The study program Economics and Business Studies at the university where the trial is going to be implemented requires students to collect 180 credits to graduate. Students are expected to graduate after three years (six semesters). The study plan assigns courses worth 30 credits to each semester. Administrative data show that even in normal times, a large share of students do not complete 30 credits per semester, delaying their graduation. The COVID-19 pandemic potentially aggravates this situation. This is where our program is supposed to intervene.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in the summer term 2021 all courses of the School of Business, Economics, and Society will be conducted in online format. To this end, the university has acquired licenses of Zoom (already before the summer term 2020), an online video conference tool used widely in academic settings during this pandemic to digitize classes and seminars and to provide distance education. While the exact implementation of online teaching differs by subject and instructor, this should make the setting similar to the setting of other academic institutions around the globe during this pandemic.
The trial focuses on the second semester consisting of six compulsory courses. We recruited 15 tutors who are themselves students in the Economics and Business Studies program at the School of Business, Economics, and Society. We hired students as tutors who successfully completed the courses under consideration and during the current semester are enrolled in the fourth or sixth semester of the program.
In the first week of the semester, students were informed via e-mail about the launch of a new small-group tutoring program designed specifically for students in the second semester of the study program. They were invited to register for the program through a webpage. The page asked for the students' consent to use their personal information for research purposes in anonymized form and for their consent to pass along their name and email address to their tutors. We sent reminder emails to students who did not register for the program within two days. We subsequently randomly invited as many students as we have slots in the tutoring program based on our design to participate in the program. Students who were interested in the program but were not offered a slot in the randomization serve as our primary control group.
The tutoring program focuses on advancing students' knowledge of microeconomics and macroeconomics, two compulsory courses in the second term of their study program, and on inducing peer-to-peer interaction. Students are supposed to work on the problem sets (available to all students) in advance of each tutoring session in randomly formed groups of three (their tutoring groups) every two weeks. In every other week (i.e., when the tutoring groups do not work on the problem sets themselves), tutors meet with the groups to discuss any issues that the tutoring group had while solving the problem sets. During the session, the tutor then explains the problems, asks for the issues that students had while solving the problem set, and also offers general advice on how to study effectively or on anything else that is related to students' second term. Each bi-weekly tutoring session is supposed to last for 90 minutes.
The idea of the program is to (i) induce students to take up tutoring services, (ii) induce peer-to-peer interaction between students in an online environment where this sort of interaction is missing and feelings of loneliness are pervasive and (iii) provide a commitment device to ensure that students study regularly during the term in an (online) environment where external structure (e.g., resulting from a fixed time schedule) is missing. Because of the personalized nature of the tutoring and the peer-to-peer interaction that is induced through our small groups, we hypothesize that students' mental health is positively affected by their program participation.
The tutors are asked to take brief notes about the content of the discussions and some background information during each meeting. Tutors are also instructed to prepare thoroughly for every individual meeting by recapturing their notes from the previous meeting. To limit the risk of spillovers, we ask all tutors to make sure that the information and tutoring is only provided to the students in their group and not to other students.
In the control group, there is no tutoring. However, the School of Business, Economics, and Society provides general practice sessions for students in both subjects that are less personalized and where peer-to-peer interaction is not directly induced. In terms of content, it is identical to what tutors and student groups are supposed to discuss in our intervention. In microeconomics, there are also additional practice tests that all students can take online that do not count towards students' grade.
After the end of the exam period (preliminarily scheduled for July and August 2021), we will collect individual data on exam performance. We may also collect additional performance data for a further research paper or research note at a later point in time to assess long-run benefits of the program.
We do not expect that the School of Business, Economics, and Society will switch from online to in-person teaching during the semester and therefore plan for a full teaching period with online courses being the only (or at least dominant) way of teaching. However, if the overall situation changes significantly during the experimental period, we may allow tutors and students to meet in person for the meetings.