Learning is important. Figuring out how to learn is important too.
May 30, 2020 10:44 AM   Subscribe

When tutoring someone you don't want to spoonfeed. Striking the right balance can be hard though. What are some techniques you use to support independent inquiry in students while still allowing them to feel supported?

I was working with a student on their project and I think I got a good balance of explaining and asking them questions and providing my own thoughts. But I'm not sure. I want to keep doing it but I don't want them or anyone else to miss the vital part of the learning process that is finding your own answers. I'm an engineer by trade and I think in the sciences and engineering we turn away lots of engineers that a few more kind words and a little help with the process could keep(Not that I'm not dealing with my own issues with the profession).
posted by Rubbstone to Education (11 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
It appears that a similar view on the challenge of finding a balance exists in legal (Garrett, The Socratic Method, U Chicago Law School, 1998) and medical (BMJ, 1999 Mar 6; 318(7184): 657–661) training. You may want to explore the work of Stephen Brookfield, including because e.g. his work is described as reflecting a "commitment to empowering the learner both inside and outside the formal classroom, offering a trove of exercises, stories, and practical teaching tips."
posted by katra at 11:10 AM on May 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

There is a bit of an issue here because experiential learning, which is sometimes likened to project-based learning is more about capacity building rather than a list of things to learn (like facts about the US Constitution). Conceptual learning or situated cognition is also similar to what you're alluding to, implicit learning within an authentic setting, etc.

But with tutoring, the student (or often the parent) is looking for explicit instruction with specific learning goals (do homework, get a certain grade). You may find some help on framing the tutoring from the start. As you likely do, this starts with asking them to describe their goals and what they need to do. Active reflection throughout (not just at the end) can be a bridge from standard tutoring to a system where the student is more driven. You could also add some executive functioning to your tutor time, but again- a lot of what is wanted is explicit instruction and homework or study help.
posted by maya at 11:12 AM on May 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: For me the issue with the socratic method is that it is at its best with highly engaged and prepared students. It doesn't work as well with less prepared almost disengaged students in my mind. You end up asking so many questions the student feels like they will never know anything unlike those of us who have completed the learning process and understand removing our assumptions is the start of figuring things out. I'll see if I can finagle my way to getting some of Dr.Brookfield's stuff.
posted by Rubbstone at 12:19 PM on May 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

^ maya that. In my limited experience tutoring was a case of impedance mismatch between the student and their regular teacher. You're a different teacher with a lower impedance mismatch where the student can understand you and your thinking and thought process and how you managed to do the thing they are having problems with. The goal is to one-on-one teach them some things but especially how to understand their actual teacher and educational material. You teach them how to minimize the loss of context/information from impedance mismatch the same way you did and leave the rest of their thinking to them. Outside of the facts learning things... Your job is to be able to do whatever without preconceived final product to minimize you-to-them loss due to impedance mismatch and use that connection to show them how to handle the thing their having problems with.

You're not their mentor or life coach. You're just explaining things in a way that they understand and how to interpret what their actual teachers are telling them every day.
posted by zengargoyle at 12:42 PM on May 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

Usually you try to get your student to do something creative with the subject you are teaching. For example first you give your student word problems for math questions and then ask them to come up with a word problem of their own.

You can also ask them to come up with different ways of solving equations. You teach them one standard way but you also ask them to demonstrate different methods of solving the problem or different ways of asking the same question. You don't criticize their solutions as they will presumably be worse than the standard method. You want them to prove to themself that the method you are teaching is the best one, or find a better one.

For some subjects you can ask them how they have used the skills they are gaining outside of the classroom. It's pretty simple to ask a ten year old if they can think of any ways that they use multiplication, or if that stumps them ways that other people use multiplication. But if all the work you do with the student is academic butt-in-a-seat problem solving it is difficult to get them to practice their concepts once they stand up from the chair, so you need to figure out where they can use it themself for their own pleasure. Making them count buttons is just a chore and I have never met a kid who will do it voluntarily. You need to get them apply the skill in their own pursuits and do it in a way that makes them not end up hating that pursuit. You might get your ten-year-old to figure out how many times they need to harvest to get enough seed to replant if they play that kind of video game and if that amuses them. It matters a lot how resistant they are to learning.

A lot of students get stuck at the trial and error stage of information gathering. They would rather just harvest and replant and then report it took six harvests to get there than to sit down and figure out how many field tiles must be harvested to get enough seeds. It's only when they get fed up with that process and want to know if it is worth it to start planting that they will find the math valuable. "Six harvests? That's gonna take me two whole days!" Early on kids are much more about process - they like planting and replanting virtual tomatoes - and less about rewards and looking for ways to make getting those rewards easier, and you don't want to get them too focused on the rewards over the process as that will rob them of a lot of happiness.

For creativity and playfulness it often helps to get them working at a level they have already mastered. So if you are teaching multiplication your student may be ready for games involving subtraction because it won't stress them enough that it doesn't feel like a game.

And of course if you are teaching much more complex subjects, such as inorganic chemistry for a student whose goal is to get into a good grad school, real world applications and gamifying the subject is hard. Doing science projects where the student chooses their own project and figures out how to conduct it and produces a result will give the student the opportunity to do the kind of creativity and flexible thinking they need - but most students will get pointed at a book to choose from 100 prize winning science fair experiments and end up merely following all the steps.

What you need to encourage is failure. A student who conducts a dumb experiment and does it wrong and concludes that they didn't get any usable result has just learned more than the one who did #23 in the book of 100 prize winning science fair experiments, but the one who perfectly reproduces the experiment gets the high mark and the one who tried to come up with an original experiment and concludes "I didn't learn anything about the way beads fall because my chute was too wide," gets flunked.

Essentially getting them interested in private projects and play is what they need to do, and that becomes a matter of motivation. You're way ahead if your students begin by saying they like your subject. If they don't then you have to start by tinkering with the stuff you are teaching until it becomes something they like. You can teach mathematics without teaching numbers. Bigger/smaller and heavier/lighter or longer/shorter are quite sufficient to teach any number of operations and concepts. (Hmm... It would be a lot of fun to try to figure out how far I could go without using numerals.) If you want your student to own their subject and play with it and smile when they get to work at it you sometimes have to make some major adjustments to the curriculum, and that is almost certainly not something they are paying you for. It's the exact opposite of teaching the test.

When I started formal learning any textbook beyond grade three or so was a dense wall of text. And since then the text part has gotten smaller and smaller while they try to find ways to make it less impenetrable. For example my French text started introducing pictures of famous French people like Voltaire and Napoleon. That works great for people who are interested in people and remember names, the same way self help books become full of anecdotal stories about patients with their names changed. Most people find it way easier to relate to the material when it's about people. But if your student isn't one of those people, introducing Voltaire and Napoleon is time taken away from the conjugation and memorization and actually means that five years later all they will remember from French class is a drawing of a guy with long curls and not je suis, tu es, il est. Any kind of enrichment to engage a student has to fit with the way their brain works and the kinds of things that interest them to be effective rather than counter productive.

Giving them a chance to use their work is always the best way to do it. Again, with French you want them to write and speak really bad French and not correct them so that they gain skill at fluency and can easily remember the few words they do know because they have used them not just in the classroom. Otherwise as soon as they encounter a word they don't know and need, or if they can't remember if they should say de or à, they freeze up and can't access any words at all.

For your chemistry student wasting time on exercises like going around the room laughing pointing at objects and debating if they are made of organic materials or inorganic is the kind of exercise that will bring them out of rote memory and into analysis. Then you introduce them to answering questions that have no wrong answer, to debating about something like is the computer mouse on the table made out of organic or inorganic materials. When your student is debating if there could be or are any organic components inside the computer mouse they are analyzing and consolidating their information. Your job in this is to keep asking them questions like a little kid who wants to know why. What about the little flat feet? Are they organic? How do you know? Could they be made out of something else? Is there anything organic they could be made out of?

On another level you could ask them to create their own imaginary periodic table for a different universe with completely different science and physics and ask them to justify why and how. The real world elements have different numbers of available electrons so if they can create a variation on that with a similar pattern you know they've got it, the same way that inventing imaginary languages is a absolutely super way to learn grammar.

But if you've got a student who is not creative and is deadly serious you'll have them writhing and miserable if you try to shoehorn them into a creative analysis the same way that teaching French history to make French language learning will backfire on some students.

I'd begin by asking your student questions. Which part of this instruction is the most interesting. Which part is the most challenging? Why? And then make damn sure you don't argue or lecture with them that if they only did something different it would be easy. You want them analyzing this stuff. You want them to have insights like, "The patterns in chemistry are really cool, but the calculations are hard for me to concentrate on and I make mistakes because I get distracted." Then you can find a way to let them play with and observe the patterns, and simplify the mathematical work so they can spot where and when they get distracted and make mistakes.
posted by Jane the Brown at 1:05 PM on May 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Rubbstone, with that clarification, another theorist who may also be able to offer some guidance is Lev Vygotsky (Neff, n.d.), with the technique of 'scaffolding' (Sarikas, Jan. 4, 2020), and the related concept of the 'zone of proximal development' (Science Direct). This journal article looks like it may offer a nice overview: Vygotsky, Tutoring and Learning, David Wood and Heather Wood, Oxford Review of Education, Vol. 22, No. 1, Vygotsky and Education (Mar., 1996), pp. 5-16, and may be accessible through a university's subscription.
posted by katra at 1:22 PM on May 30, 2020 [4 favorites]

Absolutely seconding katra’s comment about scaffolding. Without a doubt this is one of the concepts I learned in teacher training that has helped in every single course I’ve taught, regardless of subject or level of instruction—learners from the elementary to post secondary level need scaffolding.

It’s important at higher education levels but for some reason is often seen to be mainly important for children. Don’t be put off by that—it’s vital when teaching learners of any age. Your instincts that post-sec engineering programs don’t support potentially capable learners are spot on. Thank you for caring about your learners!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:17 PM on May 30, 2020 [3 favorites]

I should say: “engineering programs typically don’t support potentially capable learners very well.” Of course some will be better than others.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:25 PM on May 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: And now that I am reviewing textbooks from my M.Ed program, because this really is a great question, I also want to suggest Rosemary Closson, e.g. "Scaffolding also includes establishing an environment in which learners are emotionally safe. Such an environment includes speaking a common language, being inclusive, and being aware of socio-cultural differences in the room (Closson, 2013)."
posted by katra at 2:32 PM on May 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

Some will never become "highly engaged and prepared students." I used to try and explain to my students that it's ultimately easier to get to a point where things make sense even if it takes a bit longer to get there than memorizing a bunch of techniques but practically no one believed me. They never had the experience of intuitively understanding why a technique worked and thus didn't understand that such was possible. It's something I had trouble learning about other people. I couldn't accept that many students didn't believe engagement with the material was something that existed. I had trouble learning that few want to do more than get through a course with as little engagement as possible because I took it as a rejection of who I was. In the end, I had to accept that most students wanted tricks rather than insight.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:04 AM on May 31, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm an out of work engineer and I happened upon a student that wants to be an engineer but maybe lacks some foundation on reddit. That wants to learn but finds it interesting. Happy to do the work themselves but maybe doesn't separate out the terms well. I want to see more diversity in engineering and I see this a lot with engineers from diverse origins where the foundation may not be perfect. The cracks in the foundation affect engagement which affects the ability to gain insight. A little support, a little consideration, some answers, some technical digressions and we can get the ball rolling but I want to be more effective. So katra your answers will be read and put to good use.
posted by Rubbstone at 9:13 PM on May 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

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