How do you know if you have a terrible math tutor? If all you do is do homework together. That’s what I call lazy tutoring. How do you know if you have an outstanding math tutor? If the tutor anticipates what part of the problem will cause you issues ahead of time. If the tutor proactively works on fundamentals that will set you up for success later in the class. If the tutor actively builds a foundation that will function without the tutors help. If the tutor builds your confidence to push through on a problem when things get difficult and you’re not sure what to do. If the tutor generates and fosters a genuine fascination with mathematics and physics, regardless of whether or not science is your thing. These are the skills we look for in identifying what we call “Rock Star” tutors. Everyone on the Alexander Mathematics and Physics Tutoring team is a “Rock Star” tutor.
That being said, does having a Rock Star math or physics tutor mean that the student isn’t responsible for their own performance? Absolutely not. In fact we are helpless to help a student unless they help themselves. One of the first things I try to make parents understand is that tutoring does not get you out of any of the hard work, not even a little bit. What tutoring does do is make the time you put in super meaningful. Many students will sit down to do homework like a good student should, then get stuck on a problem and spend the entire hour trying to “un-stuck” themselves. What do you get in return for this hour of being stuck? Nothing. That’s right, you just spent an hour like a good student should and got no tangible results for your efforts. Being stuck on a problem for an hour will not lead you to doing better on an exam and it will not get you credit for the homework assignment.
This is where a rock star tutor can totally change your experience. They can give your student the tools they need to independently “un-stuck” themselves. For example something I see over and over again is first time physics students getting stuck on a problem. The student understandably assumes the solution is to try really hard to “figure out” the problem using their intelligence. Sounds reasonable right? Wrong. If you try to “figure out” a physics problem on your own using brute force you probably won’t get to the answer and you’ll waste a lot of time. That’s where our 8 step method for solving physics problems comes in. We use a step by step procedure for working through physics problems that guides the student logically through the process. Most students can easily relate to following a recipe, which is very different than aimlessly trying to power through a problem. Very frequently we work with first time physics students that have always received A’s in math yet have a C in physics and are freaking out about it. The reason the student was successful in math is because they learned to follow a set of steps to get from start to finish in a math problem. As the classes became more challenging there are more steps, however as long as the student puts the time in they can learn the steps and succeed in math.
Then along comes your first physics class and there is no recipe to follow, no set steps. It seems like you just have to be really smart to figure out the problem, but it’s not actually like this. What the student needs is a procedure to follow that logically leads them through the problem. The reason this is not obvious with physics is because every problem seems totally different. One problem will be a bird flying and dropping a rock. The next problem is a cannon shooting a projectile off of a cliff. The next one is a boat paddling up stream. Sounds like 3 totally different scenarios right? Wrong, they are all the same problem. By working with a great physics tutor, who will teach you our 8 step method for solving physics problems, success will come. If you carefully follow each step, the above 3 problems break down into the same problem. You don’t have to be a genius, you need a logical procedure to follow! Once we give the student the procedure they can navigate physics all by themselves, without the tutor! This is the sign of a high level physics tutor, better to teach the student to fish than to catch the fish for them.
So now that you understand what’s expected of a high level tutor, let’s talk about how the student can take maximum advantage of their time with the tutor. Just as doing homework in a tutoring session is lazy tutoring, saving homework for the tutoring session is lazy studenting! As the student you should do as much work as humanly possible PRIOR to the tutoring session. That way we can begin with the area’s that you got stuck on. Think about it, if you start your homework in the tutoring session you’re going to spend the entire hour figuring out what you need help on and what you already know. What a massive waste of money! Not only that; it’s extremely important that you spend time working on problems without an expert to help you. This is where you get practice getting stuck on problems and pushing through your problems with confidence and willpower. I’ve always said the worst thing you can do for a student as a tutor is answer all of their questions. Sounds totally counter intuitive right? Isn’t the student there to get their questions answered? Kind of... the thing is this: often in a lesson the student will continually ask me is this right? Is this right? Is this right? And if you give them the answer each time they feel unsure of themselves what happens is they get used to having an answer monkey on their back. Guess what happens on test day? They totally bomb the test because they don’t know what to do when they feel unsure on a problem. It’s our job as tutors to teach the student skills for checking their work and making sure things are right as they push through to the next step in the problem. Back in the day I used to fake go to the bathroom all the time if the student was asking too many questions. 9 times out of 10 when I came back the student had found the correct answer on their own.
The moral of the story is in order to get maximum impact from your tutoring session the student should do as much of their homework as humanely possible on their own time. Then come to the lesson with their questions prepared. Furthermore the student should work on their homework for a small amount of time each night, as opposed to cramming a lot of work in before the session. I would take 20 minutes per night over a 3 hour cram session any day. Know what your problem areas are before your tutoring session and I guarantee you will ace the class. This is how you achieve maximum impact from your one-on-one learning.