Jiva Technology

Tutoring: WHY does it work?

In support of our development plans for Tutorhub, I’ve been taking a much deeper look at the world of tutoring recently. My aim was to ignore the popular wisdom and look for hard evidence, not only that tutoring actually works (see my earlier post on this subject) but to get some idea of how it works. This is more than just an academic exercise or background reading for our product development plans. The fact is that tutoring support can make a significant difference to educational performance, but understanding how it works is vital if you’re going to get the most out of your tutoring session, reduce the time spent with a tutor and avoid wasting money on unproductive sessions.

Perhaps the best way to explain this is to imagine a student who is trying to work on a topic or question that they’re struggling with. Cue student:

“Our student encounters a problem that they can’t understand or work through. Frustration begins to build. The tutor will use scaffolding (guided prompting that pushes the students thinking) to encourage them to think about the problem in hand, to use existing knowledge and tools to try to approach the problem. Feedback along the way helps to both monitor the process and guide the student when they are either wrong or unsure. The process is highly interactive, unlike say watching a video or reading a book, which is passive. It is also granular, which means that the problem is broken down in to small steps and at each stage, the student understands if they’re right or that they are wrong and need to repair their thinking. In other words, a student can’t go far wrong. This is an intense process that reinforces existing knowledge, creates new knowledge and repairs faulty understanding.”

It is this process of scaffolding, feedback and interaction that seems to offer the most effective improvement in understanding.

What this means is that we should reconsider how, when and why we use a tutor. Tutoring is typically born of frustration, with “I don’t get Maths” probably being the most common starting point. What follows is a whole series of maths lessons. I believe we should be looking at tutors in a different way, perhaps more akin to an educational Swiss Army Knife. If we want to achieve the best results our native talents will allow, we should realise from the start that we’ll inevitably come across problems that we can’t understand. When that happens and before the frustration builds, we know that we need to work through the problem in a more detailed, intense way, to really understand it. That’s when we reach for the tutor. In some ways, this is an approach that’s an odds with how most tutors currently work, but that’s a problem for another day …

Beanbag Learning and the Creative Commons

We’ve been engaged in a lively debate this morning about our site Beanbag Learning. As the site has grown rapidly over the last year or so to become one of the biggest online tutor directories in the UK, it has attracted its fair share of competitors looking to lure away tutors or use Beanbag Learning as a recruiting tool for their own sites. The natural reaction is to consider such free riding as negative behaviour and warn them away, but is there another viewpoint? Within reason, don’t tutors want their skills to be as widely advertised as possible and don’t potential customers want it to be as easy to find them as possible? In other words, would sharing make us good citizens? Should we take a creative commons approach and promote sharing of information with other sites? For sure, if we take that approach it needs to be done in a controlled way, so that tutors can ultimately decide if their information is shared, but there’s clearly a DEMAND for the information, so why should we stand in its way if we can do it so that tutors benefit, users benefit and we benefit.

‘Conversational’ Q&A

As part of our ongoing assault on the barriers between ‘people who know’ and ‘people who want/need to know’, we’ve been working on an update to that hoary old chestnut: the Q&A site. Part of our approach is to create something that’s truly conversational. After all, if you’ve got a question that needs an answer, how many times does a single, straight answer give you what you looking for? Too often, there’s a bit of clarification etc involved, more like Q&A&Q&A…

So we’ve been taking a good look at Q&A 2.0, or more like Q&A 2.1, and I’m really please to see that’s it’s a lively area of development on the web at the moment, with our friends at Aardvark, Hunch doing some really interesting things. As is so often the case, simple problems are sometimes the hardest to solve and we’ve been really grafting hard to produce something that’s as simple to use and robust as possible. Usability is everything. We’re more than interested to talk and share with anyone in the field, so feel free to get in touch. As usual, our starting point is education, tutors and tutoring, but we don’t expect it to end there.

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