Successful Tutoring

(A frizzy haired student sits down with a middle-aged professional tutor to do some mathematics.)

“Which problem would you like to work on first?,” asks the tutor.

“Number 52. It’s even so the answer isn’t in the back,” replies the student.

“Okay. Let’s take a look.”

(Five or 10 minutes pass while the tutor struggles to solve the problem.)

“You know, I think if I spent 10 minutes thinking about this problem I could probably figure it out too,” the student observes.

(Student leaves.)


I wish I could tell you I was the frizzy haired student in the above story. In some ways the story is true. I was tutored in mathematics when I was a high school student. I wasn’t a bad student in mathematics, but I wasn’t getting the A that I wanted. In some ways the story is untrue. I never actually walked out of a tutoring session. But I often wanted to! I always assumed it was the tutor’s job to know how to solve every question that I brought to them immediately. So I was always disappointed when it took them a long time to solve the problem.

Let’s take an aside here for a second.  I believed that 5-10 minutes on a hard problem was too long. I wanted instant gratification! Who doesn’t? My school teacher can solve things instantly, why can’t my tutor? This is a really common assumption for mathematics students. Thankfully, this assumption is challenged by going to tutoring.  As the student, you are more aware of how much time things take (cause you are paying for it!) and you start to notice that math takes time!  Okay, back to my childhood tutoring assumptions.

Sometimes I thought, and continue to think, that tutors are not as prepared as they should be for the work they are doing.  But, on the other hand, I realize that tutoring mathematics is really hard.  I should know- I’ve been doing it for the past five years. There are lots of little techniques that are specific to certain authors and complicated uses of the methods taught in each section. I solve this by being selective about my students so that I know that I can help them in the specific course they are taking. I wonder how many smart students have disappointing experiences with tutoring.  Is it because they expect instant answers or because their professional tutor is not sufficiently well trained?

About Samantha from SocialMath

Applied Mathematician and writer of
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1 Response to Successful Tutoring

  1. Marcus Cox says:

    I was actually thinking about this the other day when I was helping my son with his homework. He is a little guy so I must seem like a know it all genius to him. I know one day he will get to the stuff that will make look like a dear in the headlights. That is when I am going to be honest and tell him I do not know this one. Then teach him how to break down the problem so he can comprehend it better, while showing him how to research to find the answer from other sources.
    I guess what I am saying is I believe true tutoring is not just knowing and giving the answer. It is more about guilding someone to finding the answer on their own. Because if you can get them to do that, then they will not need tutoring anymore. So in fact you actually did your job by not knowing the answer, but knowing the process of learning something and showing them how to do the same. Once they get that, then they are not just facts remembering but facts discovering, and that is how thinkers come to be.
    Thank you for posting I really do like your site. I know you have a lot on your plate, but I look forward to your next post. I will try to bring some traffic your way. I feel people need a little math in their lives. – TTYL

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