Tutoring and the Training Wheels Effect

One of the best things you can do as you are working through a course is to get a tutor. Tutors can guide your study towards problem areas and catch mistakes before they become habits. I think of a good tutor as acting like training wheels when you are learning to ride a bike: they keep you from falling over, but you are doing most of the real work!

There can be a problem though. If you ride your bike with training wheels all the time, you are going to get really good. You are going to get really good at riding your bike with training wheels.

“I worked with a tutor everyday and still bombed the test! I don’t know what else to do!”

It’s frustrating when you think you are doing all of the right things. When you are working side by side with a tutor for all of your studying hours you are missing out on a big part of learning: the fall (yup I’m back with the bikes thing). My area of expertise is in math, so I will use an example from there. In math, the fall is that painful part of working on a problem for an hour and ending up with the wrong answer. It continues as you go through all of your notes and your book to find a problem like it. Finally its over when you find SOMETHING that helps and you discover the issue was a mistake in line 3 of your 20 lines of work. Ouch. This may be incredibly frustrating at the time, but you are building a base of knowledge when you do this. Every mistake is part of the learning process.

It is true. If you had worked that same problem with a tutor, he or she probably would have caught the mistake before you even got to the next step. This feels great and you feel like you made tons of progress! But there is a skill to develop: The skill of catching your own mistakes. This really only comes from the process I described above. You don’t want your first time trying to find an error to be when you get a really bizarre answer on an exam! You want to be well practiced by then. In other words, you don’t want the exam to be the first time you have ridden your bike without training wheels.

Where does this leave tutoring? The tutor comes in when you make the same mistakes over and over again. The tutor comes in when you just finished lecture and have no idea where to start. The tutor comes in when you have put in the effort but really aren’t sure where you are going wrong. In other words, the tutor is a supplement to your own studying.

Make a habit of studying on your own before and after meeting with a tutor. This way, you can make the most of your tutoring time and you can practice on your own as well. Tutors are great and as I mentioned before, I would encourage anyone having trouble to hire one! However, they are a piece of the puzzle. This puzzle includes your own studying, working problems, reading the text, and getting the most out of lectures. All of it is needed to truly understand what you are doing.

PS – If you are a tutor, make sure you are letting your students fall here and there. Its hard, but don’t jump in as soon as you see a mistake. Let them see it or guide them to seeing it. Make sure you are asking just as many questions as they do (“why didn’t that work?” is a GREAT one).

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