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Peer Tutoring in Computer Skills

Cheryl Constable

The school asked two 13-year-olds, expert in a computer programme, to teach the skills to two 16-year-olds. The researcher watched and asked questions. The result is a lively story and good advice for peer-tutoring and computer instruction.

Journal issue: 

Peer Tutoring in Computer Skills

Cheryl Constable



Peer Tutoring in
Computer Skills

Peer Tutoring in Computer Skills

CHILDREN, particularly those with home computers, often become more expert than their teachers. It then becomes tempting to use these children as experts in the classroom. Since peer tutoring has proved useful and successful, computer experts should be able to help as tutors. Integration/mainstreaming also suggests opportunities for peer tutoring. However, without adequate planning many of the benefits of peer tutoring may be lost. Here is an example.

Recently I observed two third formers (Year 8s) tutoring two sixth formers (Year 11s), on a one-to-one basis, in the use of HyperCard Stacks on Apple Macintosh computers. The high school had no Macintosh trained staff but had Macintoshes on order. The school wanted the sixth formers to be introduced to HyperCard, and later in the year when the equipment arrived, the learners could in turn become tutors to their peers.

The third form (Year 8) tutors had become reasonably proficient at HyperCard the previous year. They were trained by a Macintosh representative while attending an intermediate school (Years 6 and 7) which taught the use of computers in association with library resources. These third formers had, as well, participated in Macintosh demonstrations at teachers’ conferences, so it was assumed by the high school coordinators (who had no Macintosh experience) that they were proficient enough to tutor in HyperCard.

This peer tutoring programme was different from various other peer tutoring programmes in several ways. Firstly, the work was not remedial: it was an introduction to something new. Secondly, the tutors and the learners were not remedial students; they were, in fact, able students. And thirdly, the tutors were three years younger than the learners.

As well as observing, at the end of the programme I gave a questionnaire to all four on their attitudes to the programme and gathered their recollections of what took place.

The two tutors, in the absence of any guidelines or training from their teachers, planned to teach their pupils the way they remembered being taught, task by task, the previous year. They were not equipped with any advance knowledge of how good the sixth formers were, nor with theories of learning.

The first of the six weekly two-and-a-half hour lessons went according to plan, with a demonstration which greatly motivated the learners and explored the first task -the use of fields.

However, the plan of instruction broke down from the second lesson onwards.

When I began teaching I worked it out so we would do such and such on this day and such and such next time but as we went along John would want to know this and this and so I found that the way I thought I’d go about things was breaking up.

The two learners were very different people and the tutors found that their plan suited neither.

She had a very carefree attitude about the whole thing… I did stipulate certain features as being important ‘must learn’ ones but I’d give warnings/advice and/but most of the time it would be ignored… I’d be ready to go on but she wanted to keep playing around with the last thing’.

The other was

…bright and you didn’t really need to teach him… I got a bit bored.

The plan was proving unsuccessful with both learners but for different reasons. Also the tutors could get no reinforcement from each other’s experiences. Without a formal monitoring system in place the tutors felt that

…we could only talk to each other.

Each week there were technical problems and often no teacher was available to assist: the password had been changed; there was a power cut; one sixth-former accidentally deleted vital information from the disk and it had to be reinstalled; and,

we phoned Apple Centre for help… but Apple wasn’t interested.

The learners enjoyed the lessons, felt relaxed and perceived that they had learnt a lot. From the second week onwards, the lessons were learner-driven, not by design but because the learners were older and the younger tutors were not confident enough to challenge them:

It was hard to tell a sixth former off.

The learners felt in control which probably enhanced their learning, but the tutors were not happy with what they perceived to be a lack of control, and a shortfall in the amount of learning that took place. The tutors did not know how to deal with critical features being ignored, for example, the older children insisting on not being given demonstrations after the first lesson. Nor could they deal with requests for information which were sidetracks from the main direction. The tutors did not know how to control their frustration nor the learners’ frustration.

If I ever did something like that again… things would have to be organised better.

The lack of monitoring and evaluation prevented the problems from being noticed, and therefore prevented any solution.


This peer tutoring situation allowed two sixth formers to learn something new and exciting, but allowed two able and skilled third formers to learn virtually nothing, and made them feel frustrated and ineffective. However, the tutors were keen to do it again, but only if

(1) they could get more time to familiarise themselves with HyperCard prior to tutoring,

(2) they could be trained in ‘how to teach’, and

(3) there was more teacher support.

Considering their negative experiences, that they were keen to try again suggests that peer tutoring is an exciting venture. However, the young tutors are just like us. They don’t want to teach or tutor in a situation where they feel they are failing. They want tried and true guidelines, experienced support, monitoring and management of their learning, feedback, and perhaps even a mentor. How can teachers provide it?

Limbrick, McNaughton and Cameron, in an earlier set, and Wood, Bruner and Ross, note some key components of successful peer tutoring programmes. These are more fully explained later. In summary, however:

Image design the peer tutoring schedule; its duration, sequence and materials;

Image select the tutors and learners; explain how peer-tutoring works; set up separate times for monitoring and discussion with tutors and learners;

Image give two or more training sessions to the tutors before they meet the learners, (the less well they know the subject the more help they will need in tutoring);

Image summarise the key tutoring points, and others you think are appropriate;

Image gradually introduce these points using fun role-play (the quiet learner, the noisy learner, the self-reliant learner) – show them how you deal with different kinds of learners by thinking aloud; introduce a few points well rather than cover too much too soon;

Image make sure you are available for the monitoring sessions and assure the pupils of your support;

Image thank both the tutors and learners for their participation.

The potential in peer tutoring

We must make a clear distinction between informal groups of two or more children working together and discussing each other’s work and the peer tutoring situation where one child has been asked to tutor another. When children talk to one another this enhances reasoning skills because group feedback helps all attain the same goal. Where one child is the tutor this supplements a teacher’s instruction.

There are several well known positive academic advantages in peer tutoring and also advantages for self-esteem, co-operation and motivation. Much of this research has been done with same-age children or with a slightly older tutor, in reading and writing, particularly for remedial work. The advantages of peer tutoring are that

(1) it entails a programme that is individually suited to the learner with intense one-to-one instruction;

(2) there is immediate feedback;

(3) it is a private environment where the learner feels comfortable to ask more questions than usual and questioning techniques improve;

(4) a mutually supportive relationship can develop inside and outside of the classroom;

(5) the extra practice improves the tutor’s as well as the learner’s skills in that subject.

There is usually a relaxed atmosphere during peer tutoring but this does not mean that little is being learnt. Quite the reverse; work by Nastasi, Clements and Battista in 1990 shows that social interaction in a learning environment assists cognitive development.

However, if pupils are going to instruct others, then tutors need specific training, and constant monitoring if they are to be effective. To be effective Wood, Bruner and Ross suggest that the tutor needs to be equipped with two theories; one is the theory of the task (and how it can be completed), and the other is a theory about the performance characteristics of the learner.

Wood et al. also suggest training the tutors to use their scaffolding process’ to build a structured learning environment by:

Image actively recruiting interest in the task at the beginning and then easing the learner into participating;

Image reducing the task into small manageable components so that the learners can recognise when they have perfected a part;

Image maintaining the intended direction of the lesson by resisting sidetracking, by restricting endless repetition of elementary level success, and by encouraging risk-taking to advance to the next step;

Image marking critical features of the task to identify the minimum component requirements of a task, identifying those parts of the task which are dependent on other parts, and judging the discrepancy between the learner’s attempt and a correct reproduction of the task;

Image controlling frustration through using appropriate feedback, motivation and sympathy, by encouraging independent learning and avoiding unnecessary dependency on the tutor; and

Image demonstrating or modelling the correct form of the task so that the learner can imitate.

Limbrick, McNaughton and Cameron suggest that any peer tutoring programme should be designed as


frequent lessons (4 to 5 times a week),

for a period of up to 6 weeks,

monitoring should take place frequently (either by the tutor recording in a diary and regularly discussing it with the monitoring teacher or by video or tape recording occasional lessons).

This provides the tutor with a forum to ask questions, it provides an opportunity for the tutor to learn better tutoring methods, and it allows the tutor’s efforts to be recognised. Monitoring can prevent the situation Shrock and Stepp describe of a child computer expert who dominated the keyboard, ignored other children’s questions, gave no positive feedback and actively discouraged others from exploring and participating.


Computers are so very interesting, and it is very easy to get smitten with them. Tutors may find learners getting sidetracked more often in computing than in other subject areas. It is ironic that the training of teachers in computing has taken such a low priority in educational policy.

The school staff were surprised at the outcome, disappointed that two able computing students had such a difficult time, but extremely open to suggestions and research on peer tutoring.

I am grateful to the four students and staff involved for the opportunity to observe and interview, for their time, and for their constructiveness in dealing with the findings.


MS CHERYL CONSTABLE was a student in the Department of Education, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand when she did this research. Since then she has been working for the NZ Council for Educational Research, Box 3237, Wellington, New Zealand.


This article, in a slightly different form, was first published as

Constable, Cheryl (1992) Peer Tutoring: The Potential and the Pitfalls, Computers in New Zealand Schools, Vol.4, No.1, March 1992.

We thank the editors Dr Bruce McMillan and Dr Kwok-Wing Lai for permission to reprint it.

The books and articles mentioned are

Limbrick, L., McNaughton, S., and Cameron, M. (1985) Peer tutoring, set, 1985, No. 2, item 12.

Limbrick, L., McNaughton, S. and Cameron, M. (1985) Peer power, set, 1985, No. 2, item 13.

Wood, D., Bruner, J. and Ross, G. (1976) The role of tutoring in problem solving, journal of Child Psychological Psychiatry, Vol. 17, pp. 89-100.

The learners felt in control of their learning which probably enhanced their learning. This idea is supported by research which can be read in

Ryba, K. and Chapman, J. (1983) Toward improving learning strategies and personal adjustment with computers, The Computing Teacher, No.11, pp. 48-53.

The potential in peer tutoring can be explored further in

DiPardo, A, and Freedman, S. (1988) Peer response groups in the writing classroom: theoretic foundations and new directions. Review of Educational Research 58 (2), pp.119-149.

Nastasi, B., Clements, D., and Battista, M. (1990) Social-cognitive interactions, motivation, and cognitive growth in Logo programming and CIA problem-solving environments. Journal of Educational Psychology 82, pp.150-158.

Pickens, J. and McNaughton, S. (1988) Peer tutoring of comprehension strategies. Educational Psychology 8 (1/2), pp.67-80.

Schrock, S. and Stepp, S. (1991) The role of the child microcomputer expert in an elementary classroom: a theme emerging from a naturalistic study. Journal of Research on Computing in Education 23 (4) pp.545-559.

Schunk, D. (1987) Peer models and children’s behavioural change. Review of Educational Research 57 (2) pp.149-174.