kitchen table math, the sequel: chemprof on what tutoring can achieve

Saturday, June 20, 2009

chemprof on what tutoring can achieve

I'll semi-agree with Kate. A few years ago, we implemented tutoring by the course TAs for students who were really struggling, usually because of inadequate preparation or miserable math skills. We found we had to put in a "miss two sessions and you lose your slot" policy, as struggling students also often blew off the tutoring session, partly I suspect because it was free.

Tutoring can work really well for a student who needs to see the material again, and who comes to the session having looked over her notes and with questions. There, I've seen 30-60 minutes with the tutor each week changing a low C into a mid-range B (or even in one extreme case, a student who had failed twice ending up with an A!) It can be nearly useless for a student who comes with nothing, hasn't looked at anything, and isn't even sure where to start. Of course, I'm also talking about college students, where "taking responsibility for your own learning" is actually appropriate!

I'm very interested in this question - thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

Based entirely in personal experience, I've come to the conclusion that tutoring is 'bad' -- i.e. it's a bad model for learning (& teaching). It's like buying a lemon and then taking it to the shop a whole lot.

However, the question still remains: if you've got a 'lemon,' in the form of an ineffective school or curriculum, then what?

How well can tutoring work when there's no other option?


Anne Dwyer said...

Ok, here's what I see from the trenches.

First, I think I see the big picture because I:
have a special ed student in pre algebra
have a daughter in regular 6th grade math
teach remedial math in college
tutor bright but struggling high school boys in math
have just finished 8 credits of graduate mathematics

I could write a whole long post, but I'd get bored in the middle and delete it. So here goes with the conclusion:
1. Certain school districts (mine) believe in good curricula and qualified teachers. (see the exception below) This combination makes all the difference in the world. The highly qualified teachers know what the students need to learn in math, and will find a way to do the direct instruction. (The exception in my district is, of course, elementary school.)
2. I have tutoring students in other districts who use good curricula but have poorly qualified teachers and students in districts with highly qualified teachers and poor curricula. The boys I am tutoring had a very solid foundation in basic math and are still struggling. The good news is a good tutor can fill in the holes quite easily.
very small.
3. All of my professors at the university that I attend use the direct instruction method. They go over every proof in the book in detail (even though the proof is in the book) and they give solutions to every problem they assign.

Anne Dwyer

ChemProf said...

"How well can tutoring work when there's no other option?"

Well, maybe it would be useful to talk about that extreme case -- the student who wound up with an A after failing twice. In her case, her tutor was a math major and most of what he worked on with her was actually how to solve word problems. It turned out that most of her difficulty had been getting the information out of a problem and figuring out what to do with it. Every conversation about her math skills had gone nowhere because once the problem was set up she could solve it. So, tutoring was effective, but only once the student and the tutor had pinpointed where the hole in the process was. She had been in tutoring the second time she took the class, and it hadn't helped because they hadn't identified the problem.

I'll also say sometimes in college classes, tutoring can be a necessary evil. In lecture, I present a concept, work an example, then have the class work an example (usually backwards, so they can't just copy the prior solution). The homework will then have another example. For some students, however, that isn't enough repetition, and they can't extrapolate from the two examples in class to the homework. There, tutoring can help by giving an extra example or breaking down the homework problem into smaller steps. Of course, if I could track more finely, then in one class I'd give the two examples and in another section, I'd make it four! So tutoring can be a way to mediate a heterogeneous class, but it shouldn't be the first line of defense (and we only use tutoring with students who are already attending class and weekly TA workshops).

Barry Garelick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Barry Garelick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Barry Garelick said...

Sorry, I'm not going on a rant and then censoring myself. I just keep on making mistakes, and I spot them after I send it.

However, the question still remains: if you've got a 'lemon,' in the form of an ineffective school or curriculum, then what?

Well, what did you do? You taught your son at home. That's reteaching but can also be called tutoring. I did the same with my daughter. Was it effective? I think so, but I resented having to do it. I got spoiled when my daughter had good teachers in 7th and 8th grades in math. I felt guilty not going through the work with her until I realized that "normal" mean the child understands it by going to school and learning it.

When things are abnormal, after a while it gets to be too much. If there's a good private school around and the parents can afford it, that's the option some seek (as you did).

In terms of other students I tutor, as Anne Dwyer said, if you can identify weak areas that are holding up learning, yes it's effective. In terms of retrofitting a bad curriculum, it's just about impossible as an independent tutor. The parents would have to be willing to have their child take an alternative course. In essence, that's what parents are doing when they send their children to Kumon or Sylvan, etc. Those are schools. So the child is put in the position of going to school twice, and the parents penalized by having their taxes go to waste, and having to shell out more money for the learning centers.

Catherine Johnson said...

You taught your son at home. That's reteaching but can also be called tutoring.


boy....I went to the demonstration "Singapore Math" lesson today. Turns out the 3 women who run Westchester Math Lab are Russian....

Remember Carolyn's line?

"Russian mathematicians have chops?"

I told them that, and they didn't know what chops meant. But they've got chops.

I'm going to do a video interview with them & see if I can get local news coverage.

Anyway, the reason I bring it up is that they were completely opposed to the category we call "gifted."

One said her son, now in 5th grade, is being taught by a Fordham University professor (also from Russia, I believe) - and the Fordham professor is teaching 5th graders the same concepts he's teaching at Fordham.

She said her son isn't gifted.

What is different about him is that they've been teaching him Singapore Math at home since 2nd grade.

SO...that's probably what I'm thinking about.

Where would C. be today if he'd had a good curriculum & good teaching?

Not where he is now, that's for sure.

(And, ironically, thanks to my efforts, today he's in the most advanced math class at his school, earning grades of B+ & B.)

That reminds me: gotta get my ALEKS post up.

Anonymous said...

"Russian mathematicians have chops".. I have no clue (just like those women, Catherine).

Speaking of ideas of giftedness.. It may be cultural. And, perhaps, of a certain generation. Mine, my parents', my grandparents'. In school, any teacher could tell you (if you were trying to show that you are too smart, "God knows this subject on "excellent mark", I know it on "good", the smartest of students cannot know it on more than "satisfactory".
There is no giftedness in learning more (or faster) than your peers in school. Giftedness - is when you want can learn way above the school program, and you do it on your own (without any tutors) just because you want it.


Catherine Johnson said...

Exo - I've been thinking about you for two days!

Do you want to meet these women? (I kinda think you should.)

They're trying to change the world.

Here's the web site: Westchester Math Lab

Naturally, I'm full of schemes. I'm going to ask the mom who writes Irvington Parents Unite to do a video interview & post it on her site & on YouTube (she does interviews of her authors - impromptu, no 'production values,' done with a Flip camera). I'm also going to see if I can get a reporter around here to do a story.


VERY interesting: what you've said about 'gifted.' That explains a lot. They had ZERO interest in 'giftedness' - it just wasn't a concept to them particularly.

I want them on video talking about it so American parents can hear it.

I went with the former NYC teacher, the gal who taught in NYC in the 1950s & 1960s. She was AMAZING.

She thought the kids in the class were extremely high IQ, probably 140 or 150 (they did IQ testing in the schools in her day).

I don't know about those kids' IQs & of course I didn't ask, but the 3 women who started the program were adamant that it wasn't for gifted kids per se.

It is a superb math program for kids.


Catherine Johnson said...

Just looked up 'chops' at

technical skill, esp. of a jazz or rock musician

I wonder if that's what Carolyn meant by 'chops'?

that's not what I mean.

Catherine Johnson said...


Apparently I didn't know what 'chops' meant:

expertise in a particular field or activity (acting chops)

That's at Merriam Webster

Catherine Johnson said...

I thought it meant chutzpah

Anonymous said...

Catherine, thanks for the link.

They use the exact curriculum as Russian schools use - I have bought Russian textbooks (approved by Russian Federal Dep of Ed) for my son, and I use them. Comparing to what math lessons consist of for Russian second graders and what my son is doing in school - american school feels like a chewing gum that has been chewed for couple hours and then stretched and glued all over the room. Russian math is not difficult - it's intensive, fast pacing, with rues to memorize, examples to solve, word problems, diagrams, some geometry. It is fun to do - the edition that I have uses characters of childrens' books for word problems. Algebra IS introduced in 2nd grade. The letter substituting for numbers are listed (latin and greek). My son loves now to solve word problems using equations! (My 9th grade students in physical science had a very hard time finding X on its own...)


P.S. May I should give up teaching High School and just open a Russian Math and Science school here, in NJ?

Catherine Johnson said...

It was fascinating - talking to these women AND seeing the reaction of the NYC school teacher (who LOVED what they were doing - & whose husband, an MIT graduate & WWII veteran - had endorsed before she came with me).

You should get in touch with these women. My feeling is that, yes, they have a 'business' in mind -- but the feeling I got was .... Russian KIPP.

They have a mission.

I think you can get all their contact info on their site, but email me if not & I'll put you in touch:

cijohn @

They had never heard of Mathematics 6 by Enn Nurk and Aksel Telgmaa, though.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Catherine.
I don't know what the point of me contacting these people, though - they are too far from me.

(I told my son that the Russian math classes cost almost $500 per semester - and I do it for free with him! So he ows me:-))


Amy P said...

Here's an interesting story from 2006.

Apparently, a Philly school switched to teaching Russian kids their math in special Russian-language math classes with a native (???) speaker. The Russian kids had previously been doing poorly. There's got to be more behind this.

Amy P said...

That URL cut off, but it's the only one that comes up when you google "Russian math classes."

vlorbik said...

thanks for the westchester lab link.
interesting. they've got a bias for plain english
that's rare and refreshing.

"Our strive for excellence and commitment to quality will help children of all levels to reach their potential and propel them towards the future of their dreams."
which obviously would be BS
if it were in english at all...

it's probably *more* troubling that
they pay lip service to NCTM's "focal points"
(right after proudly claiming "singapore"
as the basis for their curriculum).

also they appear never to have done this before...
so the "plain english" bias may vanish
when the reality of dealing with real students
(and actual parents) begins to sink in
and they discover that any true thing
you say clearly *will* be used as evidence
against you.

anyhow, i wish 'em luck.
can't be any worse than most public schools.

vlorbik said...

oh, p.s.

thanks for revealing your confusion
about "chops". i say this from time to time;
thought it was more widely understood.

what the heck; here's jazz math ed.

NKMath said...

Thank you so much for your kind words and your enthusiasm for our program! We do appreciate it!
To the author of the last post - vlorbik, we would love to invite you to our demo class on Saturday, July 18th at 12:30pm. It would be interesting to hear your feedback and your thoughts about the class. If you're in the area, please stop by and see what we're about. Details are on the website:
Thank you for your comments.

Westchester Math Lab