Published on Let's Talk Development

# Tutoring for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)

Today, November 10, is World Science Day, and the focus of the Day this year is quality science education. Learning in schools in many developing countries is low. But the same can be said for many schools in Washington, DC. On PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), the international benchmark to measure mathematics skills and science literacy, among 34 OECD countries the US ranked 27th in mathematics and 20th in science, with no statistically significant improvement over time. Within the US, again in terms of performance in mathematics, the capital city of Washington DC ranks last behind all states in the national NAEP assessment. Improving such low levels of performance requires a concerted effort, but tutoring for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects can help. Tutoring can be part of the solution to improve learning.

Great tutoring programs tend to have a few features in common. These features make sense in Washington DC. They probably also make sense in many developing country settings. So let’s discuss some of these salient features with a few examples (this post is adapted from a more detailed 3-post series on STEM education and tutoring in the capital city available here).

Imagine a group of elementary school students gathering in a school gymnasium as part of a tutoring session. The students are trying to estimate the gravitational acceleration force on an object at sea level, where Washington, DC, is located. The students throw a golf ball in the air in the gymnasium. They record the time it takes for the ball to fall from apogee to the floor using a simple stop watch. They repeat the exercise 25 times. They also estimate the distance from apogee to the top of the ceiling, which is done by first measuring the distance from floor to ceiling and next by guessing by how much the ball misses the ceiling. The students’ estimate of ‘g’, the gravitational acceleration due to the force exerted by the earth on the golf ball, turns out to be within three percent of the accepted value for Washington, DC, even though each of the 25 individual computations per throw varied widely. This showed to the students how approximate values, when averaged, may converge on true values with reasonable accuracy.

This scene is not from a movie, but from a volunteer-based tutoring program run in a public school located in Anacostia, the poorest area of the city. Until recently, few children at the school passed standardized mathematics and reading tests, but things are improving. The program has now been in existence for six years and focuses on mathematics and reading, and on the types of questions asked in standardized tests. This is not to “teach to the test”, but to ensure that children understand potential test questions well. Tutors work with students in small groups of three or four to generate interactions and more learning. The groups meet once or twice a week for the entire school year. The goal is not only to help the students learn, but also to help them understand that there is a future for them that often they didn’t know existed.

The literature on tutoring and out-of-school-time programs (see this review) suggests that to achieve impact it is best to: (1) provide consistent and sustained instructional time, for a total of at least 40-45 hours; (2) provide tutoring to small groups of students, preferably less than ten at a time; (3) follow a curriculum that is rich in content and takes into account the specific needs of students while being also closely related to what students learn during the regular school day; (4) ensure that tutoring sessions are active and varied (for example by combining structured and unstructured instruction, as well as individual and collective work time) and focused on targeting the development of specific skills; (5) foster positive relationships between tutors and students; and finally (6) foster collaboration between teachers and tutors with support of administrators, including for constructive evaluation. All of these features are at work in the above program.

Tutoring sessions can work, but they should be active, varied, and even fun. They should combine structured and unstructured instruction, as well as individual and collective work, and they should focus on specific skills. In the Anacostia program, the first part of each tutoring session focuses on prior test problems from DC standardized tests. These tests are augmented by problems that tutors or teachers prepare to emphasize special themes. In mathematics for example, a package would contain around 80 problems, ranging from routine arithmetic operations to data analysis (histograms, bar charts, tables), basic geometry, and problems that require reading to make sense of what is to be done. The problem set is paced by student progress, not by a time schedule. Tutors make sure that if a problem is difficult to understand for one or more of the students, all students understand what the problem is driving at before they start to work on the problem. Students work on the problem until all have finished, but if the tutor sees that at least one student remains confused, a group discussion is launched to help the students get the correct solution. The tutors also try to interject simple science illustrations within the problems to be solved, as illustrated earlier with the gravity constant.

How successful has this program been? No rigorous impact evaluation is available to say for sure, but success rates on tests are higher for tutored than non-tutored students. The results, albeit not based on a randomized study, are encouraging. And if you are convinced only by randomized control trials, consider then the evidence from other programs in the capital city.

The NGO Higher Achievement operates in Washington, DC, as well as in Baltimore, Richmond, and Pittsburgh. Students in the program meet three days a week during the school year. They first complete homework with support from teachers and volunteers. They then have dinner and work on a specific subject in small groups of two or three with a trained volunteer mentor. This is a rigorous program - overall, students spend a total of 650 hours a year in the program between 5th and 8th grade. The program has been evaluated by MDRC. The program had a statistically significant positive impact after one year in the program on mathematics proficiency and reading comprehension. The mathematics impacts lasted four years after enrollment in the program. Another program recently evaluated by MDRC is Reading Partners, also operating in Wshington, DC, and other US cities. That program does not focus on STEM, but its results suggest again that tutoring can improve learning – in this case for reading proficiency. These various rigorous evaluations tell us  that good tutoring programs can make a difference.

From a policy point of view, there are legitimate questions about the cost effectiveness of some tutoring programs. This cost effectiveness issue must be looked at carefully on a case by case basis. But when the programs are staffed in part or fully by volunteers, they are more likely to be cost effective. Tutoring may also in some cases – especially when it is profit-motivated, act as a substitute for good quality teaching. This may be a serious problem in some developing countries (as an example, see this paper on Nepal), but probably much less so in developed countries. In most situations, tutoring is likely to lead to positive changes.

## Authors

### Quentin Wodon

Lead Economist, Education Sector, World Bank

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