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Jonathan Topaz '12: A lopsided tradeoff

The next time that the Brown administration wants to cut an extremely popular program that accommodates struggling students and employs hundreds of others, perhaps they should take a simple poll first.

This is the question that should have been posed to the Brown community: would you prefer to be tutored in a one-on-one context, or in groups of three to six? On second thought, though, perhaps the poll would be unnecessary. The result would be too obvious.
Surely anyone who thinks rationally would prefer to be given private lessons—in which they would have their individual needs met — than group lessons. One only needs to look at the free market for lessons in any context (SAT prep, tennis, music lessons, etc.), and they will invariably find that private tutoring is significantly more expensive than group tutoring.

Neglecting conventional wisdom and public opinion, the Brown administration eliminated the Peer Tutoring program ("Peer tutoring program axed, cited as ineffective," Sept. 29) long a staple at our University. Dean Bergeron, who notified the Brown community by e-mail on Sept. 28, assured students and faculty that "this (decision) was not driven by the budget. It is about maximizing resources."

This is more disconcerting than what I had originally thought. After a spring and summer full of budget cuts, it would seem more reasonable to cut the program to save a few extra bucks after a couple of tough economic seasons. That this is a decision devoid of financial considerations exhibits extremely questionable judgment.

In a most lopsided trade, the University has "replaced" the Peer Tutoring program with the "Facilitated Group Study" program, a plan in which "academic coaches" will oversee study groups of three to six students.

The Peer Tutoring program offered individual help for more than 200 courses, while the Facilitated Group Study program currently offers only 18. Furthermore, the new program currently does not offer tutoring in any humanities or social sciences disciplines besides economics, and is restricted to certain foreign languages, sciences and math.

Now, the new program is of course in its infant phase, and will presumably dramatically expand. However, as the first round of midterms start up, students are struggling now. While the administration has made provisions to allow individual tutoring on a very selective basis, it seems impossible that the Facilitated Group Study program can accommodate anywhere near 200 courses within the semester.

The University is effectively laying off hundreds of its own students. Because the new program offers many fewer courses, and more students will be assigned to each tutor, hundreds of these Brown tutors are now unnecessary. These students lost not only a source of compensation, but also a major extra-curricular activity. The administration is, plain and simple, throwing these students under the bus.

Third, it is apparent that individual study sessions are much more helpful for the students who needed tutoring the most. "One-on-one tutoring is needed to get to the root of the struggling student's difficulty," says Computer Science Professor Andries Van Dam. Group study cannot begin to replace the individual attention granted in a one-on-one setting.

Much of the problem is that, in a group study, students are not all in the same place. Foreign language students who are in between levels and are looking to be tutored so they can catch up to a level that Brown offers are completely left out in this group study plan.
More to the point, though, group study is simply an ineffective strategy for students who are truly struggling. When placed with students who understand course material better, these students will be left in the dust as the study group progresses at a more accelerated rate. On the other hand, if the study group caters to the most challenged in the group, the study session will cease to be helpful for the others.

Every student is unique. Every student understands different things with different depth and at a different pace. Every student has a different learning style. Remedial tutoring is lost in this new group study format.

Van Dam also points out that students who are struggling intensely will be less likely to speak up in a group session. "In small group interactions, students who are in most need of help are often so shy, demoralized, or even plain scared, that they wouldn't speak up and be intimidated by others who seem to them to be ‘getting it.'"  This new group setting too closely resembles a class or section, in which students are often intimidated to admit that they do not understand.

While the Brown administration stands by to see if this program works, students are struggling. At an institution that prides itself on independence and self-sufficiency, the Peer Tutoring program was a valued and comforting resource for students who felt themselves slipping through the cracks. If this new experiment is really about the budget problem, the Brown community deserves to know. If not, we deserve our Peer Tutoring program back. 

Jonathan Topaz '12 will probably be in desperate need for a tutor once he gets his first graded assignments back. He can be reached at Jonathan.Topaz (at)


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