A Parent's Guide to Tutors

Editor, Carnegie Communications

Tutoring has obvious advantages to struggling students—to whatever degree that struggle may be. We spoke with Chuck Cohn, founder and CEO of Varsity Tutors, for his take on the role of tutors in education, how parents might evaluate their child’s need for one, and what to look for during the search process. 

Cohn says there are different types of students who need tutors, and though the need for a tutor might have once been seen as something embarrassing, it is gaining greater acceptance. It’s certainly nothing to be ashamed about—a proactive approach to education and achievement is admirable. But tutoring isn’t just for those students disconcertingly behind in their studies. Students at varying levels can derive some benefit from tutoring, perhaps even those doing relatively well in their course work.

Shifting attitudes toward tutoring reflect cultural expectations, even geography, Cohn says. For example, in many areas, students may only work with a tutor if they are doing poorly in their classes. But in New York City, everyone wants a tutor—the hope is that the personal attention will lead to higher academic achievement and, in turn, coveted spots in top colleges and universities, he says. But wherever it happens, that’s the real crux of tutoring: personal attention. And with personal attention, “you’re obviously going to see more results.”

Tutoring for any students

In any classroom, the teacher needs to teach to the average student. Furthermore, the teacher’s style might not jibe with every student, but material explained in a different way during a one-on-one session can make all the difference, where the instructor and student can work until the material “clicks.”

Tutoring most often comes to mind when working with students who are for whatever reason behind in their course work and lagging in their grades. Furthermore, those students are missing fundamental building blocks if they’re struggling in prerequisite classes. They continue to struggle as they move on to higher classes—or they do not advance at all. Learning (or not learning) those core skills can impact students well into college and beyond.

Then there are students who are doing well but are perhaps not challenged by the work. They can also benefit from a tutor, Cohn says.  They may experience a “false sense of comfort” from good grades, given the overall difficulty of their course load and/or even high school rank. Colleges weigh grades, and B’s in the most challenging courses are more desirable than A’s in basic courses. The equitability of different high schools and their course preparation is another conversation for another day; however, fortunately, colleges understand this. Though students generally cannot control the course load available to them, they can pursue the most aggressive course work possible, and colleges can draw comparisons based on all courses available at the school.

Wherever their children fall on the spectrum, parents want them to do better, for the C student to get the B, even for the A- student to get the A. It’s true that grades aren’t everything—a unique, insightful student with a robust class schedule and passionate extracurricular involvement can achieve immeasurably. And, as they say, there are many types of intelligence; “book smarts” is just one of them. Of course, it certainly behooves students to achieve the highest grades possible.

“A lot of parents in this country don’t recognize how competitive the admission process really is,” Cohn says, especially amongst the top-tier schools, where the best students are heavily rewarded via admission offers and, of course, those coveted grants and scholarships.

Cohn also hopes to clear up a misunderstanding regarding the PSAT: students think it “doesn’t count”! While the score aren’t sent to colleges, it is the National Qualifying Test for National Merit Scholarships. Consequently, it’s not nearly as competitive, in part because no one studies, he says, and students can rank in a higher percentile if they do prepare and study—improving their chances of winning a National Merit Scholarship.

Finding and hiring a tutor

Above all, be proactive, Cohn says. Parents and students shouldn’t wait for a report card full of lackluster grades. “The sooner you identify a problem, the better,” and certainly before getting deeper into the course and further behind. By the end of semester, the student will be snowballing.

Parents can turn to their students’ schools for tutoring services, in addition to community volunteers; local libraries are a great place to turn when looking for tutors as well. If they wish to hire an outside tutor, parents should do research to become knowledgeable in their search, determining not only pricing packages but also the extent of the tutor’s knowledge, methodology, personality, and overall fit.

What should parents look for in a tutor? Cohn says tutors should have not just expert-level knowledge in their subject(s), but they should also be up-to-date with the material, as there’s often a difference between courses taken 10 or more years ago and today. Parents should feel free to discuss their expectations and concerns with the tutor and/or tutoring agency. If the tutor can’t answer the parent’s or, more importantly, the student’s questions, that’s a red flag, Cohn says. The tutor is either not prepared for the session or ill equipped in general.

Like any instructor, tutors must be able to communicate effectively, or that expert knowledge won’t be going very far. Tutors should be able to employ different approaches in their instruction as needed, altering their teaching style until the students “gets it.”

Parents should listen closely to their students regarding their general interactions with the tutor as well. If the personality fit just isn’t there, it can inhibit the experience. Finally, credible tutoring services, whether a company or an independent tutor, should perform and be amenable to background checks.

What about the number and duration of sessions? It’s largely contingent on the individual learner, combined with the overarching goals of the tutoring sessions. Cohn says the first few minutes of any session are the least productive because they’re spent catching up, refreshing each previous session. His personal recommendation is 90 minutes, minimum. “We believe that 90 minutes to two hours is ideal.” From there, decisions need to be made collaboratively and thoughtfully.

“A lot of the stuff is not fun,” Cohn says, and it’s easy to make students feel like they understand when they do not, especially for students uncomfortable admitting they are still struggling. But good tutors will be able to see through that guise.

At the end of the day, students need to know the concepts on their own; tutors just help them through the rough, Cohn says. “You don’t have to be struggling.” He reminds students: extra hard work leads to rewards. 

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