Seven deadly types of tutoring

As I’ve written about before, a number of students I worked with came to me after finding themselves unable to make sufficient progress with other tutors.

When I first met with one of these “second-round” students, the conversation usually went something like this:

Me: Ok, so tell me about what you did with your other tutor. I just want to get an idea where we should start.

Student: Ummm…. (S)he, like, gave me tests to do, and then we went over them.

Me: Did you go over all the questions, or just the ones you got wrong?

Students: Well, if I had a question about something, we’d go over that, but mostly (s)he’d just explain the ones I got wrong.

Me: Did you ever go over stuff before you did the tests?

Student: No, not really.

Occasionally, though, the conversation would go more like this:

Me: Ok, so tell me about what you did with your other tutor. I just want to get an idea where we should start.

Student: Ummm… So my tutor would just, like, talk at me, and I didn’t really pay attention.

When this happened, I was inevitably struck by the desire to respond with, “And your parents were paying how much for this?” but I always managed to restrain myself. 

As I’ve discovered over the course of my investigations into the world of tutoring, effective and ineffective tutoring comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Complicating the issue is the fact that what works perfectly for one student might be a train wreck for another.

I’m the first to admit that not every student I ever worked with improved. After some early successes, I found myself in a few disappointing situations that taught me some very hard yet important lessons about the limits of my abilities, and about just what is and is not subject to a quick fix.

Those experiences made me much more cautious as a tutor, much more upfront about what I likely could and could not accomplish.

They also taught me about the danger of generalizing about one’s absolute competence as a teacher based on experiences involving only one particular type of student.

Thanks to the Internet, I worked with students who attended elite boarding schools in the northeast, ones who were homeschooled in the south, and everything in between. Their SAT scores ranged from the 300s to the high 700s, and their ACT scores from the low 20s to the mid 30s. Some of them made immediate progress, while others plugged away for months.

They forced me to stop taking for granted that high school students – even high-scoring ones – had the same basic understanding of the world as adults, and to stop making assumptions about what they did and did not know.

So with that disclaimer, I’d like to outline some of the tutoring attitudes and “types” I’ve encountered that can result in less than stellar results. Some are inherently problematic, while others only become so when paired with the wrong student.

1) The Test-Giver

Aka scenario #1 from the beginning of this post. These tutors show up week after week and diligently go over homework with students, but only explain concepts in context of the questions the student answered incorrectly. They work through new material with students rarely, if ever.

To be fair, this approach can be extremely effective if students are at the point where they already know all the material well and just need to be held accountable for studying and to practice taking full-length sections/tests.

But if a student is still shaky on some of the content, or is just starting the tutoring process, then this is usually not the best approach. Students end up learning concepts only in the context of particular questions. When the concept is tested differently, in other questions – something that is almost guaranteed to happen – they might not make the connection.

Much of test prep falls into this category. If this is the kind of tutoring you need, great. If not, beware.

2) The Lecturer

Aka, scenario #2 from the beginning of this post.

I do not typically subscribe to clichés about traditional, lecture-based instruction, but the stereotypes about boring, droning professors do exist for a reason. So while I am a big fan of explicit instruction, I am also the first person to state that tutoring is usually most effective when it takes the form of a conversation. Students have to be engaged. Obviously. Otherwise, it just doesn’t work. And any tutor who sits and rambles on without recognizing that a student isn’t paying attention probably isn’t going to be much help.  

3) The Ooey-Gooey Progressive

This is the flip side of #2.

I think I’ve made my feelings about the shortcomings of progressive education crystal clear, most notably here, so I’m not going to go into too much detail. But in a nutshell, this is the tutor who has so thoroughly imbibed the kool-aid about the importance of “discovery” learning that they are hesitant to directly teach at all.

Although sessions may be fun and highly interactive, they also tend to waste lots of time and result in less learning than would occur if tutors simply explained things in clear, straightforward language. These tutors are determined to have students “discover” every process on their own, and as a result, concepts that could easily be taught in five minutes end up taking up half an hour – and still remain fuzzy.

Note that this is a particular problem with performing artists who tutor on the side. 

4) The Smarty Pants

By definition, tutors tend to be a pretty accomplished group. But here’s the problem: tutoring isn’t about how much the tutor knows, but rather whether the tutor can effectively convey that information in such a way that the student can both retain it and apply it under pressure.

Tutors who are more interested in showing off their knowledge than with trying to communicate in terms students can both comprehend and retain, tend not to be particularly successful in that regard.

The reality is that most students are less concerned with where a tutor went to college than with whether that person can make their life easier. Dumping too much advanced terminology or complex explanations on an already overwhelmed high school junior is a recipe for disaster.

The bottom line is that aiming for “deep” understanding in the short term is not always a good idea; sometimes shallow understanding is a much more practical goal. That can be a very hard pill to swallow for someone more accustomed to Ivy League seminar rooms, but a big part of teaching involves meeting people where they are and understanding the constraints of the situation at hand.

5) The Trickster

This is the flip side of #4.

These tutors have their standard set of “tricks” and strategies that they give to everyone, regardless of a particular student’s level. They may know the tests extremely well, but usually their actual subject knowledge doesn’t quite match up.

Again, these tutors can sometimes be highly effective, but usually only when working with students who are already solid on the basics and just need to learn to apply their knowledge to the test.

The problem arises that when a student’s actual knowledge is too shaky to allow them to apply those “tricks” effectively, or even to recognize when they are relevant. When a student in this category does need a more thorough review of the fundamentals, the tutor may be unable to provide what the student needs at the required level of depth. (He or she may also stick to working with the prep books they’re most comfortable/familiar with, regardless of how well they reflect the actual test.) 

In some cases, these tutors may substitute strategy for content, instructing students in the minutiae of marking answer right and wrong choices (and allowing them to hem and haw over those choices) while focusing less on more efficient/effective ways to solve the actual problems. Working through answer choices systematically is indeed important, but for a student just starting out, this probably isn’t the best thing to focus on.

And at worst, these tutors may insist that certain things that are in fact teachable “can’t really be taught,” mistaking their own lack of knowledge for an inherent limitation. 

6) The Underestimator

Tutors in this category systematically underestimate how much reinforcement students need to master new concepts (a whole lot). 

I don’t think they’re doing this intentionally, or perhaps even consciously – it’s a flaw common to the American education system as a whole, and I suspect it literally does not occur to them how much repetition is necessary.

Importantly, this is true for strategy as well as content. Some students may need to repeatedly practice how to work through questions before they can be fully trusted to go through the steps on their own during the real test.

7) The Overestimator 

This is the corollary to #6. Some tutors may underestimate the amount of repetition students require while simultaneously overestimating the amount of knowledge they 1) possess, and 2) can infer/apply. 

Such tutors may present a rule or strategy in a very general way, for instance, and assume that students can deduce all the various applications.

My best example of this came the day I looked at one particular “second-round” student’s grammar notes from his former tutor. The sum total of the instructions for subject-verb agreement read “cross out the stuff between the subject and the verb.”

What “stuff” was never specified – had anyone ever told him? Could he recognize when subjects and verbs were separated by “stuff?” Did he know what prepositions were, and could he recognize them well enough to identify prepositional phrases placed between subjects and verbs? Could he even identify subjects and verbs consistently, and was he aware of all the different parts of speech that could serve as subjects?

And those were only a sampling of the issues involved in a single type of question.