What makes online tutoring effective? What are its benefits? To date there has been plenty of anecdotal feedback that it works, there is limited academic research completed on the subject, which is why I was interested to see a paper called Best Practices in Online Tutoring by Cherie Mazer.  The American researcher used data provided by a US-based online tutoring company to bring together some ideas and research into online tutoring (OLT) and what could be considered ‘best practice’ – that is, the generally accepted methods of getting students engaged and achieving the best possible results.

The purpose of this blog post is to explain a bit about how the research was carried out, and summarise its findings.

Mazer looked at 350 different lessons to collect comments and best practices associated with tutoring – all randomly selected from a pool that likely stretches into the thousands.  For the purpose of ensuring the most useful data is obtained, Mazer decided to keep the focus geared towards the three core subjects – Maths, English and Science.

  • With English, Mazer purely focused on something that everyone would do at some point in their time at school: Composition and Writing Process.  This examined how students create pieces of creative writing, ranging from spelling and grammar to structure and format.
  • For Mathematics, Mazer looked at three different areas to ensure that she received the best possible mix.  After all, whilst composition-based English work is very much a skill that is crafted slowly over time, having different levels of mathematics ranging across different topics is definitely a sound idea.  For her surveys, Mazer looked at the following: Algebra 2 – High School algebra, Mid-level Mathematics (defined by Mazer as ‘Remedial Algebra’) and College Statistics. These three levels allows for complex algebraic analysis of functions and the like, but also allows for somewhat more wordy problems around statistics.  Statistics work also allows for functions and more ‘pure’ mathematics to get involved too.
  • For Science, Mazer looked at the three core sciences and a more geographic look at science:
    Chemistry (also a separate study into Organic Chemistry too, since from experience you are talking about a broad field of study otherwise!), Physics, Biology and Earth Sciences.

According to Mazer, the OLT company she analysed used systematically vetted tutors to ensure that they were competent and matched rigorous industry standards. Ultimately the OLT company understands what they have to do to ensure a high quality of tutoring from their tutors.

Find out why you should use online tutoring.

Some of the things checked and considered included:

  • Vetting/Background checks – Clearly this is something that I think is at the forefront of the industry – child safety.
  • Testing – Of course, a tutor has to be competent in their work and that is why Mazer highlights the importance of ensuring that tutors are well-versed in their area of specialism.  We can’t see how stringent these tests are or what they involve, but needless to say for an OLT company to be involved in such a study we can be fairly certain that this isn’t something you can merely ‘just do it.’
  • Mentoring – No, it’s not just the students that can be mentored to attain greater heights… Mazer refers to a mentoring system to help tutors refine their technique to ensure that students get the best possible experience.  Not only does it help new tutors adjust to what is expected of them and what standards are expected by the company, but it also allows for continual development –  tutoring as a profession.
    This is a great way of not only ensuring a high standard of tutoring but also consistency in practice – the best methods are recycled by different tutors perhaps?  Ultimately, this adds some strength to the research – we don’t just have set practices which we are trying to analyse but we have reason to suspect that they are widely used.  This means that the survey results from the students are done using a level playing field – every student received roughly the same standard of tutoring – nice touch.

The 350-case study is something we’ll look at in later blog posts, as it forms the best practices associated with tutoring.

You may want to read this article that proves that online learning works.

Mazer then looked at the data laid out from the feedback questions that all student are given the option of filling out at the end of their session.  The survey assessed what the students thought of their learning experience on the site.  The data used came from only the sessions conducted in 2013.

Only 12% of students answered the feedback at the end of the session, but it still gave a surprising amount of data…

  • 18,455 students responded when asked about the tutoring service in general and if it allowed them to complete their homework.  96% said yes it did and was of benefit to them.
  • 17,970 answered if the service was improving their grades – the percentage who said yes was the same.  The lower response rate could be explained by the fact that many students aren’t sure if their grades are improving until they receive their results – we don’t know when this data was collected within the academic year.
  • 18,075 responded when asked if they felt more confident about their homework as a result of using the service – the ‘yes’ percentage was 97% this time.  This answer we can take with a little more caution as they have just finished a session and perhaps a little swayed by the result of their session.

Students were also asked to grade the session that they had just had – the response rate for this question was 37%.  Here’s a rough breakdown of what they said:

  • Excellent – 43,855 responses – 79.8%
  • Very Good – 5,937 responses – 10.8%
  • Good – 2,505 responses – 4.6%
  • Fair – 1,110 responses – 2%
  • Other – 1,533 responses – 2.8%.

The response has been very positive toward online tutoring. In a follow-up blog post I will take a look in more detail at the different areas of best practice and practical areas where tutors can improve.

Here are the pros of online learning.

To conclude this piece, what we are seeing lots of satisfied students coming out of the sessions they are participating in.  Many can see the benefit to their homework and that they feel more confident doing this work now they’ve taken the time to sit down with someone.

There also appears to be a trend of people using OLT in a long-term fashion – they keep on coming back to see the difference to their grades that they would like to see.  The effect is quite substantial – over 90% of students rated the service as either Excellent or Very Good.  This has to be encouraging signs for all involved.

See why online tutoring is online the increase in the UK.

Perhaps Mazer has stumbled upon a possible explanation for the success of the system in her research – the vetting, background tests and mentoring.  Maybe the fundamental framework that she has seen employed contributes to the success of the system – it certainly would make me more comfortable in my learning.

I hope that you have found this blog post interesting. Please feel free to leave any comments that you may have below.

You can also check out our article on the cons of online tutoring.




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As an Englishman in Paris, I enjoy growing my knowledge of other languages and cultures. I'm interested in History, Economics, and Sociology and believe in the importance of continuous learning.