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First, thank you to everyone who’s been engaging in this conversation and quietly considering the points people are making as well. I know I’m ruffling some feathers by challenging the current norm for the field, but I also believe that the best outcomes arise from periodically examining how we think and exploring areas for growth.
I want to apologize for taking so long to respond. I became inundated for a bit and almost didn’t post this response, but a few people asked me some direct questions, and I want to show them the courtesy of a reply.
This response is probably too much information for many people, so feel free to skip it entirely if it’s not of interest (I know everyone’s time is at a premium these days.) or look for my responses to your comments if you offered some. I tried to respond thoughtfully to as many views as possible.
I especially love Joshua’s “carnivore vs. vegetarian” analogy and am going to run with it in spots.
Not necessarily in order of importance or appearance, people asked or implied:
- Do I want to replace all peer tutors with professionals? Absolutely not! I believe peer tutors are great, just not optimal in certain areas and scenarios. The best balance in my mind would be 15 to 33% professional tutors and the rest peers with ideally some graduate students if your institution offers graduate programs. I apologize if my former subject line, “Peers vs. Professionals,” gave anyone that impression. I was trying to do an analysis of them in relation to each other, not suggest that either one should be eliminated in favor of the other.
- How do I define a professional tutor? Someone with a completed graduate degree (in a few industries a bachelor’s degree) with a number of years of professional experience as a professional, faculty member, and/or researcher in their discipline(s) and training in scaffolding, questioning techniques, active learning, etc. that enhance discipline-specific knowledge.
- I do NOT categorize a professional tutor as someone with any influence over the student’s grade. Faculty holding office hours in our centers provide an entirely different dynamic than an independent tutor with a comparable education level to a professor and practical work experience.
- Also, I agree with Annette’s comment that professors aren’t automatically qualified tutors. It’s largely what I wrote initially about how we do a disservice to tutors when we suggest that everyone possesses the skills to do it effectively. These are learned skills, and, like any skill, to become proficient takes years of practice.
- I’ll add that some of the best professors and (separate category in many instances) professional tutors with whom I’ve worked were peer tutors who developed and practiced these skills.
- Rebecca asked where do graduate students fit in. I think they’re an awesome combination of undergraduate peer and professional tutors—more relatable for students seeking a peer experience and relatively recent in taking the course but able to see a greater application of the material and potentially with some workforce experience to move from the purely theoretical understanding of traditional undergraduates to some practical applications. (I believe it’s common knowledge today that people learn better when they have a relatable understanding of the material. Graduate students and professionals have the life and professional experience to provide more than traditional undergraduates, which may not be true in certain populations such as veterans, though.)
- Why should we change the status quo if our students are satisfied with our current arrangement? In response, I’d ask: 1.) When was the last time they were given the opportunity to work with a professional tutor? 2.) Can their feedback be taken at face value if you’re not asking if they want that service, only if they’re content with the existing model? 3.) Please consider my point above about how, for it to be a fair assessment, we need to exclude from their consideration anyone with the ability to influence their course grades. Otherwise, we’re assessing faculty office hours, not tutoring.
- Can professional tutors who are not in the classroom at your institution as effectively support the intricacies of a professor with an embedded tutoring model? I love the embedded tutoring model not only because the tutors are present but because typically you have full buy-in from the faculty teaching the course in terms of interacting directly with the tutors, usually approachability by the tutors in a non-judgmental way for clarification, and because it’s an awesome partnership between faculty and learning support services. You could even sell me on the idea that it’s close to the ideal model for that specific class. However, realistically, are we ever going to sell our institutions on supplying embedded tutors for every class? Also, will they be sufficient to support a student with developmental needs or an ESL student who’s struggling to learn the vocabulary for the class? Show me a professional tutor available to augment an embedded tutoring model and it’s a home run. For the typical student in the class, I would definitely argue in favor of an embedded peer model.
- How am I defining training for tutors?
- I had a mid-level training program in mind for how most learning centers seem to handle peer tutoring these days—something akin to CRLA Level I, although potentially internally designed and executed. I’m figuring 15-20 hours of training time their first year on the job including periodic meetings as a group and/or potentially for individual mentoring, although the latter is something I think most departments would struggle to find the time to execute.
- For professionals, it’s substantially less upfront training time because you’re hiring for the qualities and, up to a point, expertise you want and then helping them grow as you would any other professional. In an ideal world, it might mean an occasional state or regional conference, but more often it’s on-campus training in issues such as working with special populations, sexual harassment and assault training, the latest techniques in ESL or STEM, and/or assisting veterans.
- I’m not suggesting that all of the aforementioned are qualities and expertise you’re going to find in every professional tutoring candidate any more than you will in peers. I used phrasing such as “for example” and “as one example” in places to make that distinction in my initial post, but I apologize if I was unclear.
- In my last few university and community college writing centers, for example, about 1/3 of the professional writing tutors specialized in ESL (and worked with other students as well). About the same percentage, in the writing center and STEM areas, were experienced with developmental student populations. A few of us underwent training to understand how to better serve veteran students and used part of our limited semester meeting time to train current tutors on the material. (The school also hired a professional veteran coordinator and liaison to better serve the needs of this population.) We took the same approach with other key topics along the way, with said training enduring for most professional staff as they tend to stay several years whereas the training costs are often greater for peers because you’re dealing with a higher turnover rate each semester and need to handpick each term where to focus your limited training time.
- Why can’t we just hire these folks as peer tutors and/or train them accordingly? In most areas we can, and do, based upon experience up to a point, i.e., veterans can relate to veterans but may struggle to make a referral to a counselor rather than help with certain situations and, like other peer tutors, won’t be with you as long. Students struggling developmentally need not only empathy and support but also the expertise of someone trained to provide that support and who’s ideally taken the time to study the current research and apply it. Similarly, you can argue that a native speaker of a language might be more comfortable for a student to help learn the spoken language, but are native speakers automatically fluent enough writers, possessing a comprehensive enough vocabulary, and understand the intricacies of how a language works, to train future translators, business people preparing and studying bilingual transcripts, and so forth? (I used to be on the line about this one having been a volunteer ESL instructor through Literacy Volunteers of America. Then I was privileged to sit in on a few ESL classes with an outstanding colleague with a TESOL degree and saw how much more I could be doing for those students with more specific training.)
- For Nic, is a “typical professional tutor . . . better prepared to meet the demands of tutoring [an Ivy League upper-level student]? I seriously doubt it, but I think it’s where realistic hiring decisions come into play. Just as most Ivy League institutions don’t hire people without comparable degrees, I wouldn’t pair a student with a tutor who hasn’t shown evidence of successfully working at that level. As I noted earlier, you hire for the expertise you need, so while a typical state university graduate might not be a good choice, alumni who are recently retired and willing to update on the newest research and practical applications, adjunct faculty members, or successful folks in the field just looking to give back to the community may be a great choice. (I’ve been advertising for less than two months for professional tutors in New Haven and have received applications from five Ivy League graduates, for example. I don’t have anywhere near the networking abilities I would imagine you do to recruit at this level, and if I added “mentoring” as part of the job description. . . I’m thinking your students would be lining up to try these folks.)
- I’m also reiterating that I never said I wanted to eliminate all of the peer tutors. I think it’s a phenomenal model that works to the benefit of many students in numerous cases, just not to all students in every case.
- Curiosity questions: How do you assist your seniors working on their theses or first articles for publication when they’re not comfortable approaching faculty? Who assists non-native English speakers in mastering the terminology for a course understanding that they have already proven some working knowledge of the field? I’m gathering that the Ivy League schools, unlike the majority of other institutions, don’t have nearly as many graduate students who are returning after years outside of Higher Ed. and trying to come up to speed with the demands of the learning process, work-life balance (to the point that it exists), and/or learning the fundamentals of a field along with the coursework because they’re studying a new discipline, but who helps students with these transitions? Is there room for growth here?
- Joshua, yours is my favorite response—thoughtful and I love the analogy!
- What do we do when the service and expertise in question isn’t available except through peer tutors? Document it and use such instances as traction for acquiring that meatier diet. In my experience, while senior administrators are looking for ways to trim the fat out of our budgets, they’re also bending over backwards to find ways to retain struggling students/students whose needs aren’t being met. A school with a growing veteran population is ripe for a discussion regarding a veteran advisor and counselor. When our institutions started dealing with an increasing population of documented students with special needs, most saw the sense in hiring specialists to assist and retain those students. If your institution is actively trying to recruit international ESL students or even local Spanish-speaking students, for example, it’s the right time to inquire about some of that meat to ensure that these students are more likely to graduate than be numbers on enrollment management charts for dropouts or transfers. These roles help us be competitive as a department and institutionally.
- Most of us track everything under the sun today. I’m not saying that these changes will happen overnight or even in the next year, but if you’re not seeing the best results pointing students toward faculty who, as we’ve noted, are often not trained in these areas either, then note it. If you want to be really proactive, you or one of your team (if you have other professional admins.) take responsibility for working with a small number of such students and track that data as well. Qualitative evidence is critical in addition to quantitative, especially when your vegetarian diet may be missing key nutritional elements that aren’t being supplemented elsewhere or you have folks such as myself with deadly food allergies who need an expanded menu. 😊
- Referring back to my earlier comments, it’s important not to equate students’ professors with a professional tutor because the power dynamic trumps everything. At my last institution, 1/3 of our tutors were professionals for most of my time there, yet they handled the majority of the tutoring sessions each year because most students preferred someone with more maturity and expertise when given a choice. Our peer tutors were fabulous, and some were extremely well utilized. We marketed undergraduate, graduate student, and professional tutors the same way and with the same frequency. (Technically we gave the peers more visibility.) The peers exceeded the professionals in number of hours worked and, holistically, distinct courses because they represented more majors, but the majority of students, given the choice, preferred our professionals. I’ve seen that same dynamic at other schools as well, which is why I question the idea that the students don’t seem interested and would love to see data from schools offering a choice once both services are entrenched.
- I should have used better phrasing to clarify QUALIFIED when I indicated that “professionals are going to be able to support the ESL populations; better assist non-traditional students[. . .]” I apologize for that lack of clarity. To me, “qualified” is a given in this discussion and something I thought I was adequately addressing when I prefaced my comments with the idea that not all people are qualified to be effective tutors, that it takes time, training, and refinement of skills to be successful. I’m also sorry if you misread some of what I wrote as being in favor of eliminating peer tutoring. It was certainly not my intention. I want to revive professional tutors as a practice alongside of peers, which I thought my initial post made clear but evidently did not.
- The key for me, in determining the fiscal aspect of one’s diet, is long-term sustenance and the range of nutrients provided. Naturally we can hire veterans (who are often well into their academic programs because they began their studies while serving and typically did not study under the campus faculty for introductory courses), native speakers of a language (awesome for a cultural immersion approach, but would you choose your typical high school graduate in the US to teach the grammatical, punctuation, and syntax of English over an English professor?), special needs populations (There are so many diverse diagnoses that our schools have set up a department to take the lead, but they can’t cover content support holistically, so they partner with us and sometimes even rely on trained tutors to recognize when someone needs a referral while carefully negotiating privacy lines.), and non-traditional students (who often already feel uncomfortable because their traditional counterparts are so much younger) for these roles. For each one, I’ve noted drawbacks that a trained professional can better handle. The biggest bonus is that institutions that pay decently retain those tutors for several years, so you have a substantially less expensive (because it’s less repetitive) hiring and training program for these folks alongside of the “gold ring” in higher education: most higher education students surveyed list an ongoing, mentoring/support type of relationship with someone at their campus as the #1 reason they stay at a school (viz. Ruffalo Noel Levitz reports). In this age of adjunct faculty, a professional tutor who’s there for many years can easily fill this role even if they’re not constantly working with a student. Many of our students at my last institution brought their parents from across the country or overseas to the Center to take photos with our professional tutors and so the parents could thank them for being so impactful. I’ve been the recipient of such visits as well, especially around graduation. Students can and absolutely do bond with peers as well, but presuming that there’s a difference in academic progress as the tutors have completed the courses they’re supporting, peer tutors will graduate well before their students, so that relationship is severed even if the student didn’t necessarily “need it” for academic support. Sometimes being able to just drop in and talk is enough to feel connected. For veterans and non-traditional students, I would argue that it’s critical for comfort and in many cases success.
- Does peer tutoring assistance count? Definitely, but by virtue of the fact that these students are still early in their field and advanced education, they have more to learn than someone who’s completed their formal studies and worked in it and can only tutor in the content and use the skills they have acquired to date. If it weren’t so, we wouldn’t seek professional mentors with years of experience in the workplace and we would be putting underclassmen in labs and classrooms solo and presume that they could finish the process of teaching themselves. The peers should and can provide much of the basic tutoring for freshman and sophomore course content, are relatable to many students, and, above all, serve as an example of success that’s accessible in a peer, but they can also be intimidating to some students for the same reason, which is one of the top reasons I’ve heard students say they prefer professionals when they’re really struggling. I’m not saying it’s right to feel that way, only that I’ve heard it numerous times.
- Martin, I think you made the argument for me when you said you’ve “seen many of our tutors become Learning Center Professionals at our institutions and around the country after their graduation.” None of them ended their education about what it meant to be a tutor or achieved the pinnacle of their ability to help students as undergraduates. I’d go so far as to say that all of us are still growing, refining our abilities, and discovering what it means to be a better tutor/learning support professional in our daily work and even by being on this listserv.
Thank you to anyone who made it this far! I look forward to additional thoughts should you wish to share them.
Incidentally, if people are interested, I will post a much briefer response about calculating fiscal costs in the form of a spreadsheet that you can adapt for your institutions if you want to see how much of a difference really exists between those vegetarian and omnivorous diets. A couple business consultants helped me create a variation of it several years ago for funding purposes. It opened my eyes to the reality that professionals add substantial institutional value through both their expertise and long-term retention once I started to add up the hidden costs of constant marketing, interviewing, training, and mentoring in relation to services provided, not to mention what else I could achieve for my institution if I wasn’t constantly investing so much time in them.
Again, I don’t want to replace the peer tutors, but I do hope to see many more institutions consider the contributions of professional tutors alongside of them.
Happy Thanksgiving to all of you. I know I’m thankful for the support and stimulating conversations I’ve been privileged to read and be a part of here over the years!
Debbie Malewicki, President
Integrity 1st Learning Support Solutions, LLC
Chosen as one of “The Best of New Haven’s 2019 Businesses”
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