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Rethinking Placement: How Embedded Tutors Are Helping Community College Students Succeed

More community colleges and systems are revising their placement policies for incoming students, often encouraging or requiring them to enroll in college-level coursework instead of developmental math and English courses. Research shows that students placed directly into college-level courses with support are more likely to succeed and graduate on time. Developmental, or remedial, coursework often doesn’t count toward a degree and can add to student debt.

It is critical, therefore, to provide students with additional academic support to help them succeed. One important model is embedded tutoring, a strategy in which community college students who have successfully completed an introductory, college-level math or English course are recruited to provide support to students in that course. They provide just-in-time remediation during class time. Embedded tutors are also available to students outside of class, building on the relationships they have developed during class.

In 2017, California passed AB 705 to address continued challenges with existing developmental education placement practices. Specifically, the policy requires all community colleges to use one or more of three measures (high school coursework, high school grades, and/or high school grade point average) to determine course placements that will maximize the probability that a student will complete introductory, college-level and transferrable coursework in math and English within one year.

The California Community College Chancellor’s Office further expects colleges to shift from developmental education courses and instead offer college-level courses that are transferable, along with additional academic supports to help students succeed. Research for Action received federal funding to study the implementation, cost-effectiveness, and impact of AB 705, including the use of models such as embedded tutoring. 

Embedded tutoring offers a distinct advantage over traditional tutoring models that rely on voluntary participation outside of class. It also eliminates the stigma associated with visiting the campus tutoring center, asking for help, and finding extra time to make it happen. Based on qualitative research and analyses in a sample of community colleges across California, the following strengths of the model were identified: 

  • The model does not require students to spend additional time and tuition funds on coursework. Some postsecondary academic support models include additional class time in a support lab, while embedded tutoring provides help in real-time during class.  
  • Embedded tutors are seen as more approachable than faculty. Both students and faculty consistently reported that students are more comfortable speaking with embedded tutors to get help with their coursework.
  • Embedded tutors are familiar with the course content and faculty expectations. Given that embedded tutors are typically students who have taken the class before with the same instructors, they are familiar with how the class is structured and the content covered. 
  • Embedded tutors help provide individualized instruction to students. Providing students with “just-in-time” help to address skills that students have not yet developed or were never exposed to takes considerable attention from instructors. Leveraging an embedded tutor to help students work through assignments, whether in or outside the classroom, can provide additional capacity to faculty.
  • Embedded tutors interact with all students in the class, not just those who seek out tutoring. Embedding tutors in the classroom reduces the stigma associated with seeking help. In shifting tutoring from outside to inside the classroom, the model addresses student hesitation in reaching out for tutoring support. 

While the model has challenges around tutor recruitment and retention, tutoring mastery and increased faculty workload, these challenges can be addressed. Institutions and policymakers can support the model through clear expectations for the program, support for recruitment and retention, professional development for faculty and training for tutors, sustainable resource provision, and continuous improvement. While the literature on embedded tutoring lacks consensus on a consistent definition of the model, the research to date shows encouraging results regarding student outcomes.

In a paper just published in Annenberg’s EdWorkingPapers, my colleague Kri Burkander and I take a deep dive into embedded tutoring, highlighting promising practices and fieldwork and offering evidence on the value of the reform.

To learn more, read our full report here. 

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