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 the wealthy students had tutors. Today tutoring programs are widely available to students through their schools, churches, and community agencies as well as private tutorial services. Today, students at all levels receive tutoring to help them to master reading, math, chemistry, and physics. Nowadays a student may even get a tutor who will prepare him or her for high stakes tests such as the SAT or GRE.

Beyond the Dictionary Definition

The dictionary defines a tutor as a person who gives individual, or is some cases a small group, instruction. I am not satisfied with the definition. I would add that 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 thus 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 paper I will concentrate on the benefits to students who are receiving tutoring. If tutoring is conducted in “the right way”, the student will benefit tremendously from the tutoring. Tutoring offers systematic, structured learning experience in a more individualized way. It also improves the tutee’s self-esteem, attitude toward 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 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 tutor’s success with your child. What is also important are the personality traits of the tutor. What is the most important it 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/she is tutoring. The tutor should have a desire to help as well as share his/her 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, the tutor should believe that things can be changed through action, and that he or she can help your child.

The desire to help should be in the tutor by nature, not because the tutor is being paid.

Tutors, Not “Homework Machines”

I have learned from students who have tutoring experience, that the tutors’ job was mainly helping the student with his/ her homework, and teaching the material their 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 a huge part of the points the tutee gets on homework is 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 to 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.

What is Good Effective Tutoring?

Good, proper tutoring should help the tutee become an independent learner, who acquires critical learning skills, and helps the tutee learn how to help himself/herself. 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 or her own. While guiding him/ her through the process of tutoring, the tutor should discuss the process that will allow the student find his or her own solutions.

The core of a good math tutoring is Socratic questioning. In short, it works by answering a student’s question with the tutor’s question, the tutee answers the tutor’s question and the tutor asks another question. Then this process continuous until the tutee discovers the solution to the problem on his or her own. Basically the tutor works as a guide.

When a tutor asks a question, for example “What is the least common denominator?”, and the tutee doesn’t remember the definition, most tutors will give the definition to the tutee, they will even ask the student to write it down. What does the tutee learn by that? The tutee learns that it is okay not to know the basics and when the student doesn’t know the basics, he or she assumes someone will teach it to him or her. Life in the work place 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, read it a couple of times and then the tutor will check the understanding by asking the tutee to give the definition in his or her own words or will use the new concept in a math problem.

“Procedure Oriented” not “Answer Oriented”

During the Socratic questioning the tutee learns the rationale behind this step- by step process, which insures 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, do-able, simple tasks is the way to “attack” 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 or she 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 since many tutees would prefer the tutor to work with them on homework problems and so that they can finish it faster and “be done with it. ”.

During the Socratic method of tutoring, a good tutor will make his or her 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 the reason that a good tutor will not be completely satisfied when the tutee gives the correct answer, but will say, “ How did you come the that conclusion?”. A good tutor will ask a tutee “How would you check the answer”, “Is your answer reasonable?”, “What makes you think that”, or “What would happen if we changed …..”

A good tutor will not ask “Yes” or “No” questions. She or he will ask only open-ended questions.

The reality is that many students want to have a tutor since it’s “cool” to have somebody who will tell you how to solve a problem when you don’t know how to solve it yourself. Parents are happy since their child wants to have a tutor, meets with the tutor, the homework grades are improving. When a tutor works as a “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 tests scores were still very poor. One day the student asked me for an extension of the homework, since as the student told me, her tutor was sick and as a result of that the tutee couldn’t do homework, not even one problem. During my conversation with the student I learned that the student didn’t believe in her ability, and got 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 I asked her to come to my office twice a week. I then used Socratic type 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.

Effective Tutoring is Learned

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. When they are seeking solely help with their homework, they aren’t seeking true tutoring. Homework should be only treated 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 I 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 past 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 that can learn on his/her own, a student who knows how to read a textbook, how to do a review on his/her own, how to take notes, a student who possesses an 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 I mentioned above, knowledge of the subject is not enough. I find this fascinating that good tutors are often communication majors or film majors. They stick to the Socratic method of tutoring and find a big pleasure in tutoring and treat tutoring as an art. It surely is an art, which requires a lot of practice.


A version of this post also appeared in the Orange County Register.