Before the COVID-19 pandemic started, the state of Texas assigned an A accountability rating to Plano ISD, but like many other districts, the challenges brought by the pandemic caused a drop in test scores. While stuck at home during one of the lockdowns, Plano ISD student Gautam Penna came up with an idea to help with this issue.

“I was watching a news documentary online during the pandemic and I saw that like 70% of high schoolers were failing at least one class. So I thought, ‘what could I do?'” Penna told NBCDFW. He organized a study session and invited classmates and 150 students showed up.

This spontaneous collaborative learning initiative has only gotten bigger since it began. According to NBCDFW, the student-led sessions became so popular they expanded to more schools within Plano ISD, recruiting more students to lead them. 

While this project might seem novel, it’s actually a tried and tested educational technique. Based on the “zone of proximal development” concept coined by Lev Vygotsky, many investigations over the years have opened the discussion around collaborative learning as an effective tool. Generally speaking, these techniques revolve around groups of learners working together to solve a shared problem, based on the hypothesis that with assistance, students with lower scores are able to reach their learning goals. 

Or as ninth grader Louisa Xu puts it, “It helps students learn grow and get help from older people such as sophomores who already have experience in these subjects.”

“I’m learning the curriculum with them and if I found something confusing, then I might take a different angle to go about it,” said Aayush Appan, a ninth-grade instructor in the student-led organization.

Although the pandemic is behind us, the student-led sessions kept going and now Student Organized Academic Refinement (SOAR) has turned into a nonprofit organization with an online platform that provides organized peer-led study sessions, peer-to-peer tutoring and a growing community of over 200 students, according to SOAR’s Linkedin account.