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Alex Mallory

Alex Mallory

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Isn't Tutoring Just a Crutch?

Posted: 05/11/11 12:14 PM ET

Every so often I receive a phone call from wary parents who have been wrestling with the consequences of private tutoring. Their concern is that tutoring is, at best, a band-aid and, at worst, a crutch that encourages dependence and academic atrophy. In one extreme instance, the mother of a high school sophomore who suffered a low grade in biology paid me -- not to tutor her son -- but, instead, to pitch the benefits of professional academic help to her husband. Convinced that private tutoring is a "slippery slope," the father was certain that a biology tutor would only teach his son that if he made a mess, someone would be there to clean it up and, moreover, this mindset would metastasize into other areas of his son's life. Not everyone is as paranoid, but similar thoughts prevail in the minds of many parents when considering private tutoring.

For most families, it is difficult to have an honest and productive discussion about performance at school. There are usually many layers of misunderstanding and psychological subterfuge. Students are often far more concerned about their intelligence, drive, motivation, and grades than they are willing to admit. In part, it is because they realize how important their performance is to their parents. Adapting a self-handicapping strategy -- not studying, forgetting important study materials at school, or feigning lack of concern -- can function as protective padding; if the student manages to do well without working hard -- great, but if they do poorly, they can blame it on lack of interest or lack of effort. In this situation, the right tutor can break this common counterproductive psychological strategy. They are outside the parent-student loop of antagonism, well positioned to force their students to admit to a poor understanding of material or insufficient preparation. Their one-on-one relationship consistently leads to better performance on assessments and the turnaround is not short-lived either. Students internalize the experience as a link between proper preparation and the feelings of increased self-worth and overall confidence that accompanies receiving a good grade. Consequently, tutoring lends itself to improved attitude and increased effort.

There are other students who do, in fact, try hard and diligently prepare, but are still unsuccessful in achieving the results they want. In such cases, the issue is typically poor self-evaluation. A student can easily closely follow study guidelines and still be unprepared for an exam. Good test taking requires more than rote memorization so the best tutors help their students to accurately evaluate the sufficiency and depth of their own understanding. They force their students to use the basics as a foundation upon which to respond to more sophisticated ideas and questions. They develop their student's ability to make up and answer potential questions on examinations. They teach their students to form connections between different units of material in the same course and understand why a teacher is stressing a particular concept or equation. Clearly, these are not always innate or obvious skills, but, fortunately, they can be taught and perfected by a professional.

"Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime."