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Teachers Network Leadership Institute:
Action Research: Classroom Management & School Culture:
The Power of Peer Tutoring: Success for a Retained Student

Research Summary

The Questions

  • How does retention affect a student’s self image and academic performance?
  • How is the academic performance of a retained student affected when he or she acts as a peer tutor during the repeated year?


I was concerned that students being held over, or retained, in my school were not benefiting from repeating a grade.  In addition to their academic failure, I noticed that students who were retained seemed to have lower self-esteem than many of their classmates. It seemed to me that retention without modification of experience in the grade was not beneficial to most students.  I wanted to make sure that Christopher, who had been retained twice in four years, experienced greater academic success during his second time in third grade than he had during his first.  I hoped that by allowing Christopher to become a peer tutor, he would experience increased self-esteem and improved academic performance.


My school is located in Bushwick, Brooklyn and there are approximately 400 students ranging (pre-K to 5). Eighty-five percent of the student population is Hispanic. Eighty percent of the students are eligible for free lunch.  In grades two through five, nearly twenty percent of the students have repeated a grade at least once. When a child fails a grade at my school, he or she does not automatically receive academic intervention services or any modified program.

Research and Action

The majority of the research on student retention suggests that being held over is more harmful to students than it is helpful. Much of the research says that retention contributes to low self-esteem (Thomas 1992, Alexander 1994), does not raise students’ academic standing (Dawson, P. 1998; Jimerson 2001) and makes students more likely to drop out of school (Roderick, 1995). The studies that have found retention to be effective focus on a remedial intervention or bolstered academic support for the retained student as the major reason for the program’s success (Jacob and Stone 2005, Greene and Winters 2006, Alexander 1994).          

Research on peer tutoring cites positive emotional and academic effects for both the tutor and the tutee (Bernard 1990). Especially for the tutor, it can be instrumental in improving academic performance and self-image. Further, some research focuses on the benefits that peer tutoring can have for high-risk students (Mills, R., Dunham, R.G., & Alpert, G.P. 1988).            

I noticed that Christopher, who had been retained twice, had extremely low self-esteem.  After speaking with colleagues and reading research on the effects of peer tutoring, I implemented a 12-week peer-tutoring program for Christopher.  He acted as a peer tutor in math, his strongest subject, for a more struggling student in the class.  Christopher planned his tutoring sessions with me before school every Tuesday morning and tutored Jose, his chosen student for two to three mornings per week for 12 weeks.


Questionnaires: Whole class was asked about thoughts and feelings about retention.  Christopher was asked about his strengths/weaknesses as a student before and after his 12-weeks as a math peer tutor.
Interviews: Interviews with Christopher about school experiences and peer tutoring experiences.
Test scores: Compared class average and Christopher’s scores on 10 different math tests given throughout the year.  5 tests were pre-peer tutoring and 5 were post-peer tutoring.
Notes from peer tutoring planning sessions: Notes taken after every planning session between myself and Christopher, including length of meeting, his comments on Jose’s progress and who directed the planning.


The student questionnaires showed that 45% of my students worried about being retained everyday and that being held back would be extremely upsetting to them. 

Christopher’s questionnaire and interview responses confirmed that he had very low self-esteem early in the year. He said that he knew he was not good at school because “his teachers told him before and because he failed twice.” In a post- peer tutoring questionnaire, he reported that he liked being a tutor because it made Jose smarter, he wished he could have done it for longer, and that he felt he had improved a lot in math as a result of it. He also showed greater confidence during our planning sessions by directing the planning more as time went on.  In addition, he came late to our planning sessions less frequently, so our average meeting time increased from 35 minutes to 45 minutes by the end of the 12 weeks.
Ten math tests, six Everyday Math end-of-unit tests and four New York State practice math tests, were given from October to April.  Five tests were given before Christopher began acting as a peer tutor in January. Christopher’s average for those five tests was 41 percent, 22 percentage points below the class average of 63 percent.    There were five tests given from January through April, after Christopher became a peer tutor. Christopher’s average on those tests was 82 percent. For the tests that Christopher took after he became a peer tutor, he scored an average of 13 percentage points above the class average of 69 percent. 


The data I have gathered suggests that peer tutoring is one strong way to help a retained student experience change during the repeated year. Christopher’s math test scores improved more than any other student in the class.  Based on questionnaires, interviews, and planning meeting notes, I knew that Christopher’s self-esteem improved tremendously after becoming a peer tutor. In addition, he began to hold himself to a higher standard in math, which demonstrates that when teacher’s express high expectations for students, students begin to set higher goals for themselves, as well. Christopher began to believe in himself and feel as though he had something to offer others.  From my reading of research, I realized that Christopher’s low self esteem was typical for a retained student, so peer tutoring could be a successful intervention with other students who have been held back and/or are struggling academically.  In addition, the progress he made as a peer tutor both academically and emotionally strongly supports the research stating the positive effects peer tutoring can have on at-risk students.

Major Policy Recommendations

  • Students who are retained should be given very specific interventions to ensure that their second year in the same grade is markedly different from the others.  Retention without modification is not as effective.
  • Peer tutoring should be included as an option when developing individualized programs for retained students, especially when they have been identified as students with low self-esteem.
  • Schools should develop early intervention plans that focus not only on academic needs, but also on the social and emotional needs of young students.  Programs such as peer tutoring can be inexpensive to implement, but instrumental in raising and sustaining students’ self-confidence.

Leigh Mesler

Research Focus:

TNLI Affiliate:
New York City

PS 196
Ten Eyck School
207 Bushwick Ave.   
Brooklyn, NY  11206 

If you would like to learn more about Teachers Network Leadership Institute, please e-mail Kimberly Johnson for more information.



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