Bullish Q&A: Teaching The Teachers

TeachingtheTeachers

I am an avid reader of your column on TheGloss and The Grindstone for quite some time now, but never before had I been in direct need of your advice. Here it is: you have mentioned several times in your columns that you are a tutor in a lot of subjects. I have just started tutoring students myself. It’s maybe not really the same situation: I am employed by the teacher of a class that I have taken three years ago, to supervise the exercises part of the course. I have 24 students, engineering freshmen, at once, for one hour twice a week.

I am very anxious to do the best possible performance, as I know that a good tutor can make a tremendous amount of difference in a freshman’s future academic record. Any advice?

Hmmn. In my tutoring, I watch the students do a series of mixed problems so I can diagnose what they don’t know. Then – and I don’t know whether this is really possible in your field – I take the thing they don’t know and write problems about it on the spot. I mean, the first 5 years I was tutoring, I didn’t have the ability to do this for every single question type, but now, it’s very easy for me to generate a clever problem with an exponential expression on top of another exponential expression, and everything magically turns out to be an integer even though it didn’t look like it was going to be. Or sometimes, I’ll just take the same problem the student just struggled with, change the numbers, and make the student do it again.

Often in tutoring, a student says, “I had trouble with this problem,” and you show the student how to do the problem, and then you’re both pretty satisfied, even though neither of you should be. The student is never going to see that particular problem again. The student needs to know what to take away from that problem, what elements she is likely to see again, and how they might be remixed in future problems. Generating unique, similar problems helps create “transfer,” the ability to apply skills gained from this task to different, future tasks.

I also keep a stack of index cards on the desk, which I use to make flashcards on the spot. Sometimes the whole problem we just did ends up on the card, but, if possible, I limit what’s on the card to the part that tripped the student up. So there might be a card that just says “Factor x3 – 4x2 + 4x = 0 to get three solutions.”

Sometimes it’s good to let a student “drive.” Advanced students with a lot of questions often know exactly what they want from you. But sometimes, students who come equipped with a list of questions really over-focus on things that aren’t that important. In such cases, I say, “We can work on that, but it’s a pretty obscure issue you’re not likely to see on the real test. How about we make sure you can deal with X, Y, and Z, which are much more important, and we’ll discuss this at the end.”

One more thing – I had been tutoring for years without ever having been tutored myself. When I finally needed someone to help me with something, it was horrible! My very smart colleague made me feel really dumb. I realized just how much of helping people is about their feelings, even if most students definitely do not want to talk directly about these feelings. (Seriously – every student in your class was once told by a teacher that he wasn’t good at something, and he feels secretly afraid of being found out or questioned about it, even if this was in kindergarten.)

So, practically, this means that if someone did 20 problems and missed 6, I don’t just jump into the first one she got wrong in order to “save time.” I sometimes put great big checkmarks on the correct ones (and I circle the wrong ones with little itsy-bitsy helpful circles) to acknowledge the good work. And then I find something to compliment – even though the student missed the easy #3, “#19 was hard! I see what you did there – very clever solution.” People want validation from you in addition to help.