Do friends make good tutors?

There are conflicting claims about the manner in which friendship influences peer tutoring. Some educators believe that friends who tutor each other are more sensitive to their partners. Friends, these educators say, tend to monitor progress more closely and use encouragement more frequently. It is speculated that this creates an environment conducive to increased learning.

However, recent studies suggest that friendship may make a tutor’s job more complicated. These studies indicate that elementary age children have difficulty successfully balancing the social demands of friendship with the instructional demands of tutoring.

Hugh Foot and Anne-Marie Barron of the School of Psychology at the University of Wales, studied the way in which friendship influences both the process of tutoring and the amount learned. In addition, Foot and Barron explored the effects of gender and extrinsic rewards on peer tutoring.

Rules of behavior and public safety

Participating in this study were 48 pairs of 8 and 9-year-old children from one school in a low to middle income area in Cardiff, Wales. The tutor’s task was to teach his/her partner the “Country Code”, which consisted of eleven rules of behavior and public safety. The children were divided into eight groups in order to study the impact of four factors on performance: (a) friendship: friend or non-friend, (b) gender: boy or girl, (c) incentives: reward or no reward, and (d) tutoring role: tutor or tutee. All children (including tutors) were pre- and post-tested on the Country Code rules. The tutors were trained in the Country Code rules before tutoring began. Children in the reward group were told beforehand that they would receive prizes for good performance on the post-test. All children completed a questionnaire to gauge their reactions to the tutoring session, the task itself and their performance on the test.

Longer tutoring sessions for girls who are friends

The offer of a reward had no effect on the tutoring process or on test performance. Friendship, however, did affect the tutoring process, especially for girls. Gender was a significant factor in the level of interaction between tutor and tutee. Tutoring sessions between girlfriends were significantly longer. Girl tutors were more responsive to partners who were friends than to partners who were not friends. For this reason, it appears that girls tend to make greater distinctions in their treatment of friends and non-friends than do boys.

Increased interaction in the partnerships of friends, however, appears to have had no bearing on the amount of information exchanged between the pair. Friendship itself did not appear to influence the amount of actual teaching that occurred. Consequently, friendship did not affect test performance. Although friends interacted more and had longer tutoring sessions, there is no evidence that more learning took place. Interestingly, those tutored showed greater improvement on the post-test than the tutors.

Friendship did not enhance or impair results

There were no differences between friends and non-friends on post-test scores or in the amount of improvement from pre-test to post-test. Foot and Barron concluded that friendship neither enhanced nor impaired learning in this experiment. Learning was dependent solely on the amount and quality of information conveyed. Friends, although providing a supportive environment for their partner, did not provide more information.

It is speculated that the type of task and its complexity would probably influence the effect that friendship has on learning. On a simple task, such as the one in this study, friendship did not affect learning. However, researchers can only speculate as to whether friendship would help or hinder test performance on more complex tasks. This study confirmed that friends, particularly girlfriends, engage in richer patterns of interaction and show greater sensitivity to each others’ needs. On this task, friends were able to spend more time interacting without reducing the amount of information that was learned. Further research is needed with more complex tutoring tasks to determine if focusing on the social aspects of the relationship would lead young students to neglect the instructional demands of tutoring. Foot and Barron conclude that we should be cautious in presuming that friends inherently make the best choice for tutors.

“Friendship and Task Management in Children’s Peer Tutoring” Educational Studies Volume 16 Number 3 p. 237-250

Published in ERN March/April 1991 Volume 4 Number 2


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