Defining High Dosage Tutoring
Districts across the country are addressing learning loss by offering in-school “high dosage small group tutoring.” If you’re wondering what it is, or better yet, how it’s different from RtI or small group instruction the short answer is this: it’s the same. It’s the practice of teaching students based on mastery level, not grade level. It is also one of the most well-established and effective educational practices. Kudos for considering it.
Despite the clear benefits, high dosage tutoring runs the risk of being another “great educational idea that failed” because schools over-simplify implementation. For high dosage tutoring to live up to potential, schools must make an upfront investment in (1) optimizing groupings and (2) planning for differentiated instruction. Here’s how to deliver high-dosage tutoring the right way.
For starters, groups should be no more than five students all at the same general achievement level. Research on the zone of proximal development makes clear the importance of grouping students at their mastery level to avoid giving work that is neither too hard nor too easy. It prevents frustration on one end and boredom at the other. Groupings should change by topic since students will differ in how much they know and why. In other words, groups need to be fluid.
Groupings must take into account non-achievement factors in the social, emotional, and cognitive domains. Even the best schools often skip this crucial step, and it’s at the heart of why small group instruction often fails to deliver on expectations. Not all students fall behind because of a lack of understanding. Yet, the de facto approach is to teach the same content in the same way as whole class instruction, only more slowly and deliberately. While the more of the same approach might work for some students, it is unlikely to be very effective for the majority of students. The science on this is clear.
Students don’t learn for a variety of reasons. Students with great capability might perform poorly because of weaker executive functions, poor retention, low engagement, or just not processing the format. These differences in non-achievement factors are discoverable (you will need different tools) and yet essential to inform instruction. Imagine a group of students, all struggling for a different reason, trying to learn as a group. It’s not hard to imagine how they would all experience greater frustration, lower self-esteem, and, as a result, worse performance.
Using Essential Tools
There are plenty of achievement assessments that provide good data for groupings. If at all possible, use a normed benchmark assessment (e.g., MAP Growth, iReady, STAR, AIR). These assessments ensure accuracy you might not get from teacher-constructed assessments.
Non-achievement factors can be harder to identify. Classroom teachers can provide good insight, but school psychologists and learning specialists might be best suited to identify social, emotional, and cognitive needs. Consider a combination of objective measures (e.g., MindPrint Cognitive Assessment) and student self-report instruments (Tyton Partners has an extensive industry summary). These tools can identify strengths and needs in areas of reasoning, memory, executive functions, and processing, as well as engagement, self-efficacy, and other social and emotional skills. Remember, understanding why a student is behind is just as important as knowing how far behind they are.
Planning for Differentiated Instruction
Even inexperienced teachers will find they can readily differentiate instruction when they have students grouped appropriately. Content needs are clear based on achievement gaps. Instructional approaches will vary by group and the insights from non-achievement factors will show how. For example, students with weaker executive functions can be taught skills to focus and organize their work, whereas students with weaker memory might need more repetition. Teachers will know how to present content for students who were unable to learn in their first attempt. All students will benefit from learning in their zone of proximal development and the camaraderie of working with similarly situated peers.
Summing it Up
High dosage tutoring sounds like a great idea because it is a great idea. Small group instruction can have outcomes well exceeding whole class instruction, and even begin to reach or exceed those of one-to-one instruction. But the details matter. In the rush to address learning gaps and spend ESSER funds, don’t short-cut the key elements that are essential to making small group instruction effective.