Most tutoring doesn’t work.

It may be shocking, but it’s true. Even I have been guilty of providing non-effective tutoring at some point of my life. Let me explain.

Inspiration Education has been in operation for over five years; I’ve been tutoring for over ten. In that time, I have seen thousands and thousands of students receive tuition.

As a part of being in the tutoring industry, I’ve talked to a large amount of students who have been tutored by other companies as well. I’ve almost seen it all.

I hate to say it, but in that time, a number of these students didn’t actually achieve real growth. Sure, temporarily they improved, but in the long run — they didn’t.

Tutoring didn’t work for me.

Even in my own life, I have been a victim of this.

Fortunately, I had a grandfather who opted to pay from some tuition for me before I entered high school, at a major NZ tutoring firm. It represented a big investment; money my parents at the time didn’t have, and it was to help me reach my potential. It worked too — temporarily — with higher confidence, higher grades, and moving onto the tutoring firm’s Year 9 curriculum (when I was only Year 8). However, in hindsight, I realised the trap I was falling into: the tutor would show me a question, they’d explain how to do it, I’d follow the steps and then do the same kind of question again and again. I wasn’t actually learning; I was just memorising how to work within the narrow system of learning my tutor set me. The other issue is that I became over-confident. I’d go to school, thinking that I was somehow smarter than the other kids (I wasn’t) and that I didn’t need to listen in class (I did).

When I entered high school, I scored reasonably highly in the entrance test. So far, so good. By the end of Year 9, I had given up on “being smart” at Mathematics, and had lost complete enjoyment.

What had happened?

Well the tutoring (and the subsequent short-term boost in scores) meant that my mindset towards learning was completely skewed. My perception of what learning was, and the way I viewed myself as a learner (I was arrogant) meant that things suddenly got hard and I lacked the perseverance and resilience to keep up. Arrogance often leads to insecurities and that’s exactly what happened – I thought I was dumb. Tutoring didn’t work for me, in the long-run.

Do I think it was the tutoring company’s fault that I got bad scores in Mathematics? Of course not, they only spent one hour per week with me.

Do I think they could have taught me the skills to become more of a self-directed learner and deal with my arrogance and my “illusions of learning”? Probably.

The key areas where tutoring fails students.

Over the past five years, Inspiration Education has had some amazing results, some creating staggering changes in the life and outlook of students. But of course, we’ve also had some mediocre ones in the early years of the company.

One parent mentioned that the tutoring consisted of their daughter “not trying, then coming to tutoring to put out the fire, problem solved, back to being lazy again”.

Another got mad at us because their son was getting excellent results up until term three and four and then in his exams did abysmally.

The difference was that he attended every lesson in the first half of the year, then due to overconfidence, he only attended three lessons for the second half!

Even internationally renowned tutors agree that tutoring can be ineffective.

Anthony Green, a US-based tutor who is internationally known as the “tutor for the one percent” agrees. Green is infamous for charging over $1000 an hour for tuition via Skype for the  competitive SAT university entry exam. He recently penned an article titled “I made $1,000 an hour as an SAT tutor. My students did better without me”, where he discussed the fact that when he took his study plans, and converted them to an online program, his students did better without him than they did with him.

Although his article is exaggerated, and is geared towards selling his new online system, you cannot deny his analysis — if you use a transactional model of tutoring, where the tutor is basically just telling the student what to learn and explaining it in a slightly more digestible way, then it’s not worth paying lots and lots of money for.

What makes tutoring effective?

Fortunately, tutoring can be effective. Benjamin Bloom, an educational psychologist, underwent research in the 1980’s that students that have one-on-one tuition perform two standard deviations better than the students without tutoring (i.e. better than 95% of students who didn’t receive tuition), all other factors held constant.

So, what are the ingredients of effective tuition?

From looking at thousands of students, research on the science of learning and my own experiences, there are a few things that make tutoring effective.

  1. Regular, committed lessons weekly (with once a week as a minimum)

Consistent practice and feedback are vital for the success of the student – we see this again and again in our results.

Because of this, our company has decided to move away from the mentality of having lessons when needed, and shift towards viewing tutoring as coaching for learning. Just like a sport, regular practice is key. All of our research and feedback shows that students who get weekly lessons do the best.

  1. One-on-one tutoring, rather than group tutoring

Benjamin Bloom’s study mentioned above showed that one-on-one tutoring is the most effective by far. From this, you can get personalised coaching, feedback and strategies that suit the student.

  1. Tutors who undergo regular coaching to build their self-awareness and awareness of their student.

It’s important that the tutor you use undergoes regular coaching from a third-party, such as a more experienced tutor, to help build their self-awareness as a tutor. This stops tutors falling into common traps, such as just telling the student the answers rather than getting them to think for themselves and helps them to see the “root causes” of issues.

  1. A focus on the process of learning, rather than merely teaching knowledge

It’s important that the tutor or coach that you use focusses on the process of learning and how to learn. Content is important, and so are grades; but if you just teach these, you’ll go through a cycle of:

  • Receiving tutoring
  • Getting a higher grade on an exam
  • Needing more tutoring to get those higher grades
  • Getting higher grades consistently
  • Not getting tutoring
  • Grades drop
  • Getting tutoring again

and so on. It causes the student to become reliant on tutoring in the long run, and does not help them when tutoring stops or when they go on to university.

A focus on the process of learning while teaching content creates long-term outcomes and growth and is much more powerful in a child’s educational development.

A tutor/coach needs to give the student strategies and thinking tools, rather than just telling them what to write for Question 2a from the 2011 Algebra Exam.

The main point.

Tutoring can be extremely effective. Often, though, it’s not because some key ingredients are missing. With one-on-one, regular tutoring with a tutor that gets coaching themselves and focusses on the process of learning, you can create amazing outcomes. Here’s an example:

“When I started tutoring, I didn’t think I was smart or capable.  If I compare where I was then to where I am now is as if I am a completely different person. I was so unmotivated, I didn’t have ambitions, I didn’t have that push that I needed, and tutoring gives you that push. For me, it wasn’t just sitting down with a book in front of me and learning word to word with a tutor, it was actually going at the topic in a different way. My tutor made me draw it out, make mental pictures, make up ridiculous songs to remember things etc. At school you just look at the board and that is it, you just nod your head and pretend you know what’s going on and leave the class completely stressed out, go home, cry, feel dumb and then go slightly mental. With my tutor, if I had that moment of panic in class and feel like I am on a different planet than everyone else in the class, I wouldn’t worry. He can teach me and teach me until I get it. The next day I would go to school and feel like a boss. No one had to know I had a tutor, it was all my little secret. Having the support of this tutoring company has raised my standards, my grades, my confidence, my motivation, my view on my potential, it has built me to be more of a risk taker, and more of a ‘do-er’, I am not scared of teachers and homework and numbers and letters together in one equation, now it is a puzzle to solve.”

If you can ensure the right ingredients are in there, tutoring can be one of the most effective tools for developing lifelong learners.

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