In 2005, a plucky young man with an interest in rhyming words and all things Byron was hired to be a peer writing tutor (not to be confused with pier riding tutor) in a pilot program at the University of California-Irvine. Said young man, whilst quasi-confident in his abilities as a writer, was quite apprehensive about making the transition from student to peer tutor. Fortunately Sue Cross, a writing specialist with a seemingly boundless investment in student success, took this plucky young man under her wing and showed him how peer tutors could guide student writers. She found ways to empower him and his compatriots, who would in turn strive to empower every student with whom they worked.
As you may have safely deciphered by now, I was that young man. The training I received at UCI informed how I organized and taught my English classes at New York University, how I interacted with students during office hours, and how I structure the day-to-day operations of my writing center today. In short, there is no way for me to overstate the impact my experience as a peer tutor had on my professional and personal growth.
At the International Writing Center Association Conference (IWCA) Conference in Denver last October, I had the opportunity to thank Sue in person. The two of us spent a fair amount of time discussing the life-long benefits working as a peer tutor can have on students as well as the crucial role peer instruction plays in the modern academy.
I also told Sue how privileged I felt to be in the position to mentor the peer tutors who work in my center. I work to make sure my wonderful power peersies have a similar experience to my own at UCI. I work to make sure the peer writing tutors become more familiar with new genres of writing such as résumés, cover letters, and scholarship applications; practice delivering presentations and make class visits; develop interpersonal and communication skills that will serve them throughout their lives; and, most importantly, become more self-confident.
Watching my brilliant peer tutors gradually realize they are brilliant is like watching a super hero origin story: like the X-Men, my peer tutors only realize they have powers during moments of great stress (such as their first appointment).
And like the X-Men and many a super hero, the peer tutors often wonder about the impact they have on society / students’ lives. Well, I don’t. Empirical evidence, survey data, and research consistently show the profound effects peer tutoring has on student success and student perseverance.
In fact, one of the very first articles I read when I was a peer tutor was about the relationship between peer tutoring and student retention. In “Writing Centers, Retention, and the Institution: A Fortuitous Nexus,” Linda Poziwilko argues that
“What we do in our centers is precisely what research has shown to be a significant factor in retention.” (3)
For decades, large-scale research projects such as P. Beal‘s and L. Noel‘s 1980 “What Works in Student Retention” have shown that peer tutoring is an essential service that promotes student perseverance. The results of the 900-institution study conducted by Beal and Noel show that peer tutoring provides students with a unique and necessary student service.
Dale McGinnis‘s 2012 study, “Enhancing Supplemental Instruction at Brevard Community College: A Review of Peer Tutoring, Its Effectiveness on Learning Outcomes, and the Costs and Methods of Implementation” and K.J. Topping‘s 2014 project, “The Effectiveness of Peer Tutoring in Further and Higher Education: a Typology and Review of the Literature” examine the effectiveness of peer tutoring and propose new forms of peer tutoring and play a crucial role in my own current research.
The Writing Center at Samford University has even proposed making Peer Instruction its own budget line because it offers students a singular experience that, to borrow language from student surveys, offers a “judgment free space” where students “are not afraid to ask dumb questions” or “admit they don’t know something.”
Peer tutoring, then, creates student success on two fronts: positively impacting the students who train and work as tutors and providing students with a comfortable and vital form of assistance.
McGinnis, Dale. “Enhancing Supplemental Instruction at Brevard Community College: A Review of Peer Tutoring, Its Effectiveness on Learning Outcomes, and the Costs and Methods of Implementation.” Easternflorida.edu. Eastern Florida State College. 2012. Web. 20 March 2017.
Poziwilko, Linda. “Writing Centers, Retention, and the Institution: A Fortuitous Nexus.” Writing Lab Newsletter 22.2 (1997): 1-4. Print
Topping, K.J. “The Effectiveness of Peer Tutoring in Further and Higher Education: a Typology and Review of the Literature.” Higher Education 32.3 (1996): 321-345. 2014. Print.