After-school tutoring can assist students in catching up on missed school content and preparing for tests, as well as boosting their confidence. Many parents rely on private tutors to help their children in subjects such as reading, writing, and math.
However, not all tutoring sessions improve children’s academic performance effectively. Some parents enroll their kids in tutoring programs and are perplexed when they don’t see any improvement in their children’s school performance. They wonder, “What’s going on?” It looks like the tutor is teaching well and the child is paying attention during tutoring. So, why isn’t the child doing better in school?
The belief that tutoring invariably and automatically helps children do better in school is a myth. There can be several reasons why tutoring sessions may not be as effective as parents hope.
Problem 1: The tutoring session is just a Q-and-A session
One of the reasons tutoring might be ineffective for your child is that sessions may consist of merely providing answers to questions. If tutoring involves only Q-and-A, the child may not be given a chance to think independently and could even become dependent on the tutor for answers.
According to a study by Dr. John T. Bruer, students who receive answers from tutors without an explanation of how they were derived are less likely to retain concepts and solve similar problems in the future. Students should be encouraged to think about the problem on their own if it is within their capabilities.
The ineffective approach:
For example, let’s say your child is working on comparing fractions with unlike denominators. Your child has a homework question they don’t understand, such as comparing 3/8 and 3/5. The easiest thing for a tutor to do is provide a “cookbook recipe” for solving the question:
- Multiply 5 by the numerator and denominator of the first fraction because it’s the denominator in the second fraction.
- Multiply 8 by the numerator and denominator of the second fraction because it’s the denominator in the first fraction.
- Compare the numerators to determine which is larger.
This approach is fast and easy but doesn’t help your child understand the underlying concepts. In fact, if a “cookbook recipe” is used too often, your child may come to rely on simply following an algorithm to solve math problems without truly understanding the process.
The effective approach:
An experienced tutor might take a different approach. When the student struggles with fraction comparison, the tutor could use physical manipulatives to help the student develop an intuitive sense of the size of each fraction. The tutor might also encourage the student to discuss what they already know about the fractions (e.g., “They both have 3 parts each.”) and use that as a prompt for deeper thinking and discovery (e.g., “If I cut a pie into 8 parts and get 3 parts, that’s less than if I cut a pie into 5 parts and get 3 parts!”). Once the student has a solid understanding, the tutor may help the students develop algebraic skills in comparing the fractions.
An effective tutoring session should provide the child with the opportunity to think and problem-solve independently, with the child at the driver’s seat. That’s why simple Q-and-A, where the child only receives the answer, is often insufficient in helping the child do better in school.
Problem 2: The tutoring session is not focused on what your child needs
Another reason why tutoring may not be effective is that the sessions may not adequately address the needs of your child. Every child is unique and therefore, their educational requirements differ. A study conducted by the Institute of Education Sciences discovered that tutoring programs tailored to meet the specific needs of each student are more likely to result in greater academic gains.
For instance, let’s assume your child is struggling in math and you decide to find a tutor for them. You find a tutor who covers multiplication, division, and fraction addition – the areas in which your child has difficulties. However, your child still falls behind in school. Why? It turns out that your child didn’t have much trouble with paper calculations; rather, they did not fully understand when to use multiplication or division, so they could not apply what they learned to word problems or real-life problems.
One research study examined math intervention for Grade 3 students. In one group of students, the researchers identified whether the students struggled with their conceptual understanding of a topic, namely multiplication, or if they had difficulties with computation. These students were then given lessons that focused on their specific areas of weakness. Compared to another group of students who received general lessons on multiplication, the group that received focused intervention showed greater improvement.
An experienced tutor should be able to identify your child’s strengths and weaknesses, and tailor the lessons to meet their needs. Parents should also make an effort to communicate their child’s academic goals and areas of difficulty with the tutor. Without focusing on your child’s specific needs, the tutoring they receive may be ineffective.
Problem 3: Your child is not attending tutoring sessions regularly
If your child does not consistently attend tutoring sessions, the tutoring they receive may not be as effective as it should be. I have had many students who were busy and missed sessions occasionally. Their academic progress did not improve as much as students who attended every week. It is essential to establish a consistent and predictable tutoring schedule for several reasons:
- With a predictable schedule, the tutor can effectively plan out the lessons. However, if the tutor doesn’t know when the next lesson will take place, it is challenging to make any plans.
- After a long absence, your child’s tutor may have forgotten where they left off in the previous session. The tutor will need to spend time reacquainting themselves with your child’s progress.
- A consistent and recurring schedule is important for the tutor to monitor your child’s progress effectively. The tutor will be able to review your child’s homework assignments and answer any questions your child may have from their work or previous lessons.
- When your child attends tutoring sessions regularly, the material they have learned remains fresh in their memory. If your child has a lengthy absence, they may forget what they learned in earlier sessions.
To maximize the benefits of tutoring, collaborate with your child’s tutor to establish a predictable lesson schedule. This could be one or two sessions per week at a fixed time, for example. If your child must miss a session, make an effort to reschedule it as soon as possible. If your child has a lesson once a week and if they miss a lesson, the next time they see their tutor would be two weeks after their last lesson. In two weeks time, most students would have already forgotten what they learned last time.
Problem 4: There is no follow-up work at home
Mastering a skill requires consistent practice, and a single tutoring session may not provide enough opportunity for your child to practice sufficiently. This is because, during the tutoring session, the tutor must present and explain the material to your child, leaving limited time for substantial practice.
For example, consider a situation in which your child is attending a science lesson with a tutor who is covering cell biology. The tutoring session consists of examining cell functions, watching a short video, answering your child’s questions, and playing a brief vocabulary game related to cell parts. If your child doesn’t do any additional review or practice at home, they will forget over 90% of the material learned by the time the next tutoring session occurs the following week.
To maximize the effectiveness of tutoring sessions, your child should engage in supplemental review and practice at home. Reflecting on what they have learned and reviewing the material can strengthen their understanding. Doing practice can help them master the skills they are learning. Review could involve working through practice questions or revisiting notes taken during the tutoring session.
Reviewing is particularly important for older students in middle school and high school as the subjects they study tend to be more complex and difficult. In my experience, a child should spend 1 to 2 hours reviewing for every hour of tutoring they receive from their tutor. Without this additional review, the effectiveness of tutoring may be limited.
Transforming Ineffective Tutoring into an Effective One
Having explored the various reasons why tutoring may not be effective for your child, it is crucial to take deliberate steps to address these issues. The effective strategies include:
- Select a tutor who will understand your child’s needs and provide tutoring targeting these areas.
- Make sure that your child’s tutor is experienced enough to provide learning experience where your child is encouraged to think on their own. Your child has to actively learn in the tutoring session, rather than just getting answers.
- Communicate openly with the tutor about your child’s academic goals, areas of struggle, and learning preferences to better tailor their lessons.
- Maintain regular attendance for consistent progress and improved outcomes.
- Make sure that your child is doing reviews and practice at home and is not just relying on the tutoring sessions to increase their marks.
By considering the discussed factors and implementing appropriate strategies, you can ensure that your child’s tutoring is actually effective.
Richard Zhang, M.Ed., is an educator and a software developer with a Masters degree in education from University of Toronto and an immense passion for education and learning. Until the pandemic, Richard owned an award-winning learning centre in Toronto. For 15 years, he has taught and mentored hundreds of elementary, middle school, and high school students succeed in academics. He is also an app developer specializing in web and mobile application in educational and business sectors.