Design Principles for Accelerating Student Learning With High-Impact Tutoring

Design Principles for Accelerating Student Learning With High-Impact Tutoring

At a Glance

Program Focus

Content + Level
Intensive tutoring can be effective across grade levels and subject matter—even for high school students who have fallen quite far behind. The most research is on reading-focused tutoring for students in early grades (particularly grades K-2) but there is also significant research on math-focused tutoring and a smaller, but rigorous body of research on tutoring for older students.

Student Prioritization
There are three main models for prioritizing students for tutoring: need-driven, curriculum-driven, and universal. Decisions about which students to target should vary depending on the needs of the students, schools, and communities. 


Frequency and Duration
Effective programs include three or more sessions per week for a minimum of ten weeks. Older students can participate in 30-60-minute sessions, whereas young students can benefit from shorter sessions.

Group size
The most effective programs have no more than three students per tutor. Moving beyond this number becomes small group instruction, which is less personalized and requires a highly skilled teacher to ensure learning gains for all students being tutored together.

Delivery Mode
Most research has focused on in-person tutoring programs, which have shown the greatest impacts on student achievement. However, emerging evidence indicates that virtual tutoring by a live tutor or through a blended model can also be effective.


Personnel + Support
A wide variety of tutors (including paraprofessionals, community members, college students, and classroom teachers) can successfully improve student outcomes, as long as they receive training and ongoing support aligned to their incoming capabilities.

A consistent tutor (each student always meeting with the same tutor for the duration of the program) fosters strong, motivating relationships and ensures continuity in the learning process.

Learning Integration

Tutoring interventions that are conducted during the school day consistently result in greater student attendance and academic outcomes than those that are held after school or during the summer.

Students are likely to learn more when their tutoring sessions use high-quality materials that focus on missed content and skills while complementing their classroom grade-level instruction.

Data Use

Data Informed
Tutoring programs that support data use and ongoing informal assessments are better able to identify successful practices, understand student progress, and make informed decisions about resource allocation. They are also able to provide information to tutors about student understanding and where to focus instruction to best support each student’s learning.

The Evidence Base

What is high-impact tutoring?

Research consistently shows that tutoring helps students learn, with numerous studies confirming its strong benefits. Driven by this evidence, policymakers and educational leaders nationwide are investing in tutoring initiatives. However “tutoring” can mean various types of educational support, and tutoring programs can differ significantly in their characteristics and effectiveness.

High-impact tutoring is intensive, relationship-based, individualized instruction. Effective programs share key characteristics:

  • Sustained and strong tutor-student relationships
  • Occurs at least three times a week for a minimum of 10 weeks (adjusted for developmental needs)
  • One-on-one or small groups (up to three-on-one) settings 
  • High-quality instructional materials 
  • Student progress monitoring with data
  • Alignment with the school curriculum
  • Tutor oversight and necessary training

Program design and implementation matter. Not all tutoring programs are effective, so educational leaders should turn to research for direction on evidence-based ways to design and implement their programs for maximum effectiveness. Investments in tutoring will only pay off if the programs are high-quality and provide support to the students who need them.

Differences across schools may lead to different optimal choices for program design. Tutoring programs may reasonably differ by grade level, subject matter, resource availability, or the goals of the program. The design principles described below can guide educational leaders’ decision-making when designing and implementing high-impact tutoring programs. 

What are the effects of high-impact tutoring on student outcomes?

High-impact tutoring is the most effective school-based intervention for students struggling in math and reading.

  • A recent meta-analysis reviewed studies of tutoring interventions that have been evaluated by randomized controlled trials in the past few decades and found that, on average, tutoring increased achievement by roughly 3 to 15 months of learning across grade levels.
  • Another review of almost 200 rigorous studies found that high-impact tutoring—defined as more than 3 days per week or at a rate of at least 50 hours over 36 weeks—is one of the few school-based interventions with demonstrated large positive effects on both math and reading achievement. 
  • Tutoring is one of the most effective ways to increase achievement for students from lower-income families. A 2017 study examined interventions that aimed to improve educational achievement for elementary and middle school students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Of all the interventions examined, including feedback and progress monitoring, cooperative learning, computer-assisted instruction, and mentoring of students, tutoring was the most effective.

Regularly scheduled tutoring with a consistent tutor can increase student engagement in school and combat chronic absenteeism.

  • An analysis from a recent state-wide tutoring initiative in Washington, D.C. found students were less likely to be absent on days when they had a tutoring session scheduled. These findings were particularly strong for middle school students and students with high levels of absenteeism.
  • The 1:1 or small-group nature of tutoring allows for deeper rapport between students and tutors, creating a supportive learning environment that students may look forward to, which incentivizes attendance in school.

High-impact tutoring can be scaled and still improve student learning outcomes. 

  • While many educational programs lose effectiveness when scaled up, studies of 15 larger-scale tutoring programs serving between 500 and 7,000 students showed an increase of 2-10 months of learning. As often occurs in interventions, program effect sizes somewhat decreased as programs scaled, but these programs still led to meaningful learning.
  • As programs scale, it is important they prioritize the design principles of high-impact tutoring to ensure the tutoring continues to positively impact student outcomes.

Effective Implementation Considerations

The following conditions are key to successfully implement a high-impact, school-based tutoring program:

You can bring evidence-based tutoring into your district in a variety of ways. Depending on your district’s capacity and needs, you might consider:  

  • Developing an in-house program to establish and integrate evidence-based tutoring as a long-term service
  • Modifying existing school-based tutoring programs to better align with the principles outlined in this guide.  
  • Contracting with an external tutoring provider in your district, such as a community-based nonprofit, is important.  
  • Contracting with a regional or national tutoring provider that is not yet working in your district, such as a private vendor.