On Tutoring: what it is and isn’t

I quickly realized one post discussing on-demand tutoring was insufficient. Let’s look at the make-up of a tutor.

Many students want, nay demand, quick answers. After all, learning is difficult. Cognitive science informs us that the brain doesn’t make learning easy. So it is unsurprising for students to seek out quick, easy answers. But quick answers can be readily attained with skilled use of Google. When that falls short, those answers can come from classmates. But simply receiving bits of information does not constitute learning. At least not in any way that I would recognize it.

The last thing a tutor ought to be is a source of answers; someone with whom to fill out a worksheet. While such an endeavor may actually raise grades, it doesn’t have a lasting effect.

A degree better but still insufficient is the tutor who only deals in facts and explanations. Such a tutor corrects the tutee and further clarifies the student’s understanding, which is great. But that tutor does not teach metacognitive skills whereby the tutee can learn to monitor his or her own understanding. Tutoring this way does indeed improve both grades and real learning. I argue this to be the mode of the Standard American Tutor.

However, excellent tutoring is first and foremost a relationship. Expertise is certainly necessary, but so is an ability to guide the tutee through the cognitive processes of the expert. It is no wonder then that I adhere to Brown, Collins, and DuGuid’s (1989) notion of cognitive apprenticeship. As such, a tutor must not only be able to convey information and explain concepts, as is the common perception, but also lead the tutee through murky answers and demonstrate ways to handle frustration, among other difficulties. In addition to modeling metacognitive strategies, the excellent tutor nurtures the psychological well-being of the tutee. By validating the student’s concerns and suggesting practical ways to cope with those challenges, the tutor becomes a student’s closest educational advocate.

[Obviously, treading into emotional advice must come with a caveat. The student must clearly understand whether or not the tutor has any licensed experience in counseling.]



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