Relationships & Positionality in Undergraduate Peer Tutoring
by Sophia Abbot
As a former student partner in Bryn Mawr College’s Students as Learners and Teachers program (see: Kupatadze, 2018), when I began my professional staff position in educational development following graduation, I sought out students occupying similar in-between positions on their campus. At Trinity University, I found that a ‘cousin,’ if you will, of student-faculty partnership was the relationship formed between instructors and the students who serve as peer tutors in their courses. By peer tutors, I mean “students tutoring other students in the same institution, but at a different level or grade” (Falchikov, 2001), sometimes also referred to as undergraduate teaching assistants (Gordon, Henry, & Dempster, 2013), peer learning assistants, peer educators (Owen, 2011), and for those predominantly working with first year transition-to-college courses, peer mentors (Christie, 2014; Colvin, 2007). Such students develop close relationships with the course instructors and navigate a nebulous position of not-quite-student, not-quite-professor.
In 2016, two colleagues — Anne Jumonville Graf, an associate professor and research librarian, and Beverly Chatfield, a former Trinity undergraduate and now high school math and science teacher — and I explored the experiences of these peer tutors and the ways they navigated their own shifting and multiple identities.
In our research we found that peer tutors occupied a range of roles as they supported the classroom and teaching more generally:
And yet, in spite of this variety of responsibilities, three overlapping but distinct themes emerged that inflected tutors’ experience of their role: (1) the professor-tutor relationship, (2) role clarity, and (3) tutor positionality.
The Professor-Tutor Relationship
We found the relationship tutors developed with their faculty partner was a defining feature of their experience. Sixty-five percent of tutors became tutors for the opportunity to work with a particular professor more closely. Not only was the close relationship developed significant for tutors, but instructors also played an essential role in opening access for tutors to work with students. One tutor reflected: “[the professor’s] constant referral to/calling on my knowledge and experience in class…really allow[ed] me to help in class to my full capacity…I felt that the students respected me more outside of class.”
Tutors appreciated when the instructor was able to give them explicit guidance around fulfilling their tutoring roles. Only 27% of students felt there were no areas in which they could have received additional guidance (possibly because they received adequate guidance from the beginning). For the rest, guidance around giving writing feedback was the most common area of desired support (41%) and was also the most common responsibility of tutors (94%). Tutors work in a nebulous space in between students and the instructor — they have seniority among students, but are still close in age and experience to their peers, so drawing the lines of their levels of responsibility emerged as key to tutors feeling fulfilled and clear about their work.
The in-between nature of tutors position — as mentioned above — led to some difficulties in establishing authority and legitimacy. This was where affirmation by the instructor was particularly important in helping establish the tutor as a legitimate source of knowledge and support. But the closeness of the tutor in age and experience to the students also made space for tutors to give advice and broader mentoring around transitioning to college and navigating the university — roles that branched beyond the tutors’ official academic duties. For some tutors, this in-betweenness also allowed them to bridge the hierarchical and experiential gap between first year students and the instructor, and translate needs and concerns across the groups (see Cook-Sather & Abbot, 2014, for more on this topic).
From this exploration, we developed a list of recommendations for institutions and instructors working with peer tutors, quoted below:
- Peer tutors appreciate clear expectations in terms of both specific responsibilities and the meaning of being a tutor more broadly. Frequent and open communication between the tutor and the instructor, then, may help lend clarity and structure to the tutor role.
- At the same time, role clarity is challenging for those in “in-between” positions: the unique positionality of being situated between faculty and students is both the opportunity and challenge of peer tutoring. Framing it as such, as well as giving tutors opportunity to reflect on the learning that emerges from this navigation may help tutors to accept some of the uncertainty and liminality of their position.
- Additionally, instructors can and should help establish these roles, not only in conversation with peer tutors themselves, but publicly in the classroom setting, with and for students.
- In addition to setting student expectations about peer tutor roles, instructors can legitimize those roles by speaking specifically about the peer tutors’ knowledge and credibility. This affirms the tutor, both in one-on-one settings and in the classroom, thus building tutor trust with the students in the class.
- Finally, tutors and instructors should recognize that working as a tutor is a learning process, and they should make ongoing support and guidance key to tutors’ senses of success.
(Abbot, Graf, & Chatfield, 2018, p. 253)
While our focus was on encouraging instructors to work more closely and effectively with their peer tutors, the suggestions above could be adapted to support a much wider variety of student-faculty relationships. I’ll explore those in more detail in future posts.
- Abbot, Graf, & Chatfield (2018). Listening to undergraduate peer tutors: Roles, relationships, and challenges. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 30(2). 245-261.
- Christie, H. (2014). Peer mentoring in higher education: Issues of power and control. Teaching in Higher Education, 19(8), 955-965. doi:10.1080/13562517.2014.934355
- Colvin, J. (2007). Peer tutoring and social dynamics in higher education. Mentoring and Tutoring, 15(2), 165-181. doi: 10.1080/13611260601086345
- Cook-Sather, A. & Abbot, S. (2016). Translating partnerships: How faculty-student collaboration in explorations of teaching and learning can transform perceptions, terms, and selves. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 4(2), 1-14. doi:https://doi.org/10.20343/teachlearninqu.4.2.5
- Falchikov, N. (2001). Learning together: Peer tutoring in higher education. New York, NY: Routledge/Falmer.
- Gordon, J., Henry, P., & Dempster, M. (2013). Undergraduate teaching assistants: A learner-centered model for enhancing student engagement in the first-year experience. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 25(1), 103-109. Retrieved from http://www.isetl.org/ijtlhe/pdf/IJTLHE1402.pdf
- Kupatadze, K. (2018, February 15). Bryn Mawr College’s experience with partnership. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/bryn-mawr-colleges-experience-with-partnership/
- Owen, J. (2011). Peer educators in classroom settings: Effective academic partners. New Directions for Student Services, 133, 55–64. doi:10.1002/ss.384
Adapted from Abbot, Graf, & Chatfield (2018). Listening to undergraduate peer tutors: Roles, relationships, and challenges. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 30(2). 245-261.
Sophia Abbot is the 2018-2020 Center for Engaged Learning Graduate Apprentice and a student in the Masters of Higher Education program at Elon University.