school to find their passions, they will succeed. As we help take a step at improving our country’s global academic ranking, we all succeed.
[i] Bloom, B. (June-Jul. 1984) The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring. Educational Researcher. Vol. 13, No. 6. Pp.4-16.
[iii] Bray, M. Lynkins, C. (2012). Shadow Education:Private Supplementary Tutoring and Its Implications for Policy
Makers in Asia. Mandaluyong City, Philippines: Asian Development Bank.
[v] Hanushek, E., Peterson, P., Woessman, L. (July 2012). Achievement Growth: International and US State Trends in
Student Performance.Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance & Education Next. Website:
[vii] US Dept. of Education. (November 2009). Students’ Use of Tutoring Services, by Adequate Yearly Progress Status of School. (US Dept. of Ed Publication NCES 2010–023) . Retrieved from: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2010/2010023.pdf
[viii] Ellin, A. (Dec. 14, 2012). Some Tutors are Shouldering a Wider Load. New York Times. Retrieved June 25, 2013 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/16/fashion/tutors-take-on-duties-of-therapists-and-personal-assistants.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&
[ix] US Dept. of Education. (September 2010). Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. Center for Technology in Learning. Retrieved from: www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/opepd/ppss/reports.html.
[x] Lohr, S. (August 19, 2009). Study Finds that Online Education Beats the Classroom. New York Times Bits. Retrieved from: http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/19/study-finds-that-online-education-beats-the-classroom/
[xi] Vasquez E., Slocum, T., (2012) Evaluation of Synchronous Online Tutoring for Students at Risk of Reading Failure. Exceptional Children,Vol. 78, No. 2, pp 221p-225.