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A student texts while working on homework at a desk

Course-embedded tutors at Moorpark College in California can text with the students in their section, promoting academic engagement and study skills.

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Tutoring services only help when students actually use them. To promote engagement with its tutoring services, Moorpark College leaders equipped tutors with texting capabilities for student outreach. Since launching the service, the California community college has seen a 761 percent increase in course-embedded tutor visits and a substantial increase in course passage rates.

Following the pilot’s success, Moorpark administrators hope to scale the service to all math and English courses.

The background: Moorpark began a series of two-way text messaging pilots in fall 2022, hoping to boost engagement with on-campus services and improve student success metrics. One initiative, for example, empowered academic counselors to reach out to students on academic probation via text. Another campaign involved connecting with students who had applied to the college the same day to increase matriculation.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, Moorpark officials wanted to tackle pandemic-related learning loss. Research points to the value of tutoring to improve English and math skills, but many students who would benefit from tutoring don’t use the service, says Oleg Bespalov, dean of institutional effectiveness at Moorpark.

“We’ve experimented with a variety of approaches to increase student-tutor engagement, to no avail, but then finally this past fall, we had a breakthrough,” Bespalov says. Instead of asking students to engage with their course-embedded tutor, the tutor reaches out to individual students via text.

According to Research …

A March 2022 study from the University of Georgia found when students received personalized, targeted text messages from an artificial intelligence–powered chat bot, they were more likely to complete critical tasks that help them stay enrolled or succeed academically.

Students who received messages were more likely to file application materials and register early for courses. A group of students were encouraged to attend an academic support program; among those who were texted, four in 10 students participated, compared to 25 percent of their peers who didn’t receive a text.

How it works: Moorpark has 38 sections of math and English with course-embedded tutors (CETs). Of the college’s 27 embedded tutors, a majority are peers or recent students who have transferred to four-year institutions.

The CETs are responsible for providing tutoring hours to students and work alongside instructors to provide course-specific content and assistance, such as test prep.

“They’re given the added training of how to work with a faculty member to support students, not just in the discipline in general, but the needs of that specific course,” says Jamie Whittington Studer, professor of communication studies and communication consultant for institutional effectiveness.

With the new texting service, tutors can reach out to their course section throughout the semester, giving study tips, offering academic support and encouraging students to meet with them. Students can respond directly at any time to get connected with help.

“Our tutors are communicating with students in their classes, from pretty much the second week of classes all the way through the end of the semester,” Studer says.

Most tutors establish texting hours, making themselves available for an hour or so during the day to respond to any texts that may have come in, and they can log up to two additional billable hours for texting services. A majority of students are not engaging with their tutors via text, which has made the added workload more manageable and flexible for tutors as well.

“We recognize, too, that this isn’t something that every college student is going to want or need,” Studer says. “But the great thing about it is it’s really flexible in the sense that, if you are a student who’s just doing fine in your math class, there’s nothing wrong, every two weeks [you’re] getting a supportive text reminding you that somebody is there to help.”

The impact: The pilot program succeeded in engaging students, improving tutoring services utilized and raising passing grades in the courses.

Throughout the test, students and tutors exchanged 7,200 text messages, 1,100 of which were initiated by the student.

Year over year, there has been a 761 percent increase in course-embedded tutor visits. For context, some courses in 2022 saw only one or two students participating in tutoring, but that has grown to seven or eight students in these courses this past fall.

Passing rates also increased, with math pass rates increasing 10.5 percentage points and English rates rising 16.4 percentage points from fall 2022 to fall 2023. Disaggregated data show Hispanic students saw the greatest increases in passing rates in math courses in particular.

Data analysis showed the results were unique to courses with embedded tutors using texting services (compared to other CET courses and non-CET courses), making it a causal effect and not a correlated result.

Next steps: Moorpark leaders have decided to increase the embedded tutoring program to every math and English course at the college, a total of 270 sections. “It will require a massive, massive scale up, obviously, to get it going,” Bespalov says.

The initiative is financially sustainable because of California’s community college funding model, which recognizes tutoring as an academic course, so the college will receive additional dollars from the state for every student who engages in tutoring.

Campus leaders hope this pushes a culture change in which faculty are more engaged with CETs and students are more comfortable using tutoring services.

Do you have an academic success tip that might help others encourage student success? Tell us about it.

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