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I want to start by sharing my teaching philosophy: I believe in teaching in a way that is primarily student-centered. That is, I prefer to do less talking to give the student(s) more time to practice working on math problems, which I believe is the best way for them to build conceptual understanding and procedural fluency. Conversely, the more modeling I do for the student(s), I feel that they risk tricking themselves into thinking they understand the mathematics, which is detrimental to their learning.

Now on to the main point: I work for an online tutoring company that offers instant tutoring sessions where I meet with students "on the spot" (there is no ongoing relationship between me and the tutee). A lot of my tutoring experience has come from hosting these types of sessions, mainly because it fits better into my daily schedule and it's less time-consuming than applying for tutoring opportunities that are more competitive. During instant tutoring sessions, I try to stick to my teaching philosophy as described above, but sometimes doing so does not work out. Practically all students ask for Homework Help during an instant tutoring session. Most students begin by saying something along the lines of "How would you solve this problem?" (which to me is like saying "What is the answer to this question?"). My response is usually "Let me show you a similar example" and I will change the numbers around so I can model the steps that the student must take, or I will use the Socratic Method to determine what they are specifically having trouble understanding and ask probing questions to help them understand how to at least start the solution to the math problem.

I've always viewed Homework Help as the lowest form of tutoring because from my experience, the student is usually focused on getting it done rather than learning. I still try to make these situations work because I feel guilty if I tell the student that I can't help them, and I don't want them to give me a bad rating either. Unfortunately, when I agree to help the student with their homework while sticking to my teaching philosophy (that is, making it clear that I won't just give them the answer), sometimes the student abruptly leaves the online session. Needless to say, it's frustrating to do the right thing from an educational standpoint and essentially get the door slammed in my face.

(Side note: the Covid-19 pandemic may also have an affect on this behavior since students are tired of staring at a computer screen all day, but I am ignoring that here. I have observed this behavior even before the pandemic started.)

Thankfully, it's not always this bad. During a recent instant tutoring session, one student asked "Can we work on this problem together?" (it was on graphing a rational function). I liked hearing this because the student understood that my responsibility as the tutor was to provide guidance, not answers. As the student worked through the problem, the student asked good questions when he was unsure how to proceed, such as "Is the vertical asymptote where the function is undefined?". This behavior is more desirable because the student was showing effort instead of trying to get me to say the answer. Unfortunately, not all students are like this one when it comes to instant tutoring.

Recently, I began to realize that perhaps instant tutoring is meant to allow students to get a quick answer to their HW. I recently came across this article where it is described that a student's grade improved from (presumably) one instant tutoring session. To me, it sounds like the tutor is the one who earned the improved grade! I don't believe that as the tutor, I should be doing the student's work because it's their responsibility. Otherwise, how else will they learn?

My question is: What is the true purpose of instant tutoring? Is it meant to be a Q and A where the tutor just gives the answer? Or should I stick to my teaching philosophy during instant tutoring sessions and focus on improving how I interact with students?

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    $\begingroup$ Seems like it's up to you. You might get better ratings if you do what the student asks. But that might not sit well with you. Understandably. $\endgroup$
    – Sue VanHattum
    Apr 11 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ I just wanted to note that the linked article is a PR piece as you can see by the "NEWS PROVIDED BY Varsity Tutors" and "PRNewswire" bylines. $\endgroup$
    – Adam
    Apr 11 at 23:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Adam I noticed that too but I struggled to find other articles that were not associated with PR. $\endgroup$
    – FoiledIt24
    Apr 12 at 1:02
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Answering your question seems to require filling in a little context, since the notion of tutoring without an ongoing tutor-tutee relationship is pretty general. Clicking through to the PR piece that you linked to, it seems that

  1. This is a for-profit company.

  2. They're online.

  3. They cater to middle-school and high-school students.

  4. This was announced before COVID.

What is the purpose of “instant” tutoring?

It looks like its purpose is to make money for the company. As to the reason for picking this model over one in which there is a continuing relationship, most likely that reason is efficiency and labor costs. The efficiency seems pretty clear. As far as labor costs, this model makes you, the tutor, an instantly replaceable widget. If you ask for a raise or get a better-paying opportunity, they don't have a problem replacing you.

I would be more sympathetic to their model if this had been a response to the educational meltdown caused by COVID.

Your educational philosophy seems sound. If you feel like you can make it fit within this system, then there is no reason to change it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Sure, they are a for-profit business, but one may wonder why so many schoolkids and college students need tutoring. One possible answer is that the material is way too advanced for general populace. Well, I am acquainted with what middle and high schoolers study, and I think quite the opposite is true: the material is watered down and taught in unsystematic disjointed manner. Add to this low qualification of many a teacher, and it comes down to using school as a day care service, and using tutors for actual learning. $\endgroup$
    – Rusty Core
    Apr 13 at 0:28
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My question is: What is the true purpose of instant tutoring? Is it meant to be a Q and A where the tutor just gives the answer? Or should I stick to my teaching philosophy during instant tutoring sessions and focus on improving how I interact with students?

Let me pile on the pessimism here.

For the company, instant tutoring is about making money, not learning. If you don't believe me, ask them what they measure and how those measures correspond to payments. Really! Send them an email and ask. I'd love to hear if they even try to measure learning beyond subjective reviews along the lines of:

With the tutor Cheating Charlie, all my homework got done super fast so I'm really happy. The teacher's off my back, my parents aren't nagging, and all those right answers made my grades go up! Five stars for Cheating Charlie!

With the tutor Mastery Mandy, I really truly learned that 'multiply' does not always mean 'increase', and we had SO MUCH FUN with games, pictures, hands-on experiences, practical applications, etc. Boy do I understand and appreciate multiplication now! But my homework on rational number calculations didn't get done and my grade went down and my teacher and parents got angry with me and I can't get into my school's accelerated math program. Now I can't get into AP Calculus which makes it harder to get into university and I can't even apply for the scholarships I wanted, so Mastery Mandy probably ruined my life. She sucks. I'd give her 0 stars if I could. My parents have committed to pestering customer service until we get the refund and apology we deserve.

One of the central problems of education is that virtually everything revolves around the incentive of grades - NOT learning, NOT work habits, NOT character development, NOT attitude, NOT long-term opportunities - and grades are not always an accurate or insightful measure of learning. They are, however, like other incentives, vastly underestimated in their power to motivate.

To most students, the purpose of instant tutoring (and a lot of other tutoring) is not learning but to get answers on the page that will please other people in the short-run.

As for the dishonesty and upcoming pain (bad habits, inability to enjoy or learn further math, likely terrible performance on an upcoming test), delusions are extremely widespread. 98% of chain smokers believe they'll quit within 5 years, but only 1% or 2% actually do. Some believe that chain smoking is actually a justifiable net positive, "...at least for now." Likewise, 98% of students believe they'll successfully deal with those other problems down the road, but virtually none will because math is cumulative, habits are hard to break, and most importantly, the incentives do not change.

This may all seem utterly terrible.

That's because it is.

But there is hope.

My advice: Stop taking students who only want help with an imminent deadline. Only work with students who do not have imminent deadlines (typically younger students, but not always) and give them delightful experiences with rigorous math. Then, your reputation and record will actually correspond, you will do far more good for the students, you will be able to teach according to your philosophy, and word will spread so quickly that you won't need to give a cut of revenue to a matching agency for finding you students. Furthermore, if you give students experiences of mastery and deep understanding from a young age, they are more likely to seek that as they go through subsequent math courses with all their perverse incentives.

I spent 8 years agonizing over the kind of pain you expressed in the original post. I've tried everything to move the needle from "grade grabbing" to "real learning". Let me assure you, with rising university admission standards, the needle has gone exclusively in the wrong direction. All my time and effort was wasted because I underestimated the power of incentives. If anything, my students (and their teachers, parents, counsellors, school administrators, etc.) tended to demonstrate the "backfire effect", i.e. their beliefs that they should prioritize "grade grabbing" over real learning got stronger.

A few years ago, I took the path described in my advice above, and I only wish I had taken that path from Day 1. I would have saved myself a lot of headache, earned more, and done more good.

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  • $\begingroup$ I always love your posts. Keep on fighting the good fight! $\endgroup$ Apr 14 at 17:38
  • $\begingroup$ @StevenGubkin Thanks! $\endgroup$ Apr 14 at 18:11
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Stick to your philosophy IMO. In fact, I would double down on it.

I've always viewed Homework Help as the lowest form of tutoring because from my experience, the student is usually focused on getting it done rather than learning. I still try to make these situations work because I feel guilty if I tell the student that I can't help them, and I don't want them to give me a bad rating either. Unfortunately, when I agree to help the student with their homework while sticking to my teaching philosophy (that is, making it clear that I won't just give them the answer), sometimes the student abruptly leaves the online session. Needless to say, it's frustrating to do the right thing from an educational standpoint and essentially get the door slammed in my face.

If at the start of the lesson they are like, "Oh, I have to do my bloody maths homework... here it is I guess... how do I do it?" and then you explain it to them via a similar example, and then there is a back and forth game between you and them (either they say they "get it" but really they don't, or they say they don't get it) and they become more and more impatient until they decide to "slam the door in your face", then screw them! That's their loss. If the student repeatedly asks you to do their homework for them, then tell them, "no, I'm not a homework service". It's not worth getting a bad reputation by not properly tutoring students. And you will get a bad reputation if you do students' homework for them because that's a form of cheating and everyone will know you as the "cheater tutor". Do you really want that reputation, or do you want a strong reputation among parents of being a... helpful tutor? Everyone knows that doing someone's homework for them doesn't help them to learn anyway...

Usually on these websites, the parents write a message before the first lesson starts. If they write, "Wants help with homework", then IMO you should make crystal clear to the student's parent(s) before the first lesson even starts that you're not a homework completion service.

In terms of "how you should tutor", there are many books on this, but firstly I think it is rarely useful to just hand the student the answer on the plate without any effort. This is mainly because there are correct and incorrect methods for arriving at the right answer. If you just tell them the right answer, they may well be using an incorrect method, and so will convince themselves in a sort of "post-rationalisation" that their method is sound, which it might not have been. You need them to explain their method to you.

This ties in with my final point: I think as a general rule, you want the student to get to a point where they are capable of explaining the concept to you or someone else. Sometimes my students do this and when doing so their wording or English is poor, because they are putting all their energy into focusing on expressing the newly-learned concept, but this is fine and all part of the learning process: they are not going to be able to explain concepts perfectly first time.

So I would double down on your tutoring philosophy. If students in these "instant tutoring sessions" keep probing you to just tell them the answers to questions, then all you can do is tell them and their parents that you didn't sign up to be a homework completion service, and explain to them that it won't benefit anyone if you did their homework for them. In fact it is detrimental to you, the tutor, because it damages the purity of your reputation. It is also probably mentally and emotionally taxing having to aid someone else in cheating on their homework, and this taxation can weigh on your mind and ultimately waste your time outside of lessons. It damages the student by getting them into cheating habits. It also gives them a false sense of security that they can do the work when really they can't, which means they will do worse in exams than they expect to do.

It's not worth it: don't do it.

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