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 …


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