Tutoring is probably one of the oldest teaching methods. In ancient Greece, in the time of Plato and Socrates, the children of the wealthy were educated individually or in small groups by masters or tutors. During the Middle Ages, the children of nobles and the wealthy continued receiving their education from tutors. When more formalized educational institutions became available, teachers started teaching, but tutors continued to play an important role in the learning process.
In the past, only wealthy students had tutors. Today, tutoring programs are widely available to students through schools, churches and community agencies as well as private tutorial services. Today, students at all levels can receive tutoring to help them master reading, math, chemistry and physics. Students can even get a tutor who will prepare them for high-stakes tests such as the SAT or GRE.
The dictionary defines a tutor as a person who gives individuals, or in some cases a small group, instruction. I’m not satisfied with the definition. I would add the purpose of tutoring is to help students help themselves and to assist or guide them to the point at which they become independent learners and no longer need a tutor.
There are benefits in tutoring for both the tutor and the tutee. Yes, “tutee” is a correct term. In this article, I will concentrate on the benefits to students who are receiving tutoring. If tutoring is conducted the right way, the student will benefit tremendously. Tutoring offers systematic, structured learning experience in a more individualized way. It also improves the tutee’s self-esteem, attitude toward the subject matter and academic performance as well as personal growth. In addition to that, tutoring is a self-paced and self-directed learning process. Tutoring improves the educational climate as well and increases positive student interaction.
Choosing a tutor
Choosing a tutor for your child needs to be done very carefully. We expect the tutor to be intelligent and knowledgeable.
However, intelligence and knowledge alone do not indicate a tutor’s success with your child.
What is also important are the personality traits of the tutor. What is most important is whether the tutor received professional training in tutoring practices and knows how to tutor effectively.
The tutor needs to be enthusiastic and needs to like the subject. He or she should have a desire to help as well as share his knowledge with others. When you observe the tutor helping your child, observe if the tutor has the ability to assess what needs to be done and if the tutor acts on it later on.
The tutor needs to have an open mind and a willingness to accept other people and their points of view. Look for empathy, the ability to feel what your child is feeling. Look for an even disposition. Is your child’s tutor gentle and patient? In addition to all of that, tutors should believe that things can be changed through action and that they can help your child. The desire to help should be in the tutor by nature, not because he’s being paid.
I have learned from students who have tutoring experience that the tutor’s job was mainly helping the student with his homework and teaching the material the tutee didn’t understand (bad idea). The tutor is not a teacher. The teacher lectures and the tutor tutors.
When the tutee didn’t know how to solve a homework math problem, the tutor showed all the steps needed to solve the problem and then the tutee solved a similar problem by mimicking the steps that he or she learned from the tutor.
In short, I learned from these students that many, too many, parents and students equate a tutor with “a homework machine.” Parents and tutees consider a tutor to be a good tutor when the student’s grade improves. In these situations, we need to remember that many of the points the tutee gets on homework are not the tutee’s points, but the tutor’s points.
Tutors as described above are really doing the students’ homework themselves, which is a disservice to the tutees.
The main goal of tutoring is to help a tutee become a lifelong independent learner. Mimicking the steps shown by a tutor will not help a tutee become an independent learner and will not help the tutee learn critical thinking skills.
Good, proper tutoring should help the tutee become an independent learner who acquires critical learning skills and learns how to help himself. Proper math tutoring should demonstrate during each tutoring session how learning mathematics occurs in general.
The role of the tutor is not to show how to solve a math problem but to help the tutee learn how to find the answers and to find the solutions on his own.
While guiding him through the process of tutoring, the tutor should discuss the process that will allow the student find his own solutions.
The core of good math tutoring is Socratic questioning. In short, it works by answering a student’s question with the tutor’s question, then the tutee answers the tutor’s question and the tutor asks another question. This process continues until the tutee discovers the solution to the problem on his own.
Basically, the tutor works as a guide.
When a tutor asks a question, such as “What is the least common denominator?” and the tutee doesn’t remember the definition, most tutors will give the definition to the tutee and even will ask the student to write it down.
What does the tutee learn by that? The tutee learns that it is OK not to know the basics and that when the student doesn’t know the basics, he can assume someone will teach it to him.
Life in the workplace doesn’t operate that way. Life in general doesn’t operate that way. A good tutor will ask the tutee to find the definition in the textbook and read it a couple of times, and then the tutor will check the understanding by asking the tutee to give the definition in his own words or will use the new concept in a math problem.
Process vs. answers
During the Socratic questioning the tutee learns the rationale behind this step-by-step process, which ensures the procedure is remembered.
Tutoring needs to be procedure-oriented, not answer-oriented. The tutee learns by observing that the tutor is patient and accepts the tutee’s learning pace. The tutee also learns that breaking the problem into small, doable, simple tasks is the way to confront a problem.
During the Socratic questioning, the tutor is able to determine the level at which the student is struggling, whether the student understands the vocabulary used in a particular section and whether the tutee understands basic concepts. The tutor needs to understand that he needs to work from the student’s level of understanding.
Very often, the tutee needs to understand the basic concepts before going further, and the tutee needs to spend time on the basics. This often frustrates the tutee because many tutees would prefer the tutor to work with them on homework problems so they can finish it faster and be done with it.
During the Socratic method of tutoring, a good tutor will make his tutee aware of the fact that challenges in learning and understanding often come from not being able to relate the immediate material to prior knowledge.
During the Socratic way of tutoring, the tutee learns that information must be organized into meaningful patterns. Every tutoring session needs to demonstrate that learning is a process of recall, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation.
This is why a good tutor will not be completely satisfied when the tutee gives the correct answer, but will add, “How did you come to that conclusion?”
A good tutor will ask a tutee, “How would you check the answer? Is your answer reasonable? What makes you think that? What would happen if we changed …?”
A good tutor will not ask yes or no questions. He or she will ask only open-ended questions.
The reality is that many students want to have a tutor because it’s cool to have someone who will tell you how to solve a problem when you don’t know how to solve it yourself.
Parents are happy because their child wants to have a tutor and meets with the tutor, and the homework grades are improving. But when a tutor works as a virtual homework machine for your child, it probably would be better if your child didn’t have a tutor at all. Bad tutoring may scar your child for life.
I will never forget a girl who was taking my algebra class. I saw her going for tutoring twice a week. Her homework grades started improving, but the test scores were still very poor.
One day, the student asked me for an extension of the homework deadline because, as the student told me, her tutor was sick and as a result of that the tutee couldn’t do the homework – not even one problem.
During my conversation with the student, I learned that the student didn’t believe in her ability and became completely dependent on the tutor. I also learned that day that the girl was being tutored in a typical way, which was mimicking the steps in a problem similar to the one the tutor had shown her before. I told her to stop going to tutoring sessions and asked her to come to my office twice a week.
I then used the Socratic type of tutoring, and slowly the girl started thinking critically and analytically, and her test scores and her self-esteem improved.
Of course, I confronted the tutor as well.
Tutoring as an art
Tutoring can be equated with the Socratic type of questioning. Therefore, effective tutoring needs to be taught and needs to be learned.
There is a Tutoring and Learning Center at the Chapman University. Students may get tutoring in almost every subject. Many students are seeking math tutoring.
Most of the time, they are looking for help with their homework. Nothing could be further from the definition of tutoring.
Homework should be treated only as a material or a tool used for teaching deductive thinking, how to learn, how to study and how to think analytically and critically.
I created the mathematics tutoring class and have been teaching the class for six years. Most of the students who take the class are straight-A students who like or love mathematics, not necessarily math major students, and most of them tutored mathematics in the past.
At the beginning of each semester, I ask my students about their experience in tutoring, and semester after semester I learn from them that tutoring is commonly understood by tutees and their parents as homework help sessions, whereas in reality the outcome of good tutoring results in a student who can learn on his own and who knows how to read a textbook, how to do a review on his own, how to take notes and how to develop independent learning skills for life.
Many people think that if one has knowledge of the subject matter to tutor, it makes him/her a tutor. It is far from the truth.
Tutoring is not easy. It requires a formal schooling on how to do it in a way that you are not enabling the student but you teach the student how to learn on his or her own.
As mentioned above, knowledge of the subject is not enough.
I find it fascinating that good tutors are often communication majors or film majors. They stick to the Socratic method of tutoring, find a big pleasure in tutoring and treat tutoring as an art.
It surely is an art, which requires a lot of practice.