I tutor various math subjects online for a large tutoring company. I know that as a math tutor, it's my responsibility to be able to explain any concept in a way that makes sense to the student, or to be able to ask them the appropriate questions that will guide them through their homework.

There are two types of sessions:

  1. One-on-one sessions that are scheduled in advance.
  2. "Instant sessions" where I meet up with a student on the spot.

For sessions that are scheduled in advance, I have found that asking the student (before the session) to send me the problems that they are stuck on will improve my performance as a tutor during the session. I don't have to worry about improvising because I will have already pinpointed the challenging concepts and taken notes.

However, for "instant sessions", I lose the advantage of being proactive. I have no idea what the student is going to want to review until after the session has already begun. Every now and then, a student will be stuck on a challenging math problem such that when I read through it, I know immediately that I do not understand it and that I will struggle to help them. At that point, I feel that I have let the student down because it's literally my job to help them.

When such a situation arises, I find myself Googling the problem hoping to find a solution. But this is hit or miss; some teachers write their own math problems (which is what they should do), and the wait-time means that the student starts to get suspicious that I am incapable of helping them.

One idea that I have is to take a step back and remind the student of the basic concepts that (I think) the solution will involve. However, while this may be the "correct" approach from a math education standpoint, this may take extra time, and the student has to pay more money the longer the session goes. I fear that many students would become impatient, unless I could convince them that what I'm doing is relevant to solving the problem.

So my question is, how does my idea sound? Are there better ways to respond in such a situation that I should consider?

EDIT: I've tutored hundreds of different students, and I would say that around 90% of my sessions go well. I'm always trying to improve, which is why I'm asking this question.

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    $\begingroup$ "when I read through it, I know immediately that I do not understand it" — maybe you should stop tutoring, at least until you'll get to the level that you won't have such issues. Or maybe you should tutor on a level or two lower that you are tutoring now. If you can google for a solution, your student can do it too. What additional value do you bring? On the other hand, I know that for many people taking classes is the only accepted way to learn something; when I point out that they can simply read a book and do exercises on their own, I get puzzled stare. $\endgroup$ – Rusty Core Sep 25 '20 at 21:53
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    $\begingroup$ @RustyCore thank you for your advice. I've tutored hundreds of different students, and I would say that around 90% of my sessions go well (I probably should've mentioned that in the description). I'm not perfect but I'm certainly not at a point where I need to reassess my capability as a tutor. Perhaps I could rephrase my question as "given a challenging math problem (for both the student and the teacher), how would you guide a confused student through it?" $\endgroup$ – FoiledIt24 Sep 25 '20 at 23:53
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think "stop tutoring" is good or useful advice, at least not based on the information given. Helping a student learn how to solve a type of problem (which I'm assuming is the goal of tutoring) is a separate objective from being able to solve the problem yourself or show them how to solve it. While it's certainly ideal if you can solve the problems, it's not necessarily a prerequisite of being able to help them. $\endgroup$ – David Z Sep 26 '20 at 5:12
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidZ How you can help learning how to solve a problem, if you cannot solve a problem? Sure, you can roll your sleeves and do the "let's see what we have here" together with a student, but the OP clearly indicated that "when such a situation arises, [he finds himself] googling the problem hoping to find a solution." How is this better than the student googling for a solution? This reflects college environment proper: why spending four years of life and thousands of dollars only to be taught by TAs with homework checked by unknown checkers, if you can just read a book? $\endgroup$ – Rusty Core Sep 26 '20 at 5:58
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    $\begingroup$ @RustyCore Why does anyone have to be Googling a solution? A tutor can help a student learn how to solve a problem by reminding the student of techniques to try, pointing out sections in a book or other reference that may have relevant information, suggesting connections to other related but easier problems, helping the student organize their progress and partial results, and other things which don't require having being able to solve the problem. $\endgroup$ – David Z Sep 26 '20 at 7:06

I teach at a community college, and under normal circumstances (not covid), we have a walk-in tutoring room where students can get help from any of the faculty who do their office hours there rather than in their own offices. Most of the students I see in there are my own, but maybe 30% are students in other professors' classes.

I would say that maybe 1 time in 1000 I draw a blank, and when that happens, I try to admit it honestly to the student. Typically this will be a situation where another professor is going into a lot of detail on a sub-topic that I don't teach and haven't thought about for a long time. Call this situation A. So I'll be saying things like, "I don't go into this level of detail when I teach this topic, so I don't know off the top of my head, but can you find the relevant discussion of this in your textbook or your notes?"

Considerably more common, maybe 1 in 100, is the situation, call it situation B, where I am able to do the problem myself, but it's something that I don't teach, and therefore I end up doing a lousy job educationally of helping the student with the problem. E.g., I don't know what issues students have understanding a certain topic, so my efforts in helping them are not very good, because I don't realize until too late what conceptual issue is hanging them up.

If you find yourself in situation A one time in 1000 and situation B one time in 100, then I would say that by my own standards, you're doing about as well as can be expected.

However, if situation A is happening more frequently, like 1 time in 10, then you are probably tutoring a level of math or topics in math that you're not qualified to tutor. You should talk to your supervisor and ask to be assigned to lower-level work or work that isn't on those topics.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree with this: if you frequently find questions which you genuinely don't know how to approach, you are tutoring classes that you don't understand well enough to tutor. But there is nothing wrong with modeling the approach to a question which you do not immediately see the full path to the solution. In fact, this can end up being more helpful for the student in the long run. $\endgroup$ – Opal E Sep 25 '20 at 21:39

I think, especially in such a blatantly transactional interaction, you should be forthright with them, and allow them to make a decision.

I would say "I don't know how to do this. Do you want to try to figure it out together (no promises), or would you like to end the meeting and get a refund?".

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    $\begingroup$ I agree that being honest to the student is important. However, to my knowledge, they would not receive a refund. That's just how the company operates. $\endgroup$ – FoiledIt24 Sep 25 '20 at 18:37
  • $\begingroup$ There have been times when I do ask them if they want to continue the session. I just feel guilty doing this because I'm basically telling them that I let them down. $\endgroup$ – FoiledIt24 Sep 25 '20 at 18:38
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    $\begingroup$ @FoiledIt24: I don't understand your second comment. I think you ought to feel more guilty if you falsely pretend to the student that you can solve the problem. There is absolutely nothing wrong with honestly telling the student that you do not have a solution at the moment. If you're going to go back and spend time to find a solution, nothing wrong with telling the student that too. Then you can both go on to other problems instead of putting up a false show. $\endgroup$ – user21820 Sep 27 '20 at 13:17
  • $\begingroup$ @user21820: (1/2) For instant sessions, that is the only time I get to meet up with the student (unless they liked working with me and they want to schedule more sessions with me in the future). My mindset when tutoring is that I will do everything I can to help the student. Like I said before, the Googling strategy is hit or miss. In situations where I get stuck, I've actually had a few students tell me that they appreciated how I didn't give up and that I at least tried to find some resources that will help them. $\endgroup$ – FoiledIt24 Sep 27 '20 at 17:33
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    $\begingroup$ @FoiledIt24: That's why it's better to give the student a choice, by stating upfront that you don't have an immediate answer. They can then decide whether or not to move on to another question, or to join you in searching for an answer on the spot. $\endgroup$ – user21820 Sep 27 '20 at 17:54

Depends on what the questions is, this shouldn't usually happen especially if it's related to core knowledge in the course. Although it's pretty demanding, I'd say you need to know the course inside and out and be able to do virtually every question in the book you're using. (This is the reason why I say you need to be about 2 "degrees" ahead in the content. Like if you're tutoring high school, then you should probably be able to handle graduate level math, or if it's middle school, then you should be able to do undergrad)

That said, it has happened that students randomly ask me things (usually in reference to applications, or some sort of contest math) and the answer isn't apparent to me right away since it's not related to the course content and the topic isn't usually developed upon in later courses. When that happens, I just say, "I'm not sure at the moment, but I'll get back to you." and then I look it up or work it out on my own time and give them my answer.

I wouldn't think that a math teacher means that I'm an answer key, Rather, I hope it means that I can help you get to and understand the answer, and if I can't do that initially, then I'll find a way to do that eventually.


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