Research from Europe points to online tutoring as a potent weapon against learning loss
Kevin Mahnken | June 14, 2021
During the early days of the pandemic, with students around the world shut out of school buildings and many struggling to succeed in virtual classrooms, academics and philanthropies in several countries embraced a novel solution: online tutoring. In recent months, the first research studies on those initial efforts — one based in the United Kingdom, the other in Italy — have emerged, showing significant evidence of effectiveness.
Preliminary discoveries from the National Online Tutoring Pilot, launched last June by four existing tutoring organizations in partnership with a consortium of British charities, indicate that online tutoring was a successful means of reaching over 1,000 disadvantaged students, and that participants were overwhelmingly likely to say they enjoyed the experience. Even more striking, a study of the Italian Tutoring Online Program (TOP) found that it delivered sizable benefits to pupils in terms of academic performance, life aspirations, and even psychological health. In cases where participants were randomly assigned to receive twice the amount of tutoring than other participants, their academic gains measured against similar students almost doubled.
While caveats exist, including the potential challenges of offering digital assistance to children who may not have reliable internet connections, the results could lend weight to the arguments for an American approach to online tutoring. Largely in response to reports of learning loss experienced by students who have missed a year or more of in-person school, a coalition of education leaders, politicians, and nonprofit organizations has recently begun advocating for a national mobilization of volunteer tutors.
As momentum builds behind the proposal, advocates can look to the European initiatives as possible models. Both were executed at a small scale, benefiting only a few thousand students between them, but they were also established within a remarkably short span of time and under some of the most trying circumstances imaginable.
Eliana La Ferrara, an economics professor at Milan’s Bocconi University, raced to develop TOP last spring as the first wave of COVID-19 gripped Italy. When most Westerners still wondered whether the novel coronavirus posed a serious threat, the wealthy Lombardy region, of which Milan is the capital, was almost immediately hit with the worst infection and fatality rates in the world. Mandatory school closures convinced La Ferrara and her collaborator, Harvard Kennedy School Professor Michela Carlana, that fast action was necessary.
“There was this climate of crisis, and it became clear to us that families were struggling and this would not be over within a month,” she said in an interview. “We felt like we could predict that this would affect every other country the same way, so that was part of the eagerness to get things started.”
Within weeks, they had contacted middle school principals across the country to identify students who needed help in math, English, and Italian (most often a combination of the three) and identified over 1,000 potential beneficiaries from 76 schools. They also recruited hundreds of volunteer tutors from undergraduate and graduate programs at three Milan universities, connecting them with online training resources designed by a team of pedagogical experts. Amid the sprint, 530 students were randomly assigned to receive free virtual tutoring sessions of between three and six hours per week, while the rest were observed as a control group.
The researchers’ findings showed that children received clear advantages from a tutoring regimen with a median length of just five weeks. According to survey data from students, parents, and teachers, they spent an average of 10 minutes more per day on homework, were 16 percent more likely to attend online classes regularly, were 10 percent less likely to say they found the classes hard to follow, and were 6 percent less likely to exhibit behavioral problems during the school day. In a concluding examination designed by expert middle school teachers to mimic Italy’s annual tests, which were canceled in 2020, tutored students saw an increase in correct answers of 9 percent over the control group.
The program’s effects on non-academic outcomes were smaller, but still notable. TOP students were more likely to say they intended to attend college (and their teachers were more likely to say they should) and less likely to say they planned to attend a vocational high school. Compared with struggling peers who received no tutoring, they had significantly higher chances of reporting that they saw the events of their lives as being in their own control. And at a time when they were suddenly cut off from their friends and teachers, they said they experienced fewer symptoms of depression and higher overall happiness.
While the program was helpful for participants of all backgrounds, its effects were particularly concentrated among certain groups: Students with learning disorders like dyslexia saw a boost in test scores that far exceeded that of typical students. A smaller group, chosen randomly from the population of kids struggling in more than one subject, were assigned tutors who were willing to volunteer for six hours per week; they experienced academic gains roughly double the size of other participating children. And the uptick in mental health was driven almost entirely by immigrants — possibly, La Ferrara said, because they were more likely to draw connection and encouragement from their relationships with tutors.
“It’s a very clear finding, and it told us that the way our kids are dealing with isolation is basically through other social networks where they interact,” she said. “It’s a speculation, but it seems as if these kids from immigrant backgrounds might have been less well-connected outside the classroom, so perhaps having a tutor who is there to talk to you and who cares about you might have an effect.”
While designed to answer more conceptual questions — mainly, whether it was even possible to reach large numbers of pupils during the summer through virtual tutoring — a February report on Britain’s National Online Tutoring Pilot offered similarly hopeful conclusions.
The study examined a pilot that was launched after the first COVID wave crested in much of Europe. Funding and coordination came from a range of philanthropic sources, most prominently the Education Endowment Foundation, and instruction was offered by four U.K. tutoring services with experience working with disadvantaged students.
Between June and October 2020, nearly 10,000 tutoring sessions, each lasting about an hour, were delivered to 1,425 students across 65 schools. Participants were somewhat older than those identified by TOP, with most between the ages of 14 and 16. A majority met eligibility standards for “pupil premium” funding, essentially a British equivalent of Title I dollars.
Survey answers from students indicate an overwhelmingly positive response to the pilot. Nearly all agreed either somewhat or strongly that their tutor was helpful; majorities strongly agreed that their tutors were knowledgeable, patient, fun, and even inspiring; majorities said they liked completing online lessons and felt more confident in their schoolwork because of the tutoring; and 87 percent said that they would prefer to continue with it if given the opportunity. All told, three-quarters of students said they enjoyed learning more than they did before taking part.
Researchers warned that a few obstacles prevented students from getting more out of the pilot, mostly relating to technological difficulties. Eight percent of learners reported missing a session because of a lack of necessary equipment, such as a laptop or tablet, while 16 percent said they had because of bad internet connectivity. In a survey of school leaders, nearly half said that equipment issues made it more challenging for kids to access the virtual instruction.
In a set of recommendations accompanying the report, authors advised that schools and tutoring entities “work together to identify any technological barriers for individual learners and consider appropriate solutions,” including both offering equipment to families in need and hosting the online sessions in schools rather than students’ homes.
The pilot study leaves much to be discovered, and a more fully developed National Tutoring Programme was established last fall to provide supplemental instruction to additional students through an approved list of over 30 partner organizations. Likewise, a second round of TOP is under way during this school year, from which La Ferrara and her collaborators hope to learn more — including the impact of tutoring on both students and the tutors themselves.
“At the time, all this discussion about COVID and mental health was not in the air yet, because we were just beginning. For us, it was not salient, but if I could do it again, I would [try to measure] those outcomes.”