From the Tutor's Corner

Weighing the Pros and Cons of Intensive Tutoring

Shortly after I retired a number of years ago, I chanced across a young grocery clerk who was studying electrical engineering at a nearby college. That he was working full time and going to school full time says something of his work ethic and resolve, but unfortunately he was on the verge of flunking out at school. One thing led to another and soon my venture into tutoring began. For about two years we struggled with physics, math, and circuit analysis (my forte); and while he was not a very good student, eventually he did graduate. I often wondered if my intense tutoring was the right thing to do. Had I not been on the scene, he would have flunked out of engineering and probably entered another field more suited to his potential (he had a number of fine attributes to build on). My doubts were re-enforced when he was unable to find work in his field after graduating.

A similar situation occurs when parents make extensive use of tutoring and other means in order to get their child admitted to a higher level university than would otherwise be attainable. Is this a good strategy? In some cases it may be, depending on the child's maturity, temperament, and potential to step up to the challenge. But learning new material depends not just on past knowledge, but also on the ability to analyze and absorb new ideas. Students who have been "pushed" often find that on their own they are not capable of performing to the level required in a higher peer group. This can result in very unpleasant consequences. Parents tend to focus on the long-term benefits of graduating from a higher tier school, whereas the child must cope with the short-term consequences of trying to do so.

I often think about the best tutoring options for the students that I work with. Since I tutor a fix number of hours a week, the question is how best to utilize that time. I rarely get to work with the better students, so the students that I do see range from those that make a lot of progress with minimal help, down to a few who make minimal progress despite intensive help. The latter group needs help the most, but time given them comes at the expense of those that benefit the most from any help they receive. For a student who is having considerable difficulty in numerous areas, it seems reasonable to limit tutoring by addressing only those topics that the student can be reasonably expected to absorb. For such a student, more emphasis on learning the basics (addition/subtraction/multiplication/division, decimals, fractions, percents, and the like) would probably be more useful in later life than trying to learn a variety of more advanced topics.

Incidentally, the story about the engineering student does have a happy ending. Unable to find a job after graduating, he enlisted in the Army, and because he had an engineering degree, was able to get assigned to a special electronics unit. After his Army discharge four years later, he immediately found work in his field thanks to the extensive experience he then had. Although he has long since moved to another state, for many years he wrote or called me occasionally to see how I was doing and to thank me for the many hours we labored together. "I would never be where I am without your help", he once wrote. Its enough to bring a tear to an old fogy's eyes.

John Schwarz