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Thoughts on tutoring

November 10, 2014

I’ve had many shifts of thought about tutoring as part of education, and there’s a bit I want to say about tutoring today. Also, a disclaimer: I’m thinking of becoming a tutor for high school students, despite not being tutored myself.

In short what I’ll argue today is that tutoring today is not a necessity for students, that it is often overrated, and that many students who do tutoring fundamentally misuse tutoring so that they don’t benefit. However, I’ll also argue that tutoring has the possibility to be extremely beneficial as a supplementary tool.

In case it wasn’t obvious, that bolded point is extremely important, and will serve the basis of many points to follow. Now, lets get to arguments.

Why Tutoring Isn’t Necessary

To understand what a full school load means, it means your 6 hours a day at school + all homework and assignments. It also includes your own study of material. All in all, its quite a bit of time, especially when you consider that tutoring actually subtracts from any remaining time, or alternatively, your own study time.

And frankly, this amount of time is sufficient to do extremely well if used well. The top 3 students at my school (including myself) did not use tutoring in any of the subjects they did well in. In fact, the only person of us who received tutoring got her worst marks in her one tutored subject.

To do well means (very broadly speaking) understanding material, studying often and doing practice questions often. These (and other) fundamental concepts of study are frequently reinforced by school teachers, and can 100% be understood further through one’s own research if one is truly interested – I’m self taught in studies of memory retention and the like. The point is that the individual has the capacity to succeed by themselves, and with the help of their teachers. Tutoring undoubtedly hits upon these concepts as well, and attempts to ingrain these methods into students during tutoring (eg. Learning by doing is ingrained by practice questions). Its also true that, in the words of the coaching college TSFX “many students are using the most inefficient studying methods known to man” like rereading notes and highlighting passages, however, tutoring isn’t necessary to learn these concepts.

Tutoring is also not necessary to utilise these concepts. Understanding material for instance means clarifying your misunderstandings with targeted questions, explaining things in your own words etc. You can ask your tutor questions, but you can also ask your teacher questions!

Studying often is also 100% doable without a tutor. The person who came 2nd in my year had a schedule where he’d recite notes regularly for instance. Now, one of my friends argues that tutoring provides a good environment to study and that he wouldn’t study so hard at home. This may be true for some, but it certainly doesn’t make tutoring necessary.

The point is that success is entirely possible with just one teacher. The education system is designed so that if you query your teacher and other teachers enough, and if you put in hard work, that you can do well. Its not necessary to hire a tutor. I’d argue the fundamental problem for most students is a matter of mindset. It always amazes me how many people go tutoring yet don’t perform brilliantly. The reason for this is that they make no use of their teacher at school! I always say to people make use of your teacher and all other teachers at school before you go paying for additional help. The counterargument will go “but teachers are sometimes out of touch with exam expectations.” Perhaps. But you could do with testing the proposition first.

You can succeed with a legion of teachers and your own toil. A tutor is not necessary for every student.

Tutoring is often Misused

I was hitting on this before when I said make use of your teacher and all other teachers at school before you go paying for additional help. The fundamental point is that tutoring is a supplementary tool. If it’s the primary way you learn material, then you aren’t using class time as you should. (Barring some exceptions; I was in physics last year with a very hard to understand teacher; I dropped the subject, yet my friends learnt through other avenues besides the teacher. In my defence they often did work in class by reading textbooks instead)

Significance, argument and understanding are the key to acing humanities subjects. These qualities, along with process tend to characterise many sciences as well. A good student recognises this, and focuses on these points. For instance, in the last few weeks of year 12 I stopped paying attention to my modern history teacher because I had read ahead, but also because we weren’t addressing significance and argument nearly enough. Now, this might seem like the perfect argument for tutoring, but here instead I focused on practice essays… which teachers at school marked.

My fundamental point is that doing well in studying is a matter of technique and mindset – studying well, studying efficiently, being self-reliant and working hard etc. And this is a mindset that is the individual’s responsibility to acquire, and frankly, I’m not convinced that tutoring is a particularly effective tool at instilling such a mindset. As in, military service, work experience, extra-curricular activities, reading the right personal development blogs and such are equally good at instilling such a mindset.

But then you might say “well if a student has this mindset, then is tutoring beneficial?” That’s where we turn to now.

Tutoring can be Extremely Beneficial!

In a class of 20, a teacher only has so much time to listen to any one student, has to slow down the pace of instruction, has their attention diverted by misbehaviour etc. Tutoring solves these problems. Tutoring provides a focused environment where everyone is there to learn, where instruction is more specialised, and where specific gaps in understanding are more easily addressed.

One on one instruction is a paradise for the eager, diligent student.

Using this instruction you get immediate feedback for your mistakes, compelling you to improve and recognise your faults. Areas where you are strong in you sidestep; areas where you are weak you get targeted intervention. In class, if for whatever reason you are absent you may struggle to catch up or truly understand some fundamental concept (this is especially so in maths where things build) , and your understanding may be impaired. Tutoring fixes this. Tutoring is excellent for offering remedial assistance to those who need some additional help to grasp certain concepts. Some students may take longer to grasp certain concepts, but once they grasp these concepts they can quickly progress. Tutoring helps.

Tutoring is also extremely helpful for dedicated students wanting the top marks. Let’s say we have a good student who is handing in essays to teachers at school, probing his misunderstandings, and working hard through past exams. This student then begins tutoring, and, crucially, continues to do the same work at school. But, our student suddenly can get all his practice essays marked by his tutor as well. Our student can get exam style questions in bunches from tutoring colleges with worked solutions that aren’t available in school styled textbooks (which only have answers). Our student can ask more questions that the teacher at school couldn’t answer due to a lack of knowledge or lack of time. Our student can converse with tutors with recent knowledge of content, as oppose to teachers spread between teaching 10 different courses. All in all, our student gets a whirlwind of feedback, learning and efficient study courtesy of tutoring!

Now, our regular student can do well without tutoring. She can get maths books with worked solutions, form study groups with her (also high achieving, focused) friends, and such. Our student can succeed alone. But, the tutoring college may make things easier, or as my friend said, motivate one to do study.

Conclusions

I’ve been a bit harsh on tutoring in this article. Ultimately, though I’m sceptical of the extent to which tutoring is necessary for students to succeed as some claim, I don’t see how its even possible for it to be educationally harmful to a student. But, from a more pragmatic point of view, tutoring costs money, and like anything you pay for tutoring comes with an opportunity cost. And that opportunity cost must be considered.

The key takeaway is that, barring unusual circumstances wherein tutoring covers missed classwork, tutoring should be a supplementary tool. Tutoring is effective remedially, and when used with the right mindset it can be an extremely powerful tool. However, it is this mindset and technique that is imperative to success, and this mindset can easily be applied to secure success without tutoring. Tutoring is not necessary, though it may be helpful.

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