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Advice sought for a first time tutor

  1. Feb 3, 2017 #1
    Dear PF nation,
    I did some searches and found some posts related to my questions but I thought I'd post for additional detail.
    I offered to help a HS student with non-calc physics. The student is a family friend and I'm not charging for this.

    I've taught work related topics professionally with adult technicians and engineers in a business setting but never a HS student. After the fall semester final I observed the student still has trouble with some basic concepts which caused me to question my approach and I thought reaching out on PF might help. So here is what I'm doing now.

    We meet once/week in a study room at the local library.
    We begin by going over concepts that might still not be fully understood and then work problems. For example, this week we went over projectile motion. I explained how the resultant velocity can be broken into vertical and horizontal components. This was essentially a short repeat of what was presented in class that day.

    Then we worked problems assigned. In this case 4 basic projectile problems each asking for height, distance, and time in air. I begin by working out one problem, pausing for questions, then have the student work the remaining and helping when stuck by prompting some thinking before I might dive in to show the method. That's the general method. The students in this class are expected to work those same problems the next day in front of the class. We spend about 90 minutes each session. Here are some examples of the issues I'm seeing.

    On a distance/time chart the student confuses zero crossing with zero velocity
    On force diagrams the student misses depicting some forces.
    This is based on my observation as the final exam is not given back to the students to keep after grading.

    The course has now moved into projectile motion. The student seems more comfortable with this and is proficient with the trig aspects of those problems.

    Here are my current ideas.
    Continue weekly sessions.
    Review new current concepts that are not well understood.
    Work out some example problems but have the student work all the assigned problems.
    Review concepts from the previous semester by assigning one or two problems to work each week.

    Looking back I'm concerned I might have been working out examples myself and should have been having the student do this more.

    One problem I think I face here is I don't think the student works enough problems to develop an intuitive level of understanding. What's a good approach without overloading the student? What's a good source for problems, the local library is very light when it comes to physics texts to draw from.

    Also, the class is structured to not use a text book. Problems come from teacher handouts. I try not to criticize the teaching approach but doesn't this deprive a student of a reference to go back to if concepts are in question? Should I get a physics text to use by the student?

    Anyway, your thoughts on this would be greatly appreciated.

    Rock on PF nation!
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 3, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 3, 2017 #2
    I have tutored quite a few times before - most in Math or Computer Programming.
    The best approach is entirely dependent on what works with your student - as well as the students primary objective for the tutoring.

    If his objective is to pass the course, you need to anticipate what questions he will run into on the exams and train him on exactly such questions.
    As the student attacks such a question, if they run into a block, I try to guide them into the answer. The purpose of guiding them into the answer is to push them to struggle with the specific piece of the question they don't get - so when it comes to them (or is given to them) it has immediate emotional value.

    The other issue is longer-range retention. Depending on the student, tutoring for a test that will be given later that day is easier than tutoring for a test that will be given days or weeks in the future. Often courses contain small test on a weekly basis and then a big test at the end. That big test is commonly made up of "old" material. So you need to check your student for his ability to retain skills from one lesson to the next. You may discover that the student retains almost everything and can build upon previous lessons effortlessly. Or you may discover that every lesson is like starting from scratch. In the later case, be careful to be very encouraging, consider changing teaching tactics, and consider additional homework assignments.

    That's all I can think of off the top of my head.
  4. Feb 3, 2017 #3

    Andy Resnick

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    Firstly- what is the student's motivation? Are the parents driving this? Does the student simply want a better grade, or is this something like SAT prep?

    These are very common problems and tend to stubbornly persist. Again, the approach depends on the student's motivation: to get better grades on exams, to 'learn the material', etc. At one extreme, you could simply provide a detailed problem-solving procedure for each type of problem. At the other extreme, you can try experiential exercises: toss a ball up and describe the position, velocity, and acceleration during the trajectory.

    Again, it depends on your goal- at one extreme, just get a copy of an SAT or Physics GRE prep book and use those. Or troll the web for PDFs with intro physics problems. At the other extreme, have the student make up their own. It may sound odd, but I have found that having students invent their own test questions is a great learning tool because in trying to formulate a question, they very quickly have to confront their knowledge limits.

    I have to admit I am amused by this- we (university faculty) are dealing with consistent and persistent pressure both by students and administrators (and in Ohio, state government) to reduce textbook costs associated with class- many of us are indeed dropping required texts, even though we know that textbooks are useful. And you are right- not having a text deprives the student of reference material.

    I have found Arons' book "Teaching Introductory Physics" to be extremely insightful and helpful.
  5. Feb 3, 2017 #4
    Teaching physics is not exactly like teaching a physical skill. Showing is not enough. Even in teaching a physical skill you sometimes need to intervene physically to help the mind make the connections to the required movements. In physics which requires mental skills you need to intervene but that is not physically possible. The student must be guided step by step through the process each step being taken by the student first demonstrated by the teacher. After that the practice (important in physical skills) and learning begins. The student takes a step and the teacher judges its quality or appropriateness. This also presupposes the student has some ability to take these steps. Keep in mind that the student may not have as great facility with algebra or complex problem solving that you presuppose.

    Discovering the students motivation as Andy Resnick suggested may be helpful in determining the intensity or strictness of your approach. If the student has no intrinsic interest in the subject then their participation in the learning process will be diminished. More emphasis must be then put on inspiring the student to learn. But as we al know not all teachers are created equal.

    The key word in learning is engagement. The student must actively participate in the teaching sessions. Keep in mind that the presenting facts is not a primary goal. Anybody can read the facts. And as Poincare has said "Science is no more a collections of facts than a house is a collection of stones". Do not work out the problems. Showing is just presenting facts. Present the problem give him the pencil and paper and have him go through the standard sequence of analyzing it himself with just your simple guidance from one step to the other. Drawing a diagram if indicated labeling all the relevant quantities if something is missing guide him to the missing information but avoid telling him directly perhaps by suggesting something and have him evaluated its relevance. Have him enunciate what is known or what he knows about the relationships among the information given. Make him feel accountable for the solution.

    Having the student make up his own problems as Andy Resnick recommends is a great idea because in fully engages the student creating an inner motivation to apply the principles

    Does the teacher give out notes or does he/she expect the students to just take notes from the lectures? I think a student needs something to refer. Texts tend to elaborate more than a lecture and of course is a permanent and complete record of the subject which notes usually cannot match. Open Stax is an educational program out of Rice University. It offers a free algebra based physics textbook to students. It is supposedly a college text but it is well illustrated with interesting applications, problems and solutions.
    Good luck
  6. Feb 3, 2017 #5
    I really encourage students to read their book and watch videos for help with the basic concepts, and focus our time together on solving problems that the student has first made an honest attempt on. Most students can get started by drawing a decent picture, trying to identify the important general principles in play, and beginning to formulate a plan.

    Students will NEVER learn physics if you let them turn problem solving into an exercise of "what equation do I need" before they have drawn a picture and identified the important principles in play. That approach tends to divorce concepts from problem solving. You want students to articulate concepts and principles in the problem solving process BEFORE you show them how to use those principles to choose from the available equations.

    It sounds like the student is depending on the tutor rather than maturing in the subject. Work toward greater independence by requiring some things of the student, such as:

    1. Read the material in the book before the meeting, take notes
    2. Take notes in class that they can show you
    3. Make an honest attempt to solve every problem before asking you for help on it
    4. Watch some supplementary videos if the book and classroom discussion remain unclear.
  7. Feb 3, 2017 #6


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    Very helpful replies. :smile:

    I've done some tutoring with a range of students, and depending on the ability of the student, I try to give them a few of the basic tricks and memory devices that I have found most useful over the years. This seems to only work with the brighter students -- when I'm helping a student who is struggling, my tips and tricks just seem to confuse them or go over their head. But for the brighter students, the reaction is usually more like, "Huh, that's a great trick!".

    You probably have similar tools and tricks that you've used in your school and work life. A good tip for the student (at any level really) is to carry units along in their equations as they do the math work, to help them to check that they haven't made any algebra mistakes, and that the equations keep making sense. Showing how units work in equations also helps them to get more comfortable remembering things like v = d / t, because the units match up. You don't have to memorize some equations and formulas when you just remember what-all goes into them, and make the units match for the final equation. I first learned this technique in an intro engineering class my freshman year at university. When the TA pointed this out to us, the whole class went Wow, why I didn't learn that a long time ago?

    And it's a handy trick to be able to quickly sketch the graphs of sin(), cos() and tan(). It helps a lot when working with trig functions, and helps with the basic understanding of the functions and their relationship to each other. The student shouldn't just look at such a sketch and say, okay I know that. They should be able to draw the axes themselves and sketch the functions quickly and comfortably.

    I like to encourage the student to try to check their answers whenever possible. Either by doing the problem two different ways, or just substituting their answers back into the original problem statement to be sure the answers are correct. I also like to encourage them to do a quick order-of-magnitude guess at the answer before working out the detailed answer. If the final answer isn't close to the initial estimate, then both the estimate and the answer need to be re-checked. For many problems, you can ask yourself about what happens at the limits of the variables (zero, infinity, big, small, etc.). Especially for mechanical-type problems, I like to help the student get used to picturing the forces on the objects, and ask themselves what happens if that moves a little that way, or if that part gets longer by a little bit, or a lot...

    I also really like the use of animations to help get a physical intuition about some problems. Seeing an animation of a traveling EM wave, or projectile motion, or similar problems can be helpful in forming mental images that can be used on problems later.

    I think the hardest part of tutoring for me is when I am working with a young person who is having trouble concentrating, or has some sort of mental block to the work. I've had students who were just a little slow, to a relative who kept swinging back and forth between brilliant and dense, to a very bright university student who had some health issues that made her have similar swings of ability from session to session. I did my best with each, but I definitely enjoyed tutoring the brighter students who were more like me -- they really enjoyed learning new things and new techniques for thinking about and solving problems.
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2017
  8. Feb 4, 2017 #7


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    My two cents:
    Without a book to follow, there is a great danger that your approach and explanations will not match what he saw in class. The result is often just more confusion. Be sure that you get him to do as much as possible and watch closely. Hopefully, you can see what the class approach is and guide him in following that.
  9. Feb 5, 2017 #8


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    I did one year of private tutoring in HS Physics. I put the responsibility onto the student of turning up with topics or problems for us to discuss. Mostly he'd just have problems the teacher had set which he was having some difficulty understanding.

    As is typical, his biggest problem was a lack of confidence. I think tutoring is all about building confidence in a student that he does have the wherewithall to solve the problems that his class has been set.

    One Saturday he turned up with a new attitude and seeming more self-assured. He said that through the week his class had studied such-and-such a topic but he already understood it because I'd talked about that last weekend. I hadn't intentionally jumped ahead of the class, but I can see how it would have given him confidence to answer his teacher's questions, and maybe show understanding in front of his classmates.

    This caused me to wonder whether my tutoring efforts might show a better pay-off if I aimed to stay just ahead of the class, rather than tending to mop up coursework misunderstandings and so always lagging one week behind.
  10. Feb 5, 2017 #9


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    Having written that I'm now reminded there can be a downside to tutoring ahead of the class. In a maths class there was a bright girl who often wouldn't pay attention and chattered and distracted the others. It seemed that each new topic I introduced was greeted with, "I already know this. I learnt it last week with my private tutor."
  11. Feb 6, 2017 #10


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    In my experience tutoring math, chemistry, and physics, I find that students have a couple of basic difficulties (not mutually exclusive):

    • They don't know the basic concepts, like what force, mass, acceleration, and other things are. This is despite having been told what they are, having the definitions and equations right in front of them, and already having worked through problems using them. In other words, they have only a shallow grasp of physics and are treating it as 'just more math'. I usually try to reiterate what these concepts are and I ask them multiple times to explain to me what they are over the course of a session. Without a grasp of these basics I find that students quickly fall behind as the class moves along.
    • The student knows what each individual concept is, but can't connect them together in a problem. So when given a problem where they are given several pieces of information, but not the exact piece of information they need, they have a difficult time using what they're given to find what they need. I haven't really found a good way to help these students except to have them keep doing problems and perhaps have an equation sheet handy.
    • The student knows all the basic concepts and understands the relationship between them, but has trouble setting up problems. Often I find this is because they can't link what they know (equations and concepts) with real life. I usually discuss very simple real life situations in terms of basic physics concepts. Things like, "What keeps this notebook from accelerating downwards towards the floor?"
    • Difficulties with their learning style or with the teacher's teaching style. These are tough to deal with because there is often little you can do with the former and nothing you can do with the latter. It's up to you to find the best way you can teach the student. Some can listen to you talk and watch what you do on the paper and everything will 'click' for them. Others have to take up the pencil, draw their own pictures, write out the definitions, etc. Just do the best you can here.
    • The student doesn't know how to learn. They don't know what methods work best for them. They may not take notes (often with an excuse of "the book's got everything right there!") and often think they are "not very smart". They may have no idea how to budget their time (still a very difficult thing for myself, as I'm writing this instead of doing homework :rolleyes:). I try to find out what exactly they are doing and attack that directly if necessary. Sometimes they don't understand that learning takes time and effort and need to have this explained to them.
    I'd talk to their parents and suggest purchasing a cheap, used textbook from amazon or a local bookstore that their kid can use. My used University Physics textbook that's several editions out of date cost me around 5 bucks. Since the teacher isn't using a textbook, there's no worry about not having the right homework problems or having to follow along in the book.
  12. Feb 8, 2017 #11
    Thank you PF nation! All of you have given me many ideas to consider and use.
    This resonated the most with me from Dr. Courtney,
    Students will NEVER learn physics if you let them turn problem solving into an exercise of "what equation do I need" before they have drawn a picture and identified the important principles in play. That approach tends to divorce concepts from problem solving. You want students to articulate concepts and principles in the problem solving process BEFORE you show them how to use those principles to choose from the available equations. It sounds like the student is depending on the tutor rather than maturing in the subject.

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