Today I'd like to discuss the differences between learning in the classroom and learning one-on-one with a tutor and it's advantages. I've taught math, physics and astronomy in the classroom for years and I've also been a private tutor for years. I love them both dearly, and I think it's important that parents understand the key differences as well as the technical difficulties and advantages associated with each.

Lets begin with learning math and physics in the classroom. The classroom is thrilling and fun because there is a group dynamic that occurs that is unique to each class. You can't predict the discussions that will arise and many times they are super informative for everyone in the room. I remember one time while teaching physics to a group of advanced students at Stanford and a student asked me what energy is. What a fantastic question that I love to talk about! The answer is no one really knows. It's a number that doesn't change. Everyone chimed in and the conversation lead to vacuum energy which is another favorite topic of mine. Without getting into the details my point is that this is something totally unique to the classroom setting; that group dynamic. It's why school is so important at every level.

The primary disadvantage of the classroom is that every student is at a different level and you have to split the difference when choosing the difficulty of the material. In every classroom there will be students that are super advanced as well as students that are seeing the material for the first time. One of the biggest challenges for the teacher is to choose the difficulty of the material such that the advanced students feel engaged and the beginner students don't feel left behind. My favorite trick was to assign three problems of increasing difficulty. The entire class started with the first problem, if you got that right you move on to the second and then the third. This naturally divides the class into their respective difficulty level. At this point I would work the room and give students individual attention to try and get them through the very challenging physics problems. As you can imagine, time becomes the biggest constraint at this point. Teachers can only give each student so much time before they have to move on to the next one. If a student is struggling with common fundamental math issues (like fractions) the teacher doesn't really have time to address them. This is the main disadvantage of the classroom when it comes to teaching math and physics.

My definition of tutoring is "meeting the student at exactly their level." In the one-on-one tutor environment we have the luxury of identifying and addressing the fundamental issues that tend to hold students back in math and physics. I mentioned earlier that fractions are the most common problem we see students struggle with that cause major problems in the math classroom later in their high school math career. An example that I like to use is systems of equations with fractional coefficients. As an example let's say we are in an algebra 2 class and the student is learning systems of equations for the first time. This is an involved, multi-step problem that requires the student to be proficient in algebra as well as fundamental skills such as negative numbers, applying operations accurately to both sides of the equation, distributing etc. As you can imagine this can be overwhelming to the student the first time around. Now let's assume that the system of equations has fractions in front of the variables (fractional coefficients). If the student is not confident in adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing fractions the larger more involved problem of solving a system will become totally overwhelming and the student will shut down. I've made a video addressing this exact issue here:

My point in discussing all of this is that in the classroom a teacher could never address the fundamental issue which is fractions. They would never have time and it would throw off the entire class if they spent the required time to fix the issue for the one student. This is the main difference between learning in the classroom and learning one-on-one with a tutor. The tutor and the student have plenty of time. If the tutor were educating the student in systems of equations in a session and the teacher noticed the student was avoiding fractions, the session could immediately pause and address the real issue. As long as the student is afraid of fractions they will never really learn the larger problem of systems of equations!

Here's the lesson I would do on fractions the moment I realize it's necessary for the student to comprehend:

I'd like to give a similar example for physics. The most common challenge we see in high school physics is sign errors with vectors. This results from a lack of understanding of how vectors relate to coordinate systems. In fact many high school physics classes don't even teach vectors which drives me crazy because it is a mathematical tool that is central to the foundation of physics. It's very important that each and every physics problem start with a large coordinate system (x-y axis). The reason this is so important is the coordinate system defines which directions are positive and negative. The sign of the vector is then determined by comparing the direction of the vector to the coordinate system. Students will do everything in their power to leave out the coordinate system because they don't understand it's purpose. This leads to sign errors with their vectors which is the most common mistake in high school physics. This is a fundamental issue that will cause the student a lot of problems later on in the class. My point in bringing up this example is I want you to understand the power of tutoring. Tutors can take the time to make sure the student is ultra confident with their vectors which will make the remainder of their physics class run much more smoothly. More advanced topics like projectile motion rely entirely on the use of vectors. If the student is not confident with vectors, or god forbid don't even know what a vector is, will never really understand physics. They will just be pretending and barely get by. Here is a video showing exactly how the 8 step method works here:

Thank you for reading this very important article. I really hope that this gives you insight into the subtle differences between learning in the classroom and learning one-on-one with a tutor. If a tutor is brought into the learning cycle at the right time it can make a profound difference in the students performance, both in the classroom and in their understanding of the subject material.