How do I learn to be an effective tutor?
February 3, 2013 6:01 PM   Subscribe

If I know the material that I'm teaching well, but don't have any experience with tutoring or teaching, how do I learn the skills and techniques that will help me be an effective tutor?

I've just graduated college with a degree in physics and I'm about to start tutoring a friend in a first year intro mechanics course. I'm also hoping to pick up some more tutoring positions in the near future to help me get through this weird post-graduation time.

I'm pretty confident in my understanding of the material that I'll be teaching, aside from needing to review the specific techniques that are being covered, but I'm nervous that I don't have the proper communication and pedagogical skills to really help someone else learn the material.

In my past experience helping people out with their coursework, I get stuck when I have explained the way that I understand the problem from the fundamentals, but it hasn't "clicked" with them yet. I can recognize when someone else has a different learning style than me, but I have a hard time translating my style of understanding into theirs.

For people who have experience tutoring: where do you learn these skills? Are there any references you could point me to or tips/techniques you can share?

For people who have had helpful or unhelpful tutors in the past: What makes a great tutor for you? What should I learn to avoid?
posted by cognitio to Education (8 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I did some physics tutoring. Be prepared for many sessions to open with your client showing you their current problem set. You will want to avoid doing it for them. A good strategy is stopping yourself from telling them the next step, taking a step back and figuring out what question you implicitly asked yourself to choose that step, and then asking them that question. Make them do a lot of talking through their approach to solving the problem, because that systematic problem-solving process is the big thing with physics. When you identify a misconception or gap in understanding of the principles they're supposed to be learning, then you can look through the text with them.
posted by ecsh at 6:07 PM on February 3, 2013

I haven't done physics tutoring and mostly I've tutored elementary and middle school kids, but this is what works for me--
-Break things down into steps and check to make sure the person is understanding each new component rather than explaining it all in one chunk. Obviously, know your audience and don't oversimplify.
-Have them explain things back to you, which will help it gel in their mind and also help you understand where they're coming from so you can teach in a way they'll understand.
-Sometimes if someone doesn't have a good understanding of a concept it's hard to formulate questions about it-- if you run into that situation, go back through the simpler building blocks to find the problem.
-Have them do the problems themselves-- if they get stuck don't leap in to help immediately, but try to offer some guidance as to how they can think through it themselves so that frustration doesn't set in. It's hard to not tell them the answer or just do it yourself! Be patient and don't fall into the trap of jumping in and doing it for them when they get stuck.
posted by geegollygosh at 7:06 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Your question about learning styles is a good one. I have a method that's worked well for me in the past, but it's time-intensive and I have no way of knowing that I haven't just been lucky to get only students with compatible learning styles.

What I do is ask for the topic in advance and then prepare several progressively harder problems on that topic. The first one will be broken down into very small, explicit steps to walk the student through one approach to solving this problem. Usually, that approach will make some assumptions about the problem, and later problems in the set will violate those assumptions. If he gets stuck, I'll ask a few leading questions to try to get him to realize what he's assuming. The hope is that after a few of these, he'll have not only a few templates for solving problems, but also a good understanding of why each part of these templates is necessary and valid, and what alternatives there are that he might substitute to get him to the next step anyway.

For example, in an early mechanics problem where I'm trying to teach the idea of drawing free-body diagrams and summing up all the forces, maybe I'll start by asking for the position over time of an object in free-fall in a vacuum in a constant gravitational field. And more than that, I'll explicitly ask for the (trivial) free-body diagram, a choice of coordinate systems, the summation of forces, the F=ma bit, and then the integrations.

But the key is not to stop there, because then he can just blindly memorize an algorithm without understanding it. The key is to force him to understand why each step is necessary and/or valid. Maybe the next problem will introduce an initial velocity, so that he can't whip through the integrations quite so mindlessly. Then I'll add a ramp, to force him to think about his coordinate system. And so on. If you're a physics major, I'm sure you can be much more creative than I was.

Of course, if he just doesn't know Newton's Laws, you have to do a bit of lecture. But in my experience students don't usually have trouble understanding the principles in isolation. They have trouble putting them together. So I think the reason this method works well is that it saves me the trouble of trying to convey to him my understanding of the problem. I'm just trying to set him a task that requires minimal increments in understanding, in the hopes that he'll be able to take each step himself.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:29 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I should mention that I charged quite a bit of money when I was doing this, because of the extensive prep needed. I don't know if you would be comfortable asking that much of a friend. But then again, maybe as a physics major you'll have an easier time thinking of variations on a standard kinematics exercise.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:30 PM on February 3, 2013

I've found that the best teachers frequently know multiple ways to explain something, so if a student doesn't understand it one way, they can try a few other ways and hopefully something will click. Also, check out ScienceNetLinks - they have resources for science teachers.
posted by kat518 at 7:54 PM on February 3, 2013

I've done a lot of college-level math and statistics tutoring. The advice upthread is good. I would also spend some time explicitly looking at different ways of thinking about a problem. So with math, while I most often think of things algebraically, if I was preparing to tutor someone I'd spend some time figuring out how to explain it as a geometry concept. The other thing I do, is when a student is working through a problem, I have them tell me the next step, and then ask them why they're doing, regardless if it's right or wrong. This gives me an opening to correct misconceptions they might have, even if they're doing the steps right.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 8:45 PM on February 3, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for the feedback, everyone. In particular, the repeated advice about making the student explain the steps they take and why they are taking them for each problem is really useful.

d.z. wang, I also really like your idea of designing or finding problems that challenge the assumptions that are made in easier problems. That rings true to my experience in learning topics, but I wouldn't have specifically thought of that as a tutoring technique.

I will probably spend a lot of extra time at first in preparing for my tutoring sessions just because I'm new at this, but i hopefully can settle on a good balance of how much to charge and how much prep time I put into the sessions.
posted by cognitio at 10:08 PM on February 3, 2013

1. Never take the pencil from the student. If you do, you've just robbe them of the opportunity to cOmplete the problem.

2. "Do you understand? Do you get it?" are not ways of of checking if someone understands the problem/theory. Ask specific questions that don't have yes/no responses
posted by raccoon409 at 12:26 AM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

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