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August 29, 2019

The Benefits of Active Tutoring

I always stuggled trying to learn math and science. It wasn’t natural for me. Many other students and families feel this same way. These families are frustrated because they know their student is bright and smart. She is just having a hard time learning math. I believe this is more about the way that math and science are currently being taught in schools than it is about the learner. Math is being taught as a lecture. Teachers have a strict agenda of what they want to teach. They give their lecture, pass out a worksheet, and then expect the students to learn the ideas. This is outdated and simply doesn’t work.

This style of teaching also doesn’t stand up to the new research which is being published on math and science education. The research today shows that students learn math and science when they hear themselves verbalize their own mathematical and scientific thinking. This is a huge finding. Up until now, teachers have been relying mainly on lecture-based teaching. They lecture during class, maybe assign some worksheets to keep the students busy, and they send them home with work to complete.

I grew up taking math courses centered around lecture. They were all about one person presenting the ideas. The problem with lecture-based mathematics and STEM courses is that students often think they understand what is going on, but they might be missing a few small distinctions in how to complete the problem or activity. These small misunderstandings compound on each other until eventually, the student is so far behind that they need massive assistance in order to catch up. However, if students were allowed the opportunity to simply discuss the concepts every day, then they would learn them much quicker and sooner. But these courses take a lot of time to plan and a great deal of skill to teach (or rather to facilitate).

I struggled in mathematics all my life. I was blessed in college to have a professor who not only knew mathematics but also had a Ph.D. in mathematics education. She studied how to teach math. She taught the entire course in small groups. We sat at a small table of 3-4 people and we discussed the ideas *before* she taught us what the core concepts were. We were able to figure things how in our small group! It was difficult. It was challenging to learn this way because we weren’t simply spoon-fed the answer. We had to find it ourselves. We had to discover it. I took algebra I/II, and algebra III/IV this way. I also took pre-calculus and even two discovery-based calc I and II courses.

In my calculus classes, we spent weeks at our table discussing the concept of “rate-of-change.” We looked at graphs and got a good feel for what rate of change was. We learned that when you look at a graph, you can determine at what rate it is changing at any certain moment. Imagine zooming in on one small square on a graph. How fast is the line changing in that moment? That is what a derivative is. And we learned that before we had ever heard the work “derivative.” By the time she wrote the equation for a derivative on the board, we had already learned what it was. It was as if we built the meaning with our own hands. We felt as if we owned that word.

Most people walk away from calculus course not learning anything. I’ve asked many people what they learned. Try it. People say it was useless and that they didn’t learn anything. And that is a total shame! Because the concepts of calculus are so incredible. These concepts are fundamental to our lives. I think about rate of change all the time. You can apply it to the stock market, to human psychology, to climate change. What I find really fascinating, is that you can even apply rate of change concepts to your own learning. Think about it: every course moves at a certain rate. And each chapter moves at a different rate. Each chapter, therefore, has a different rate that it changes at. You have to also be able to think about your own rate of learning in each moment. How fast are you improving? Is your rate of change fast enough to learn all the material? If you aren’t learning at a fast enough rate, then you simply won’t do well in the course.

Why is active learning so powerful?

Active learning is inherently engaging. It gets students involved in the process of their own education. They cease to be passive observers of knowledge and become engrossed in their own learning. This is empowering. It teaches them that they have control over what and how they learn. And discussion is fun. Students enjoy engaging with others. It creates a sense of community.

Importantly, active learning has been shown to do two main things: 1) it increases students’ academic achievement and 2) it improves students attitude towards math and science. It does all of this while also reducing misunderstandings about science and improving their understanding of big ideas and concepts.

It works so well because it shifts learning from a one-size-fits-all approach to one that is inherently personalized and tailored to each student.

At Tutor Portland, we use an active approach to tutoring. Instead of simply giving answers or showing students how to solve problems, we ask them questions. We engage our students in critical thinking and in-depth discussions about concepts and topics. We ask questions and try to get students to connect the ideas they are currently learning to ones they learned last term or last chapter.

This is often the first time they have *ever* thought critically about the ideas they are learning in school. It’s a dramatic difference once students become engaged with the material. It changes from something abstract to something up-close and personal.

We follow a few “active tutoring” rules very closely:

  • The tutor is simply a guide, a facilitator — the tutor is not a teacher.
  • We give students time to think.
  • We create a comfortable and relaxed learning environment.
  • We ask open-ended questions.
  • Curiosity is a quality which we embody, and which we attempt to bring forth within our students.
  • Teach ethical behavior and thinking.
  • Focus the session on the student. Not on the tutor or the parent or anyone else.

These are guidelines which help us create a positive tutoring environment.