May 3, 2022
As with most American high school students, my school requires me to complete ten hours of community service per year as a way to get us engaged with the community and kindle our excitement for helping others. However, this intention is often lost on high school students, who treat it more like a chore than an opportunity. Admittedly, I was no different. So, just a few months before the deadline, I begrudgingly sat down at my computer to find a community service opportunity to knock my hours out of the way. But instead of finding a quick and easy way to meet the requirement, I stumbled upon something bigger: a community of over two thousand tutors and even more learners at a website called Schoolhouse.world, founded by Sal Khan.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, very few of the traditional community service opportunities were available. So, an opportunity to teach what I already knew without leaving my home was a godsend. I began teaching classes in English, math, and chess. Though my school requirement was only ten hours, I ended up spending almost one hundred hours tutoring, and many more writing blog posts, working on the user support team, and mentoring new tutors.
I bought into the mission of providing free education to those who needed it. Tutoring students from all around the world—often people who couldn’t afford private tutors—I saw how excited the students were to learn, and I began to chase the “A-ha!” moments that the students had as they finally understood a concept that took a few tries to explain. Slowly, I saw the value and effectiveness of peer-to-peer online tutoring, which I’d like to share with you.
Peer tutoring websites like Schoolhouse.world laud the benefits of their method of tutoring. Well, they turn out to be quite right. According to a study by Lidón Moliner and Francisco Alegre, in which 420 middle school and early high school students engaged in peer tutoring, those who were able to engage in peer tutoring saw greater improvements in their understanding of math and drastic decreases in their anxiety when it came to the subject. Another smaller study, by Ohio University, tested four sixth graders on their Quality Reading Inventory (QRI) skills, very similar to reading comprehension. The students who were permitted to discuss the book amongst themselves and explain the plot to each other performed significantly better than those who had to explain to and discuss with an adult moderator. While there are many hypotheses about why this is the case, most agree that part of it is the comfort and mutual understanding that peers share, which is often lost between a student and a professional adult tutor.
And according to a study entitled “Online tutoring works: Experimental evidence from a program with vulnerable children” conducted by three researchers in Spain—Lucas Gortazar, Claudia Hupkau, and Toni Roldán—grades, attendance, and test scores all rose after the implementation of an Italian tutoring program between university students and middle school students. This study indicates that the benefits of peer tutoring apply to online learning just as well as they do in person.
But it’s not just beneficial for the learner. There’s a mantra many teachers like to repeat: teaching helps you learn. A study in Applied Cognitive Psychology put this saying to the test. The researchers had students come into the lab and study a topic they previously had no knowledge of. Directly afterward, they had students either teach a lesson on what they had just studied without notes, do the same with notes, rewrite the information they had learned, or spend time doing arithmetic problems—a topic unrelated to what they had just studied. The study found that the group that had to teach a lesson without notes and the group that had to rewrite the information they had just learned had the most success on a subject-matter test.
The researchers concluded that “the benefits of the learning-by-teaching strategy are attributable to retrieval practice; that is, the robust learning-by-teaching strategy works but only when the teaching involves retrieving the taught materials.” This study serves as evidence of the idea that peer-to-peer tutoring helps the tutor as well as the learner. And these are just the statistical benefits. Being a peer tutor also allows you to develop your presentation skills and ability to simplify complex topics—both invaluable skills going into the workforce.
Through the hours I spent online tutoring, I connected with passionate students and tutors around the world and got the opportunity to expand an organization that served the community through free education. And just as I was teaching the students, I was learning—patience, communication, empathy, and the very subjects I sought to teach. My Community Service requirement went from a chore to a highly motivating experience.
Michael Korvyakov is a student at Choate Rosemary Hall (CT). He is also the Co-Lead of the Blog Team at Schoolhouse.world, a peer-to-peer tutoring platform founded by Sal Khan.