Maximizing the Impact of Tutoring

Imagine working with a physical trainer at the gym every Wednesday, and not doing any exercise between one Wednesday and the next. Would you expect to maximize your health and fitness this way?

Imagine going to a therapist every Friday, and not doing any introspection or personal growth work in between sessions, and then showing up in your therapist’s office the following Friday. Would you expect to make huge strides in your psychological and emotional well-being?

Of course not! And yet, so many parents hire a tutor to work with their child for a single session each week and assume that those 60 minutes are going to transform their child’s education! If this is you, or if you currently or might one day hire a tutor, then you really need to read this!

Over the last two decades I’ve tutored a wide variety of students, from young children to adults, and one constant has stood out:

Maximizing the impact of tutoring requires time and effort beyond the number of minutes of the actual sessions.

Let’s consider ‘Patrick’ (not his real name, of course!), a fifth grader who came to me for ongoing math support. I worked with Patrick for an hour a week for the second half of a school year. Patrick had some gaps in his understanding, and while he was decent at critical thinking and problem solving, he struggled with some basic calculations. He had a tendency to rush through things and resisted writing out the steps of his work. During our time together he made a reasonable amount of progress, and his parents were pleased, but I knew that he could have grown in more dramatic ways. The biggest thing holding him back? The fact that he wouldn’t work on anything I arranged or provided for him in the days between our sessions. Whether the blame for this belongs to Patrick, his parents, or both, might be open for discussion, but what is abundantly clear is that he could have soared had he put in the time between sessions to practice what I had put together for him. As it was, everyone was pleased, but I know what could have been.

Now let’s consider ‘Janelle,’ a middle school student whose parents hired me to help her prepare for a high school admissions test four months down the road. Janelle didn’t seem particularly excited by the idea of getting additional support, but she was a real trooper and a hard worker, and even though we met only once a week for an hour at a time, we maximized the impact of the tutoring.

Early on, I had put together a targeted list of skills and concepts that Janelle needed to learn or understand more thoroughly (which I had done with Patrick as well). During our sessions together we made our way through the list, checking off items as she mastered them. We were able to do this very efficiently because Janelle put in time between our weekly sessions. Originally, as I was writing this, I was going to write that Janelle put in ‘additional’ time, but it’s not additional. It really has to be seen as integral to the process. Janelle understood this; Patrick didn’t.

What, exactly, did Janelle do between sessions? A combination of online tutorial videos and practice pages that I arranged for her, as well as printed pages that I created for her, all matched specifically to what she needed to learn or better understand. This took time on my part to organize (not additional time, mind you), but I see it as necessary, and that’s the key idea that I hope you come away with: If you have, or you will have, a tutor for your child, remember that in order to maximize the impact of the limited number of minutes they have together, your child should be doing well-designed practice and reinforcement work between sessions, and if your tutor isn’t providing this, you should either ask for it or find another tutor.