Feature

Homework Heroes

In a world of virtual schooling, the Aggie Homework Helpline meets students’ and families’ educational needs so they can get back to learning.

    By Lydia Hill ’21
  • Illustration by Terri Po
  • Oct. 26, 2021
    5 min read

When children returned to school after the 2019-20 winter break, they didn’t expect they would be learning from home in a few short months. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and schools across the nation pivoted to virtual learning environments. Districts did what they could to smooth the process, but the change still posed challenges. Many students struggled to adapt to the virtual environment and keep up with assignments, while parents juggled teaching their children and working from home.

“That was a big stressor for families,” said Dr. Marcia Montague ’98, a Texas A&M University clinical assistant professor of educational psychology. “Some students succeeded and thrived. Others struggled and experienced a learning loss.”

Virtual learning also presented problems for future educators like those in the College of Education and Human Development. In a normal semester, education majors visit classrooms to gain hands-on experience interacting with students, but that option became limited when schools closed.

Montague and her educational psychology colleague Dr. Mónica Vásquez Neshyba knew they needed a solution. In response, they established the Aggie Homework Helpline in fall 2020. By pairing Aggie tutors with pre-K through 12th-grade students, the free online tutoring program provides an educational boost to students across the state while training tomorrow’s teachers.

An A+ Solution

Available for any pre-K through 12th-grade student, the helpline offers free on-demand tutoring for assistance with a homework problem or recurring tutoring for students who wish to meet with the same tutors for 45-minute weekly sessions. For the 2020-21 school year, 344 families in the fall and more than 450 in the spring collectively received more than 3,200 hours of tutoring. This fall, the helpline expanded its resources with a video library featuring tutors explaining concepts or encouraging children to read aloud.

Online free tutoring isn’t widely available, so we’re meeting a need for students who otherwise couldn’t access additional support. We want to ensure that any student who needs academic support or additional interaction with others can obtain it.

As a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, Dr. Jay Woodward ’97 recognized the potential of the helpline when he heard about it from Montague. His sixth-grade daughter, was struggling with staying motivated and keeping up with notetaking during virtual classes, so he eagerly signed her up for multiple on-demand tutoring sessions last fall. Encouraged by her positive response to the tutors’ enthusiasm, they signed up for recurring tutoring in the spring as soon as slots opened.

“The biggest thing my daughter took away from the sessions was self-efficacy,” Woodward said. “Teachers automatically provide that in the classroom by validating and praising effort, but that’s harder to do in a virtual environment. The Aggie Homework Helpline provided knowledgeable individuals who could assist and motivate her. As the semester progressed, she began to knock out her homework on her own and finished with straight A’s.”

TEACHER TRAINING

While the Aggie Homework Helpline supports students, it also benefits the more than 350 Aggie tutors who have participated since it launched. Tutors come from several colleges and majors, but the majority are future teachers. Through the helpline, they can earn practicum hours as they gain valuable experience communicating with families and interacting with a diverse range of students.

For Lauren Flores ’22, a junior special education major who has served as a tutor since fall 2020, the helpline alleviated stress about gaining teaching experience during the pandemic and introduced her to additional career options. “Before the helpline, I had never interacted much with middle school and high school students because my plan was always to focus on elementary grades,” she explained. “But after tutoring many sixth through 12th graders with the program, I am considering working with older students.”

Connecting with students was also beneficial for Erica Barfield ’22, a senior special education major and tutor in fall 2020. “It was awesome seeing students get that ‘ah-ha’ moment,” she said. “It was encouraging knowing that the skills we’re using and the information we’re giving them is working.”

Because tutors work in pairs, they also learn to adjust to their partners’ teaching styles and find the best approach for each student. “Tutoring with the Aggie Homework Helpline has better prepared me to teach or co-teach in future classrooms,” Flores said. “I think it’s an experience that all pre-service teachers should have.”

Although many students have returned to in-person instruction, the helpline isn’t going away anytime soon. Montague and Neshyba plan to continue growing and adapting the service and know it can still be a valuable resource for students and families. Many, like Woodward and his daughter, agree. They have continued to take advantage of the helpline after she returned to the classroom this fall.

“Everyone going back to school doesn’t change the need to help students fill in gaps or equip them with confidence,” Woodward explained. “I've seen my daughter take joy in accomplishing something on her own because of the helpline, and I believe it can be a resource that benefits all students.” 

Make a Donation: By making a $450 gift, you can support one student's tutoring sessions for one semester. Visit give.am/HomeworkHelpline to help a student in need or contact Amy Hurley at 979.847.9455 to learn more about other giving opportunities to the program.