Bridges over Troubled Waters: The Challenges and Opportunities of Peer Tutoring Politics

Political Science Educator: volume 25, issue 1

Featured Essays

Olivia Antonson, Peer Tutor

Erika Cornelius Smith, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations, Nichols College

Whether the polis is, in an Aristotelian sense, natural or crafted, it requires leadership to function at its best. Through a contemporary lens, teaching political science to undergraduate students may be analogous. But with the proliferation of peer tutoring programs in higher education throughout the U.S., particularly in a divisive political climate, the leadership provided by peer tutors in political science courses merits further exploration.

There is great value in having a peer tutoring program at undergraduate institutions. However, there is little value without properly trained peer tutors. While peer tutors may undergo training in a general sense, on topics such as communication, tutoring session management, and styles of learning, there is a lack of specific training in the field of political science or providing support on politically-oriented assignments.[1] Through her own experiences as a teaching assistant and peer tutor for political science courses at Nichols College, Olivia Antonson discovered that the divisive political climate manifests itself in politically related tutoring sessions. Specifically, tutors would benefit from training that focuses on working with tutees who hold espouse political views or express deep cynicism of politics, and how to de-escalate the session if tensions rise—how to bridge over political divisions to provide maximum support for students seeking academic assistance.[2]

         Read the Rest of the Issue Here


As a general writing and political science peer tutor at a business-focused college, Olivia works with tutees from multiple academic disciplines. During one tutoring session, a student came to Olivia for help with a paper which reflected the student’s strong political views. She pointed out that the student’s claims made in the paper were largely unfounded; there was a lack of proper source material throughout the paper. To Olivia’s surprise, the student became defensive and accused her of disagreeing with his political beliefs. To regain control of the tutoring session, Olivia assured the student that she remains objective during sessions; she does not let her personal beliefs impact the feedback and suggestions that she gives to students. She also noted that her job is to help the student submit the best possible paper, and that her comments on his lack of credible source material were not a personal attack but an identification of opportunities to raise the score in a graded criterion of the assignment. After Olivia explained this to the student, the student calmed down, and the rest of the tutoring session went smoothly.

From this experience, Olivia wondered if other peer tutors experienced similar defensiveness or hostility during politically related tutoring sessions. The concept for this research was first presented by Olivia at the New England Peer Tutor Association (NEPTA) annual conference in the spring of 2021. Her presentation at NEPTA sought to build on peer tutoring best practices with the increase in political divisiveness on college campuses in mind. Based on the positive feedback she received from her NEPTA presentation attendees, Olivia concluded that peer tutors need to understand how to best handle politically related tutoring sessions, but there is a lack of scholarly research done on this topic. Therefore, she was inspired to continue this research with her political science advisor and chair of the Civic Leadership and Politics program, Dr. Erika Cornelius Smith.

Why is it important to train peer tutors on the basics of tutoring politics?

Peer tutors need to be prepared to tutor politically related sessions. In the example of Olivia’s tutoring experience, the student requested a general writing session. The result of the session could have been much different if Olivia had no training on the tutoring of political science. The contentious political climate can manifest itself in politically related tutoring sessions, even if those sessions are not specifically listed as political science tutoring sessions.

What training should be added to the general best practices for peer tutors to follow in order to address the increasing political divisiveness on college campuses?

Based on our preliminary research, we believe there are three main points that should be incorporated into peer tutor training.

  • Peer tutors need to set aside their individual political beliefs and biases in order to focus on assignment requirements and grading criteria. Emphasis should be placed on the tutoring best practice of working to improve the score of the tutee’s assignment. Tutors should be giving the same amount of effort and respect to all tutees, regardless of how similar the tutor’s and tutee’s political beliefs are. There is no place for discrimination in peer tutoring.
  • Peer tutors need to understand how to evaluate a source for political bias. Also known as the evaluation stage of Bloom’s taxonomy (1956), evaluating a source for bias involves deep thinking into the credibility of the author, the material, and the source (Dwyer et al. 2014). Using only sources that have a heavy political bias can impact the credibility of the tutee’s paper. Tutors that are knowledgeable about political bias can explain the implications of using heavily biased sources in academic papers to their tutees, again with the focus on raising the overall quality of the assignment.
  • Peer tutors need to know how to de-escalate conflicts with tutees that may arise in sessions. Since political beliefs can be connected to core identities, students may feel increased frustration or anxiety when receiving feedback on topics that are personal in nature. Seeking help through an academic support service may put some tutees in a vulnerable position; this vulnerability can be exacerbated if the tutee feels that their political beliefs are being criticized. Despite the fact the tutor is coming from a place of support and help, the tutee could interpret this support as criticism of their personal beliefs and take a defensive position because of this, inhibiting the tutor’s ability to provide support for students.
  • Some tips for de-escalation include: having the tutor remind the tutee that the tutor is not trying to criticize the tutee’s political beliefs, but is instead trying to help the tutee improve their paper by backing up the claims made in the paper with credible source material; having the tutor ask the tutee what the tutor should do in order to make the session more comfortable for the tutee; and having the tutor explain to the tutee that the tutor enters each session with no political bias.


How does gender play a role in politically related peer tutoring sessions?

Previous research on role theory in peer tutoring shows that female tutors may struggle with tutoring male tutees, and male tutees may feel uncomfortable being tutored by a female tutor. This is because the idea of a female holding authority over a male goes against traditional gender roles (Leung, 2019). Therefore, we have come up with three potential ways that this aversion to nontraditional gender roles may present itself during a politically related tutoring session.

  • Female tutors might be less likely to call out a male tutee’s unsupported claims or political bias due to fear of hostility.
  • Male tutees may be more likely to get defensive over their political beliefs when working with a female tutor.
  • Male tutees may be more likely to question the credibility of a female tutor during politically related sessions because politics is perceived as a male-dominated field.

It is important to consider how female tutors may be negatively impacted by society’s adherence to gender roles. Incorporating gender roles and gender bias into peer tutor training can aid in preparing female peer tutors for not only politically related tutoring sessions, but all tutoring sessions, and the research presented in Leung (2019) is not specific to tutoring politics. Because Leung (2019) focuses solely on the male and female gender identities, an area for future research could explore the tutor/tutee relationships with other gender identities. Leung (2019) does not address potential conflicts outside the gender binary. Transgender, non-binary, gender non-conforming, and genderfluid identities are four examples of areas where further research is needed.

 Final Thoughts

The relationship between peer tutoring and politics is an area where minimal scholarly work has been done. Olivia Antonson and Dr. Erika Cornelius Smith will continue to research and write about this subject matter. Considering this, we feel that this article can serve as a beginner’s guide and quick summarization of the best practices to follow when peer tutoring in politically related sessions. Our strongest recommendation is to incorporate a module on tutoring politics into peer tutor training. When peer tutors are knowledgeable about political tensions, political biases, and how gender roles affect peer tutoring sessions, then tutors are more prepared to facilitate a successful tutoring session. Ultimately, the goals and outcomes of each tutoring session should reflect the collaborative work of the tutee and the tutor; giving peer tutors the tools to better handle politically related tutoring sessions ensures that both the tutor and the tutee are set up for success.


Dwyer, C. P., Hogan, M. J., & Stewart, I. (2014). An integrated critical thinking framework for the 21st century. Thinking Skills and Creativity, 12, 43–52.

Leung, K. C. (2019). An updated meta-analysis on the effect of peer tutoring on tutors’ achievement. School Psychology International, 40(2), 200–214.

[1] For further information on peer tutor training, see for example: resources from the National Tutoring Association; resources from the Peer Tutoring Resource Center; tutor training through Tutor Matching Service. This list is not exhaustive; rather, it provides a brief overview of the resources currently available for the training and education of peer tutors.

[2] After reviewing the materials available through APSA Educate, we found insufficient resources for peer tutors in the field of political science.

Published since 2005, The Political Science Educator is the newsletter of the Political Science Education Section of the American Political Science Association. Dr. Bobbi Gentry (Bridgewater College) was the Editor for the Fall 2021 eddition. Since 2020, APSA Educate has co-published the Political Science Educator. You can see last years publication here. A curated list of select essays can be viewed here. The entire archived collection can be viewed here.

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