Every college and university purports to prepare students to survive and thrive during and after college. Institutional resources to support these important outcomes are finite. After stretching budgets to respond to COVID-induced havoc, maximizing the return on investments to foster higher levels of student attainment has never been more important.
This article describes an approach to using limited resources to scale initiatives that effectively boost student success broadly defined, in and out of the classroom.
A Supportive Community Matters
More than one million fewer students are enrolled in college now compared with when the pandemic began. While the enrollment decline trend began long before COVID-19, the effects of coronavirus continue to reverberate on campuses across the country, further exacerbating the challenges associated with decreasing numbers of matriculating students and increasing numbers of those leaving college prematurely. Furthermore, young adults aged 18 to 25 were most affected by loneliness during the pandemic. For those completing their studies, many do not acquire the so-called “key soft skills” considered necessary for success in post-college, both in the workplace and personal life.
Investing in academic support services is no longer optional at most colleges and universities. One of the most underutilized and cost-effective ways of fostering student success is to harness and scale the power of Educationally Purposeful Peer Interactions (EPPIs). For example, institutions rely on undergraduate advisors, tutors, mentors, and coaches to increase the number of students who engage in mutually beneficial interactions that are copasetic with the institution’s mission and values. The more students who engage in these purposeful peer interactions, the greater the positive influence on the student culture, which in too many instances become orthogonal to the institution’s academic ethos.
Among the more promising EPPIs is peer tutoring grounded in academically-oriented social interactions. Indeed, there is reason to believe that peer tutoring – when done well – may have effects similar to participating in a High-Impact Practice (HIP), whereby persistence rates increase and individual students realize a variety of benefits, such as acquisition of subject-matter knowledge and essential 21st-century dispositions and skills, such as resilience, collaborative problem solving, effective communication, and empathy. Also, peer tutoring done well can be a meaningful “learn and earn” experience, whereby students make some money and further develop the career-ready skills needed to be economically self-sufficient after college (Kuh, et. al, 2021).
Thus, investing in peer tutoring can be a judicious use of limited resources that promises a substantial return on student persistence and completion, along with social and emotional benefits for both peer tutors and those receiving tutoring.
A Platform Worth Considering
Financial resources are a non-trivial concern when vetting potential initiatives. Personnel time and administrative bandwidth are also key factors. Identifying an approach that can provide self-sustained, cost-effective academic support creates a win-win scenario for institutions, regardless of size or budget.
Recipient of the 2019 Lumina Education Innovation Prize, Knack is a technology-enhanced peer tutoring platform. It uses the sharing economy model to recruit, hire, and train an institution’s strong-performing students as independent contractors; they are in effect a network of peer tutors that supplements and extends the reach of the institution’s existing support services. Using a suite of mobile and web applications, Knack then matches its recruited peer tutors, who complete training modules endorsed by the College Reading and Learning Association (CRLA), with students from their own campus in need of tutoring services. The approach is flexible and responsive to institutional mission, size, curricular offerings, organizational structures, and student characteristics. For example, from Summer 2020 through Fall 2021, the University of Florida scaled peer tutoring to ~40,000 student contact hours with 670+ unique courses covered using Knack’s platform. Indiana University’s Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering realized more than $42,000 in savings its first year using Knack.
Since its founding in 1841, Fordham University has been committed to providing the highest quality undergraduate experience centered on educating the whole person. As with other colleges and universities, the pandemic presented unanticipated challenges as well as the need to find different ways to support students academically and socially. Prior to the pandemic, Fordham offered only in-person tutoring in limited subject areas. In March 2020, the institution began making virtual tutoring available to students in its undergraduate colleges, using online scheduling and Zoom technologies. Though successful, this approach was labor intensive and required a good deal of monitoring.
After thoroughly vetting available affordable options, Fordham decided to pilot Knack with the goal of expanding and equalizing course-based tutoring access. Particularly attractive was the platform’s flexibility and accessibility, which allowed students to hold tutoring sessions in-person, at any time and place mutually agreeable to the tutor and student, or online via Knack’s Online Classroom. Knack’s staff, many of whom come with work experience in higher education, handled the hiring and payment paperwork, and provided a strong tutor training program to all tutors, designed in accordance with the standards of Level 1 of CRLA’s International Tutor Training Program. Moreover, the scheduling platform integrated fully with Fordham’s Learning Management System (Blackboard) and with Single Sign-On (SSO) and was accessible easily through a student’s mobile/tablet device, iOS and Android.
In Fall 2021, Fordham entered into a partnership with Knack to scale both academic support and flexible employment opportunities on campus. Over 700 hours of tutoring have since been delivered, supporting more than 1,100 students – about 12% of the student body – across 60+ unique courses in the Spring 2022 term alone. Because of the demand for and success of tutoring availability, Fordham is expanding Knack tutoring hours available to students, with special programs for business school students launching in Fall 2022.
Knack has increased participation in tutoring across the institution, while offering flexible and meaningful employment opportunities for Fordham students, providing them with valuable career-applicable experience and thus furthering their own academic and professional development. Fordham students receiving tutoring have overwhelmingly embraced Knack, particularly the ability to access assistance in the evening and weekends. These outcomes are in direct alignment with Fordham’s strategic plan, which seeks to increase student access and equity of support in a fractured world.
Addressing Constraints, Expanding Limits
For the foreseeable future, colleges and universities will continue to seek an appropriate balance of allocating resources for academic support to online and in-person learning. The challenges of doing this equitably and effectively are further exacerbated by dealing with widespread learning loss and the uptick in skills-based hiring practices spurred by COVID-19 and The Great Resignation. Peer tutoring initiatives – when done well – and other Educationally Purposeful Peer Interactions are cost-effective approaches that both enrich the student experience and offer valuable academic and career-relevant learning opportunities for all students. At the same time, using peers in this way helps ameliorate long standing stigmas surrounding seeking academic support, thereby engaging historically underserved populations who often do not use institutional services.
Institutions will never have enough resources to fund every proposed worthwhile initiative. Some of the more promising options, such as EPPIs, may be hiding in plain sight. Moreover, as this article suggests, such efforts when done well can yield scalable interventions that advantage peer tutors, those receiving tutoring, and the institution itself, resulting in higher persistence rates and increased tuition revenue.
Knack and other well-designed peer tutoring platforms are not a panacea for all that ails institutional academic and social support efforts. At the same time, it is hard to imagine a more efficacious, budget-friendly approach to boosting student performance.