Tutoring can improve academic outcomes and mental health, U of T economist finds

(photo by Jose Luis Pelaez Inc via Getty Images)

New research by Philip Oreopoulos, a professor of economics at the University of Toronto Mississauga, suggests that one-on-one and small group tutoring consistently improves academic achievements, offering important insight into ways to assist students struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Oreopoulos and his colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of 96 randomized controlled trials of tutoring programs. The programs span three decades and involve students in pre-kindergarten through Grade 12. They found that students randomly selected to receive tutoring in math or English outperformed their peers more than 80 per cent of the time, with half the studies in the analysis revealing very large effects.

“The study highlights how much consensus there is that tutoring is effective,” says Oreopoulos, adding that such significant positive effects are rare in social science research. About half of the studies pegged the impact at 30 per cent greater than one standard deviation, which translates to meaningful academic improvement.


The study, which has not been peer-reviewed, also found that tutors who were teachers or para-professionals with some training were more effective than volunteers and that tutoring done at school in the context of the school day was more effective than tutoring done at home or after school.

“I think that it was more effective because tutoring done at school is more structured, so students end up more likely to actually receive tutoring than in less supervised environments,” says Oreopoulos, who was recently named a distinguished professor at U of T.

The study was issued in July as a working paper for the National Bureau of Economics Research. It is part of Oreopoulos’s work as co-chair of the education group at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. J-PAL’s objective is to improve the effectiveness of poverty programs by providing policy-makers with clear scientific results that help shape successful policies to combat poverty.

“This study is especially timely because there is currently a lot of discussion about how we can deal with the concerning situation caused by COVID-19 that makes learning conditions far from optimal,” says Oreopoulos. “The disruptions point toward a lower trajectory of learning, especially for those who are disadvantaged to begin with.”

The key, says Oreopoulos, is finding a way to make tutoring scalable. He cites a Harvard Kennedy School study that was done in partnership with three Italian universities. Volunteer tutors from the universities were randomly paired with students in schools recommended by their principals. The tutors received training online and provided three hours of weekly tutoring for two months. The students showed significant academic improvement in math, English and Italian, as well as improvements in non-academic outcomes including mental health and life satisfaction, as reported by the students, their parents and teachers. 

“The program is exciting because it’s the kind we need right now,” says Oreopoulos, who is working with Karen Mundy, a professor at U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, to set up a similar program in Canada.

He is also piloting a test of computer-assisted learning that simulates the tutoring experience, working with 10 teachers in Utah through the non-profit Khan Academy. They are using a program that allows students to work at their own pace and receive immediate feedback on their assignments and problems, which are based on the material discussed in class.

“This is free and scalable, so it might be worth considering scaling up,” Oreopoulos says. “I’m hoping to evaluate the program next year to provide evidence for whether teachers should be doing more of this.”

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