Getting students to see the value of helping their classmates of differing abilities isn't always easy. I've found a few key ways to make it happen and give every student the opportunity to excel.
Peer Tutoring Helps My Students Thrive
Pairing students by ability is gaining greater favor with teachers. Many see it as a way to help high-achievers stay interested, focused, and better prepare them for the rigorous classes that will be part of their future. This practice offers some benefits, such as allowing students to challenge each other and gain a more in-depth understanding of a subject, but I fear that it can do an equal amount of damage. As a teacher, my job isn't only to train my students to complete worksheets and memorize facts; my mission is to prepare them for the world outside of my classroom. A world where they must cope with classmates and co-workers who won't grasp concepts at the same rate or with the same ease. To help all my students succeed, and prepare them for this future of diversity, I use peer mentoring in my classroom.
What is Peer Mentoring?
Simply put, peer mentoring pairs high-achieving students with those who struggle with the same topic. The advanced students drill their classmates, helping them to understand the topic while reinforcing their own learning. In fact, according to an article by the National Education Association, it can help students improve reading achievement as well as improving social engagement and student motivation. Plus, this method frees up my time and allows my students to gain a better appreciation for one another. It also builds empathy and patience.
My students aren't always excited to be mentors, but I have a few tricks to make the idea more appealing for everyone.
Call a Meeting
Whenever I plan a peer tutoring session, I meet with my more advanced students to explain the concept and provide a little training. Ensuring they understand the purpose of peer tutoring and how it benefits them, too, goes a long way toward getting them to accept what they might see as extra work. I ask them to consider points they found challenging, and what they did to help overcome the issue and gain understanding. Having them think about the problem in this context also helps me to consider how to restructure the lesson in the future.
Make it Fun
When learning is fun, everyone wins. When my advanced students take the time to help their struggling peers drill math facts, for example, we offer a prize for the student pair with the biggest gains at the end of the lesson. This prize is intended to be motivation for both students to work hard and improve without stigmatizing those who still don't quite 'get it.'
Set Up Rewards
While rewards are plenty for participating in a peer tutoring program (better socialization, improved understanding, better grades, etc.), I found the students did even better if there was some tangible reward at the end of the lesson.
To that end, we tried a few ways to get students excited about the process including:
- A class celebration at the end of a lesson
- Prizes for the group/pair with the most correct answers on the quiz/lesson
- Gains chart showing real-time progress
- Free time to use the classroom computer or read when certain goals are met
Offering students something to work for now gives them something to get excited about in the short term.
We all like recognition for good work. Praise, when earned, can go a long way towards developing an enthusiasm for learning and for helping classmates as well. Some of the ways I do that include:
- Tutor of the week awards
- Gold Star papers for younger students (an oldie but a goody)
- Letters home - parents love to hear what an asset their child is in class
Students who feel appreciated will work harder and be better able to see the value of the work they are doing with their classmates.
Cheesy as it may sound, my students tend to work up to the standards I set, provided they are realistic. We start out the year with an expectation that we will not only show respect for one another but that we are here to support one another.
It helps that I model this behavior:
- I don't play favorites
- I work to the full level of my abilities
- I admit my limits and try to overcome them
- I apologize when I am wrong
Students see my example, they understand my expectations, and they work hard to live up to them because, at the end of the day, they want to.
Settle in for the Long Haul
Peer mentoring takes more effort, true, and it can sometimes be an exercise in frustration to get students involved. But when I see students reaching out of their own volition and helping their classmates to increase their understanding, it's worth it. When all the papers are set aside, it's my job to give them the tools they need to become the kind of people they can be proud of. I believe peer tutoring is an important part of that larger puzzle.