The History Of Peer Tutoring
by Brendan Dabkowski

From the writer: I wrote this paper for Bobbi Kirby-Werner's Peer Consulting Practicum. The history and psychology of peer tutoring interested me because all the way through the class, I had wondered "Where did this method of learning/instruction emerge from?" The answer was of course, England. I also liked the idea that you didn't have to be a "professional" to be a peer consultant: that, in fact, the point was that you WEREN'T a professional, and because of this, it was in some instances much easier for students to relate to peer consultants. Which in turn helped them with writing.

From the teacher: Brendan's text fulfilled part of the WRT 331 requirement to prepare a paper as well as a 15-minute presentation about some aspect of his experience as a peer writing consultant. In his proposal for this project, Brendan noted that his status as a peer in many cases enabled him to relate better to his clients and to have more productive sessions than he might have otherwise. This experience prompted his investigation of the history of peer consulting. The insights Brendan shared in his paper and presentation were valuable additions to the class.

From the editors: The author takes you on a historical road trip into the evolution of peer tutoring. What its roots are and how far the peer tutoring system has developed in the past three hundred years are explained while the writer gives insight into a little known facet of the S.U. Writing Program: the peer consultants.


The textbook definition of peer tutoring is "a system of instruction in which learners help each other and learn (themselves) by teaching," (Goodlad and Hirst 13). Key to this definition is the word peer, meaning someone with the same or a nearly equal status as the person being tutored, who, as such, is not a professional instructor. Peer tutoring has played an important part in education and has probably existed in some incarnation since the beginning of civilization. But the first recorded use of an organized, systematic peer tutorial learning project in the Western World didn't come about until the late 1700's.

Arising from school budget woes in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, peer tutoring became an effective way of giving underprivileged (at this time, sadly, only male) children a reasonable shot at an education. The first systematic approach to peer tutoring is credited to Andrew Bell, who was the superintendent of the Military Male Asylum at Egmore, in England (Goodlad et. al. 23). When Bell took the reins at this institution, the asylum was run as  a school for boys whose fathers had been killed during wartime. Bell transformed the asylum into more of an official school.

Like many good ideas, Bell's thoughts on implementing peer tutoring came from a very strange, almost unconscious source. Ever the frugal superintendent, he observed several children drawing in the sand at a beach one day, and then introduced the idea of using trays of sand as cheap writing material in his school (Goodlad et. al. 23). Since the rest of his teaching staff thought this was absurd, Bell began to use monitors -- children to teach each other with sand -- to ensure that the sand trays were indeed being used. Bell later realized that the use of these child monitors was a much more significant discovery than trying to cut costs by using such a highly unorthodox and sandy teaching practice (23).

So, during the years of 1791 and 1792, Bell redesigned his school so that every person had a specific role with associated tasks. He sectioned the school off into classes of students grouped according to their level of achievement. If a student was doing well, he could be promoted to a better class; if his work was sub-par, he could be demoted to an inferior one. Bell arranged each class in such a way that half of the students would perform as tutors and the other half would receive tutors' instructional help. Also, teachers, teaching assistants and ushers would roam throughout the school helping children, monitoring the tutors and quizzing students to make sure the teaching system was working.

With this experimental system in place, Bell reasoned that the tutors "Enabled their pupils to keep pace with their classes, in which otherwise some of them would fall behind, and be degraded to lower classes, or else continuing attached to their class, forfeit any chance of improvement, by never learning any one lesson as it ought to be learned" (24). Bell's experiment is thought to have been one the first examples of the systems approach to educating people (25).
Making use of Bell's tutorial experiment a few years down the line was a man named Joseph Lancaster, who was also enticed by the idea of providing education for children who would not otherwise get it, often because of the social class of their families (25). Lancaster opened a school in London, England in 1801 where he was responsible for approximately 350 students. Realizing there was no way he could teach this number of students and maintain order at the same time, he decided that boys who knew a little were qualified candidates to teach those who knew even less, and gave these boys the means to do so (25).

Lancaster modified Bell's method somewhat by giving his tutors detailed instructional materials to help them assist others and themselves. He designed very structured, organized teaching materials; he also came up with answer keys, which students could use to drill other students on the material they were learning, while older students monitored them. This was done while Lancaster was teaching a different group of students. So, the idea was that those students that were not receiving the headmaster's instruction, never had an idle moment and were engaged in the learning process throughout an entire school day. Another unique aspect of this approach was that it allowed students that may not have even been familiar with subject matter to actually be responsible for teaching it. They did this by way of possessing the answer keys and watching the other students work out problems before giving students the answers (25-26).

Another key player in the introduction of systematized peer tutoring was William Fowle. Fowle also used a monitorial approach in his school in England in the late 1800's. He conducted studies on his students and began to provide some educational theory to support peer tutorial practices (Ehly and Larson 11). Fowle concluded that children could, in some respects be better teachers than adults could because children know that they are in the same boat. Ideally, this causes them to be more considerate and respectful of each other's feelings, rather than feeling panicky due to having to work with an adult who they may feel is judging them and their work every step of the way, and thus holding them back from learning.

American educators who shared the lack of financial backing necessary to hire teachers in great numbers heard of the ideas of Bell, Lancaster and Fowle (Elhy et. al. 11). Taking a cue from these men from their British motherland, American instructors often would rely on certain students to teach others before a school system was put in place. This was the birth of peer tutoring in America. And while it is highly likely that tutoring in very different formats was going on in higher education (and elsewhere), it is important to note that these men's ideas were extremely influential (and egalitarian) before the use of professional teachers became more widespread in the U.S. (Goodlad et. al. 26).

Benefits of Peer Tutoring

There are several benefits for teachers, students and students being tutored, in using peer tutorial programs. Studies have been done to support the claim that many students may feel more at ease, and thus can concentrate better on the subject matter, with a peer tutor rather than a professional teacher or consultant (Ehly et. al. 21). Other studies have found that peer tutors help themselves increase their own understanding of the subject matter they tutor students in/on, which boosts confidence and can carry over to their desire to learn other subjects (Ehly et. al. 21). So we can see that peer tutoring is mutually beneficial; both the student and tutor stand to gain something. And, of course, peer tutoring is also beneficial to teachers who may not have the time to spend with each of their students one-on-one.

While peer tutoring does indeed benefit many, only the benefits reaped by students being tutored will be focused on here. And, according to Goodlad and Hirst, there are four main benefits for the students or tutees when they seek out peer help: they receive individualized instruction; they receive more teaching; they (may) respond better to their peers than to their teachers; and lastly, they can obtain companionship from the students that tutor them.
The first case, in which they receive individual instruction, gives students a fairly obvious advantage. This benefit is rooted in Behaviorist theory, which itself is based on an assertion that learning will be effective if every correct response to a question by a student is rewarded, the reward working as an incentive for the student to take another step in learning (Goodlad et. al. 59). Also, giving each learner his or her own personal tutor can spark dialogue between student and tutor, and the student may ask the tutor questions he or she wouldn't dare to ask in class, or spend time on things that could be crucial to a student's understanding of the subject matter. Spending time working with just one person may discount outside perspectives, but if the tutor is familiar enough with the subject matter, the one-to-one experience can help a student immensely, and the student can learn in a low-pressure situation.
The second case, in which tutees receive more teaching, also gives students being tutored a pretty obvious advantage. Working with a tutor is usually done outside of normal class time, so spending more time on their work with someone that is familiar with what they are doing outside of class obviously means that the students get more teaching time.

Peer tutorial sessions give students the chance to talk through problems with a qualified person, whereas students may not get the chance to do this with a teacher or professor because of the many other students in the class taking up or demanding the instructor's time. Also, interaction with a peer tutor of nearly the same age can be a big help. As Goodlad and Hirst put it, "A student only a year or two ahead can readily show a fellow student the way through a problem, indeed, often re-formulating the problem with a student at a similar stage of the course can be sufficient to promote learning" (63).

The third case, in which students potentially respond better to their peers than to their teachers, is probably one of the most important reasons for using peer tutoring. Often, students -- especially rebellious teenagers -- will shun the advice of someone older, i.e. a teacher, parent or someone else they perceive as an authority figure. One way of reaching children like this is through using someone only a year or two older who shares similar cultural tastes, but has also made it a point to acquire the knowledge and skills that formal schooling offers (63). It is here that peer tutors can make the apathetic, bored or unruly student realize that education is truly an important part of their life and something that shouldn't be ignored in their youth.

A study conducted by two psychologists, Feldman and Allen, found that peers are more sensitive than adult teachers to picking up on non-verbal cues students being tutored may give to reveal that they may not understand what a tutor is trying to communicate to them (63). So, a peer tutor may be able to more readily perceive difficulties a student being tutored may be having, and can then work to clear things up. While an adult tutor/teacher/professor can be highly effective and one should not ever discount turning to a professional, a professional may gloss over problems he or she thinks the student being tutored already understands (63).

The final case, in which students being tutored can receive companionship from peer tutors, is a pretty matter-of-fact psychological rationalization. As Goodlad and Hirst say, "Just as a child feels more secure in the presence of an older person in a social situation, so the child may feel more secure when similarly guided in an intellectual one" (63). Following this logic, Gestalt theory -- which affirms that learning occurs when the learner can locate an item in an intellectual structure or field -- says that "learning will be improved if the structure or field into which individual ideas and experiences must be placed, is simply, quickly and painlessly communicated" (63). Peer tutoring, by its nature, does just this; it allows a student having trouble with a particular subject to work with someone who has a breadth of knowledge of the subject they tutor in, and can thus "painlessly communicate" (we hope) to the student what needs to be done for him or her to become a full-fledged part of the academic group or community he or she wants to be involved in, and to improve the quality of his or her work.

The Writing Tutorial Session

So just how can students coming to a peer writing tutor or consultant get help with their writing? Well, according to Kenneth A. Bruffee in his essay "Peer Tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind,'" the peer tutorial conference is all about conversation. Bruffee argues that writing has always had its roots buried deep in "the acquired ability to carry on the social, symbolic exchange known as conversation" (91). As such, peer writing conferences/sessions are largely conversations based around conversation a person has taken from the social sphere, put on paper, and thus made social once again but in a different form -- writing. So the tutorial session can be fruitful in helping a student converse about what he or she thinks about his or her paper's topic. Bruffee says the tutor's job should be to engage the student in discussion at as many points in the writing process as humanly possible (91).

Tutoring plays an important role in writing education for the reason that it "makes students -- both tutors and tutees -- aware that writing is a social artifact like the thought process that produces it," (91). This means, that writing is, to some degree, a form of displaced conversation. And since conversation is a two-way exchange of ideas -- ideas exchanged in a social realm -- the source of all written words can be traced back to a social exchange of some kind, a conversation. So, the writing tutorial session is one way of providing another social context in which students can converse and become even more knowledgeable in regard to what they are writing about.

The peer tutorial session is one way of introducing students to processes by which communities of knowledgeable peers create connections between symbolic structures (i.e. academic disciplines, ideas within a particular major, etc.) and reality. The idea here is similar to that of Gestalt theory in forming a companionship between peer tutors and students: the writing tutor or consultant helps guide the student or tutee into a system by which the student (ideally) comes to better understand his or her community, academic discipline and ultimately his or her (constructed) reality. This is a very noble pursuit, and it is conversation and a constant questioning of one's views that leads to better writing and better learning.

Works Cited

Bruffee, Kenneth A. "Peer Tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind.'" Landmark Essays on Writing Centers. Eds. Christina Murphy and Joe Law.

Davis, California: Hermagoras Press, 1995. 87-98.

Ehly, Stewart W., and Stephen C. Larsen. Peer Tutoring for Individualized Instruction. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1980.

Goodlad, Sinclair, and Beverley Hirst. Peer Tutoring: A Guide to Learning by Teaching. New York: Nichols Publishing, 1989.

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