‘High-impact tutoring’ isn’t what you think it is—here’s how to ensure your program is effective at improving student learning

What do we even mean when we say “high-impact tutoring?” As schools grapple with so many of the effects of unfinished learning, tutoring has emerged as a potential approach for addressing students’ educational needs.

“High-impact tutoring” is defined by the National Student Support Accelerator as a form of teaching 1:1 or in a small group toward a very specific goal. It is a form of tutoring that leads to substantial learning gains for students by supplementing, but not replacing, students’ classroom experiences and it’s intended to respond to individual students’ needs by complementing what they’re learning in the classroom.

High-impact tutoring is not just homework help, nor is it just test prep, so there is key differentiation between it and what most people conceptualize “tutoring” to be. It’s an intentional, multifaceted program that’s geared toward accelerating student learning. High-impact tutoring is not intended to solely focus on remedial skills; it’s about addressing the skills that are necessary for the student to make progress and advance to those instructional next steps.

How can schools determine if they’re implementing high-impact tutoring? Ask these questions:

1. How frequent are the sessions? According to current research, the most effective tutoring interventions actually involve three or more sessions per week, with sessions that last about 30 to 60 minutes per day. And the research also shows that once-a-week tutoring is not really enough to generate any meaningful gains when it comes to acceleration. Additionally, most of the effective tutoring lasts for at least 10 weeks, with some lasting across the entire school year. That said, elementary students might benefit from shorter but more frequent sessions, for example, 20-minute sessions five times a week.

2. Are the sessions integrated into the school day? When it comes to scheduling, the tutoring interventions that are conducted during the school day tend to result in greater learning gains than the ones that are scheduled after school or even during the summer. In a recent meta analysis of tutoring studies, investigators found that the effects of programs conducted during the school day tend to have larger effects relative to those conducted after school.

Providing tutoring sessions during the school day or immediately after school increases the likelihood that students are able to attend, and also facilitates a much more academically focused culture. Providing tutoring during the school day eliminates additional barriers—like transportation—that could potentially hinder students from regularly participating in tutoring sessions.

3. What is the student-to-tutor ratio? Research shows that tutors can effectively instruct up to three or four students at a time, but that going beyond this number can really quickly become small group instruction, which is less personalized and also requires a lot more skill to execute well. While 1:1 tutoring is likely the most effective delivery method, the cost can be prohibitive for schools; but even a 1:3 or 1:4 delivery model has a large positive effect on student learning outcomes across a wide array of subjects.

4. Who is the tutor? Given the scale of the problems they’re facing, some districts are tapping parents as volunteer tutors, but we’re also seeing many college students joining “near peer” tutoring programs. While teachers tend to be the consistently effective tutors,  the demands on their time often exceed their capacity to provide intensive intervention with individual students. Fortunately, emerging evidence suggests that trained paraprofessionals can also be very effective, if they receive quality training and ongoing support.

5. Is the staffing consistent? A student’s learning experience is highly dependent on the relationships that are forged within their educational journeys. Tutoring programs that pair a student with a consistent tutor for the duration of the program appear to provide a much more effective learning environment. When tutors meet regularly with students, they have the best opportunity to get to know that individual student and develop a deeper understanding of that individual student’s strengths and weaknesses. And we also know from the research that when students have positive relationships with their tutors, they’re much more motivated, have better attitudes, and most importantly, feel empowered about their educational trajectories.

6. Is the content rigorous? The research indicates that using high-quality instructional materials that are aligned with classroom content is a crucial element in facilitating effective tutoring. Having that content available allows a tutor to support and reinforce teachers’ classroom instruction. Focusing solely on remediation in tutoring settings has actually been found to result in students falling further behind the grade-level materials. Rather than focusing on areas that students have failed to master previously, tutors should address the missed concepts and skills that are going to be most critical for students to access the upcoming content to keep them on track.

Next Steps for Districts

Once schools have made a decision about a tutoring program, the real work begins. Implementation can be challenging. Fortunately, there are resources available—like implementation checklists—that can support administrators as they navigate these challenges. But it is helpful to be aware of the three key challenges when implementing high-impact tutoring programs, according to the National Student Support Accelerator.

First, there’s a need for a supply of high-quality tutors and tutoring providers. As school districts and tutoring providers look to expand tutoring programs, finding and hiring high-quality tutors will remain a challenge amid personnel shortages.

The second challenge is administrator capacity. In many districts, the responsibility of implementing a tutoring program is but one on a long list of responsibilities assigned to just one individual. This one person must identify funding sources, evaluate and choose effective programs, train and supervise tutors, navigate school schedules, coordinate relationships with external tutoring providers, and ensure high levels of program enrollment and attendance.

The third struggle is buy-in and ownership. Buy-in from principals and other school level staff is foundational for tutoring success, given that high-impact tutoring is a school initiative, but that decision-maker may not be the same person who is leading the tutoring initiative. Stakeholder support and partnership at these various levels will be critical for a successful implementation.

Planning for High-Impact Tutoring Tool