Learning wellness: An ounce of tutoring is worth a pound of remediation

Instead of intervening after students have fallen behind, schools should consider a holistic approach that actively prevents learning gaps before they happen.
By: | December 21, 2021
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Phil Cutler is founder and CEO of Paper.

Phil Cutler is founder and CEO of Paper.

According to wellness professionals, too many of us only tend our physical well-being when we are sick. Instead, they recommend, we should take modest but important actions in the course of our daily lives, like eating whole foods, exercising, and maintaining good sleep hygiene. The benefits of this approach are clear. We prevent illness. We lower healthcare costs. And most importantly, we increase our chances of truly thriving in our daily lives. And in recent years, our culture has begun to whole-heartedly embrace this approach to wellness.

When it comes to education, we follow the wellness model to a point. Students are asked to take actions on a daily basis that increase their chances of success. Daily classes. Regular homework assignments to reinforce classroom lessons. Even meals, athletics, and other extracurricular activities to restore mind and body. 

However, we are not doing enough in one critical area — providing tutoring and other forms of individualized academic help. Sure, some students have parents or siblings who are willing and able to answer their questions at home. And the affluent few can afford to pay for private tutoring. However, that leaves too many learners out of the equation. 

So what happens when students who can’t access tutoring start falling behind? In too many cases, we let them flounder until they are in imminent danger of failing. Only then do we invest in learning tailored to individual students’ needs.

For example, a recent Texas law requires districts to provide intensive, individualized help to students—but only after they have officially failed. Like all remediation programs, the Texas program is much better than nothing. Students who have fallen seriously behind should get the help they need. 

The problem is, such remedial strategies are expensive and, as a new study finds, often fall short of their objectives. By contrast, study after study has shown that regular access to one-on-one tutors is not only among the most effective interventions, but also among the most cost-effective

To understand why let’s consider a student struggling to learn a new concept. If they can quickly ask questions and receive help in the moment, they aren’t simply going to complete their homework assignment correctly and on time. They are far more likely to remain engaged in the classroom the next day and establish a more solid foundation for all the learning that will build off that new concept. 

That, to me, is learning wellness. 

And if they can’t get that kind of support at the moment they need it? They can’t finish their assignment and are less likely to be engaged in class the next day. Without some kind of intervention, they begin to fall further behind. And the longer the school waits to get them the help they need, the more resources the school will have to invest to make up for the gap. And if the school waits until the student has already failed? That student is likely to have lost both motivation and the confidence that they are capable of succeeding at all. 

Now, the wide-scale learning disruptions caused by COVID as well as a flurry of research about the efficacy of tutoring — especially high-dosage tutoring — have helped change the conversation. As a result, school districts are adopting individualized tutoring at unprecedented scale. It only makes sense. High-dosage tutoring is a potentially game-changing tool for promoting learning gains. 

What if we go the next step and make trained, online tutors available to all students whenever they are struggling to learn a new concept — regardless of their level of achievement? By providing consistent, easy-to-access support, we can prevent the problem, rather than address the symptom. That may sound like a luxury, but a number of factors are making it both more affordable and easier to implement at scale. 

First, online delivery has the potential to be significantly less expensive than traditional models that are bound by a specific place and time. Second, access to mobile devices and broadband connections, while not yet universal, continues to rise briskly. Third, students in the wake of COVID are much more fluent in accessing learning resources outside the walls of the classroom and the boundaries of the traditional school day. Finally, this “preventive” approach enables you to reinvest funds from high-cost remedial programs. 

In education, as in health, there are no silver bullets. However, an ounce of timely, individualized academic help is worth a pound of remediation. And by investing in learning wellness rather than learning cures, we can help students, teachers and districts thrive in new ways. 

Philip Cutler is a teacher turned entrepreneur. As a teacher, Phil saw how the many inequities present in the education system created lifelong learning gaps for students. Determined to democratize education, he helped found Paper, a 24/7 online tutoring platform that partners with school districts to level the playing field for all students.

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