In response to the Covid-19 outbreak, the governments of several countries ordered the closure of all schools and universities. Teachers were forced to adapt rapidly to distance learning. At home, students from underprivileged backgrounds are less likely to have proper support, which might increase existing learning gaps across socioeconomic characteristics. How can we prevent disadvantaged children falling further behind?
To address this issue, our research team designed and implemented an innovative online tutoring program: TOP (“Tutoring Online Program”). It was offered to middle schools all over Italy in Spring 2020, and it has been scaled up in the school year 2020–2021, reaching over 1,300 children. The program targeted middle school students (grades 6 to 8) from disadvantaged backgrounds (in terms of socioeconomic status, linguistic barriers, or learning difficulties) who were identified by teachers among those lagging behind during distance learning.
TOP has two defining features. First, tutoring is entirely online. During the Covid-19 lockdown, this was the only possible delivery mode; but more broadly it makes it easier and more efficient for tutors to support disadvantaged children in remote areas. Second, TOP tutors are volunteer university students, trained and supported by pedagogical experts. The choice of volunteer tutors allows a rapid response and large-scale implementation, and possibly also a better quality of inter-personal interaction, as TOP leverages the intrinsic motivation of university students to be volunteers.
We find sizable and significant improvements in achievement among students who were randomly assigned a TOP tutor in the Spring of 2020 (treated students) compared to those who applied but did not receive the support of a tutor (control students). Performance in a standardized test that we administered at the end-line improved by 0.26 standard deviations. Teachers’ assessments of learning also improved among treated students compared to control ones, by 0.18 of a standard deviation. These are remarkable effects given a median length of the online tutoring program of only five weeks. We also measured aspirations and socio-emotional skills, finding that TOP increased the value of a composite index capturing these dimensions by 0.15 and 0.14 standard deviations respectively. Finally, at the end of the tutoring treated students were happier and less depressed, as reported by themselves and by their parents. The effect corresponds to a 0.17 standard deviation improvement in a composite psychological index of well-being.
The results have important policy implications about addressing learning losses during Covid-19 and beyond. Tutoring is an effective policy that can be implemented at scale to offer personalized instruction, especially to those lagging behind. Online interaction with a volunteer tutor can help in the years ahead to combat learning gaps, taking advantage of the availability of computers and devices extended to most students in several countries during the pandemic.
© Michela Carlana and Eliana La Ferrara
Micaela Carlana is assistant professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, USA, and a Research Affiliate of IZA.
Eliana La Ferrara is professor of economics at Bocconi University, Italy.
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