Why Tutoring Makes Things Worse (By an Ex-Tutor)

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Tutoring is probably not what you think it is. This is a secret of tutoring that most tutors do not even know, and those that do certainly do not want you to. This article is for any individual who is currently receiving tutoring or considering it in the future.
Why Tutoring Makes Things Worse

Tutoring is probably not what you think it is.

This is a secret of tutoring that most tutors do not even know, and those that do certainly do not want you to. This article is for any individual who is currently receiving tutoring or considering it in the future.

A bit about me

In 2011, I entered medical school and started tutoring. I had taught before and I enjoyed the process. I found it a fulfilling way to help students and make some money.

In 2015, I created JTTmed.com, a tutoring social enterprise focused on getting students into medical school in an equitable and accessible way.

How to enter medical school - seminar from 2020
Medical seminar I gave to 150 prospective medical students in 2020.

Over these years, I have worked with thousands of students and families from an incredibly diverse range of backgrounds. I’ve worked with the top achievers in the country through to students who struggle to pass. I’ve seen students in elation from success, and more often I’ve seen students struggling to keep it together under the pressure, stress and unforgiving competition of pre-med.

I’ve immersed myself in the educational and tutoring space and would like to share some important realisations.

Tutoring has only one exclusive benefit

By exclusive benefit, I mean a benefit that is difficult to come across somewhere else. And this benefit is that it can increase the students short-term result.

When we break down what tutoring is, it is effectively paying someone to teach the student information that they theoretically should have been able to learn by themselves. For whatever reason, the student struggled with the material and needed external help.

A good tutor can break down this material and give it to the student more manageably. They can help to increase the student’s confidence and enjoyment with the subject. Stress and anxiety about tests and exams can be alleviated and overall, the student is more likely to improve their immediate test or exam grades.

Source: Sharon Ishiki Hendriksen, Lifen Yang, Barbara Love & Mary C. Hall (2005) Assessing Academic Support: The Effects of Tutoring on Student Learning Outcomes, Journal of College Reading and Learning, 35:2, 56-65, DOI: 10.1080/10790195.2005.10850173

Of course, an improvement in grades is not guaranteed.

I think any reasonable person can appreciate that tutoring is not the magic solution, but rather one contributor towards a student’s immediate success. The actual result the student receives is dependent on many other factors, but studies do find that student achievement increases with tutoring.

You may notice that I use the words ‘short-term’ and ‘immediate’ quite often. This is a critical point.

Tutoring “fades out”

While tutoring is beneficial for the student’s short-term, how important is this short-term success, and does it translate to long-term success?

Tutoring does very little to increase the student’s long-term success and outcomes. Research would suggest that students who receive tutoring to achieve well in the short term are often less successful in the medium to long term.

For younger students, this phenomenon is often called the fade-out effect.

Students who get a head start or upper hand during the early stages of learning do not retain this advantage long-term. In some cases, they do even worse than their peers.

💡 We don’t know exactly why this is, however one of the prevailing theories is that this ease of learning prevents the student from developing their ability to think through the material and cope with difficulty.

Learning is confusion. Navigating this confusion is a fundamental skill that any successful student must develop. However, if the tutor removes all of this difficulty, this skill has no training ground through which to be developed.

The fade-out effect is not limited to early education either. Research in higher education has shown almost identical results. Students who find it easy in the beginning due to a teacher or tutor making it more comfortable for them struggle to succeed when the material inevitably becomes more advanced.

Does tutoring help? The relationship of skills and knowledge with tutoring.
The relationship of skills and knowledge with tutoring.

I have seen this countless times every year through my own practice.

Students who excel in high school and receive top grades with the help of tutoring often struggle noticeably more than their previously less excellent peers. It’s noticeable and the impact can be significantly negative. So noticeable and negative that is a requirement for any students that I privately coach to quit all tutoring at the secondary school level.

Tutoring might be worth it…

But this doesn’t mean that tutoring is all bad.

As I mentioned, it does have the advantage of improving immediate short-term results. And sometimes achieving this short-term goal is worth a marginal sacrifice in the medium term.

For example, in the highly competitive premedical year, it’s necessary to receive an A+. Students who receive an A instead of an A+ may not be accepted into medical school, however, they would probably be able to manage their medical school workload without too much difficulty.

In this case, tutoring will allow them to increase their chances of receiving an A+ and entering into medical school, while the small sacrifice of not developing their study skills to the greatest extent is unlikely to be a major limitation moving forward.

However, if this student was on track to receive an A- or B+ and relied on tutoring to attain their A+, they would most likely struggle in medical school due to their underdeveloped study skills. For this student, their best option may be to defer their medical school entry until their skills are sufficiently developed.

Secondary School is Different

This type of high importance on short-term grades is not the case during secondary school.

A student who receives tutoring during secondary school is actively forgoing the development of their study skills and self-management, the most important aspect of their secondary school academic “career”.

Grades at this level are much less important than the student’s abilities. Even in a student’s most important final year of secondary school, their grades are generally only transferable for university entrance. On the other hand, the skills developed from high school become the foundation for their University academic success.

Furthermore, students who struggle to attain the necessary grades for university entrance will almost universally have a deeper problem with their study or self-management skills.

Tutoring fails to address the root causes of bad grades.
Tutoring fails to address the root causes of bad grades.

This is why I see so many “top” achievers graduate from high school and struggle immensely in University STEM or medical degrees.

By giving the man a fish, you have not only not taught him how to fish for himself, but removed the need for him to learn and created an unsustainable dependence on you.

Therefore, after years of working with students, I perceive the situation like this.

A student who needs help in high school should not receive tutoring. They should look to increase their studying efficiency and self-management skills. If a student needs tutoring during secondary school, they need the correct skills even more. In this situation, opting for tutoring instead of prioritising on the skills actively prevents the skills from developing.

It would be like improving your financial situation by getting a bigger loan, instead of developing your ability to manage finances. It may help you pay off your credit card, but it doesn’t help you buy a house when it matters the most.

The other benefits of tutoring

What about the increased confidence and enjoyment of the subject?

Excellent point. Except these are not exclusive to tutoring.

Students will have increased confidence and enjoyment and a subject when their capability to navigate the confusion increases. Tutoring solves this through “philosophical suicide”.

Albert Camus
Source: Wikipedia

This is a term described by a famous philosopher known as Albert Camus. He stated that if there is a problem bothering you that you cannot fix, many people will escape this through philosophical suicide. They close their eyes and block their ears so the problem is no longer visible to them.

Learning is confusion. Confusion is learning.

When your brain wants to figure something out, you perceive that process as confusion. Tutoring fixes this not by teaching your brain how to figure it out, but by telling your brain to sit this one out while they solve it for you.

Would you help your child deal with adversity by hiring someone to remove all adversity from their life? If you would, tutoring is for you!

The better alternative to tutoring

The much more effective alternative is to teach the student to navigate the confusion and create productive thought patterns.

One of the most common pieces of feedback I received from students that I privately coached to study more efficiently is that they enjoy the process of studying and learning much more than they used to.

Let’s not forget that when a student increases their study efficiency, it empowers them with independence. It doesn’t mean they improve their skills while sacrificing their results. It means they improve their skills while their grades naturally improve as well (often more than tutoring would)!

Warning: many tutors claim to help develop their student’s studying ability. I have seen this claim rampantly and without validation; on deeper investigation, I’ve found that it is almost always just tutoring with a sprinkle of study tips. Challenge these tutors. Ask them what training they have received on enhancing student abilities and how they prevent tutor dependency.

Giving a student “tips” is not enough. Successfully guiding students to study more efficiently is something I have dedicated my practice to for years.

Ask yourself

If you are considering tutoring for yourself or your child, take a moment to consider what is the most important thing to achieve.

Why do you want to get tutoring? Is the problem a lack of tutoring, or a lack of good grades?

What is the cause of inadequate grades? And would you rather treat the symptom or the cause?

If they need tutoring to succeed right now, how do you envision that they will succeed in the future when the material is much more difficult?

Would you rather pay someone to spoon-feed your child, or invest the same time, effort and/or money in teaching them to feed themselves?

Those may seem like obvious questions, but they are the same questions I ask parents who call me looking for tutoring. Questions that 9 out of 10 parents struggle to answer, and if the answers seem obvious, it’s because they are.

If you’d like advice on optimising a student’s chances of academic success, feel free to contact me.

Disclaimer

This opinion an article does not include instances whether delivery of quality education is significantly impeded due to societal or systemic problems. In remote or rural areas where access to high-quality education is scarce, tutoring and additional resources can form the very backbone of a student’s academic life. This article is aimed at students and parents of students residing in major cities and towns.

References

Abenavoli, R. M. (2019). The Mechanisms and Moderators of “Fade-Out”: Towards Understanding Why the Skills of Early Childhood Program Participants Converge Over Time With the Skills of Other Children. Psychological Bulletin, 145(12), 1103–1127. doi: 10.1037/bul0000212

Bai, Y., Ladd, H. F., Muschkin, C. G., & Dodge, K. A. (2020). Long-term effects of early childhood programs through eighth grade: Do the effects fade out or grow? Children & Youth Services Review, 112, N.PAG. doi: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2020.104890

Cooper, E. (2010). Tutoring Center Effectiveness: The Effect of Drop-In Tutoring. Journal of College Reading & Learning, 40(2), 21–34. doi: 10.1080/10790195.2010.10850328

Scott E. Carrell and James E. West, “Does Professor Quality Matter? Evidence from Random Assignment of Students to Professors,” Journal of Political Economy 118, no. 3 (June 2010): 409-432. doi: 10.1086/653808

Sharon Ishiki Hendriksen, Lifen Yang, Barbara Love & Mary C. Hall (2005) Assessing Academic Support: The Effects of Tutoring on Student Learning Outcomes, Journal of College Reading and Learning, 35:2, 56-65, DOI: 10.1080/10790195.2005.10850173

Justin Sung

Justin Sung

Dr Justin Sung is a former medical doctor who now works in education and social enterprise. He has guided thousands of individuals towards living and learning more efficiently for nearly 10 years and is the founder of Foster Our Future, JTT and Finding Gravity.

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