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Tutoring rant

  1. Sep 13, 2011 #1
    I've been a physics tutor at my university for over a year now, and I just have to get this off my chest. Feel free to comment or share your own experiences.

    WHY do some students think it's ok to completely forget EVERYTHING they learned in physics 1, then come to me when they're taking physics 2, and then put NO effort into trying to recall the previous material? And then I get called "mean" when I inform them that they should have remembered this, and they should put in the time and effort to re-learn what they had forgotten.

    I had a tutee today, taking calc-based physics 2, who was stuck on a Newton's second law problem, involving the electric force instead of tension holding a pendulum at an angle. She had no clue how to start, so I casually mention "start with a free body diagram."

    "What's that?" she replies.

    I let her know that it's a diagram that shows all of the forces, hoping that would spark some memory. Nothing. I ask her to name the forces acting on the hanging ball. She gets gravity, but that's it. She starts flailing a bit verbally when I ask for other forces, and she comes up with "normal force," even though it isn't touching anything. So, I tell her the others are tension and the electric force. I then get her to agree that since the ball isn't moving, the sum of the forces is zero, and that's the next step in the problem. She has her pencil in hand, but isn't writing anything. I say, "This is the point where you should be writing something down." She says "I don't know what to write down," so I tell her "start with the forces that we just mentioned. The sum of the x components is zero, and the sum of the y components is zero."

    "What do you mean?"

    I ask her to first break up the forces into x and y components. Silence. So I point in the x-direction and ask "what forces are pointing in that direction?" "Umm... gravity?"

    THIS IS A PERSON WHO PASSED PHYSICS 1. CALC-BASED Physics 1, even. She even took Physics 2 last semester and failed. The second time around should be easier.

    So, I inform her that while I cannot solve her homework problem for her since it's being graded, and if I take any more steps on that problem, that's what I'd be doing. So I said I'd do a completely analogous physics 1 problem, except I replacing the electric force with a string. I get to the part about separating the tension into x and y components and... nothing. She has absolutely no idea how to break a vector into components. That's fully HALF of physics 1, breaking up vectors into components, and she is completely lost. "Do I use sine or cosine?" "Well, look at the triangle. Which do you think you use if this is the angle?" "Sine. No, cosine. No, sine. I don't know."

    This is another thing that gets on my nerves. Students, when put on the spot, just saying whatever word first comes to their mind without thinking it over, in the hopes that the other person will just get frustrated and give up the answer. Or, they'll just sit in silence without writing anything down, without looking through their textbook... just staring at the paper. I don't play that game. I ask her to think it through. I ask her what sine would be, and what cosine would be.

    "I don't know." I check, and she does know what sine means and what cosine means. She remembers SOHCAHTOA.

    I just wanted to shout, "Look, YOU'RE the one who dumped all memory of ever learning this stuff, YOU'RE the one that needs to put in the effort to re-learn it. I'd love to help, but I'm useless to you if you're not willing to think things through and work it out. I CANNOT and WILL NOT do the thinking for you."

    But, I don't. I do the rest of the physics 1 analog problem on my own on the board, tell her "This is an exact analog of your homework problem, just replace this second tension with the electric force," and leave her to copy down as much as she can. She writes a few things down, says she has to get to a class and she leaves.

    Later in the same day, I get another tutee who said I was amazing, and she's looking forward to working with me throughout the semester. I also had two other tutees, both of which were repeat business from the previous semester.

    After my shift was over, a classmate of mine came to me and said "one of your students said you were mean, and you treated her as if she was stupid." I can only assume it was the tutee that I described above, because the other 3 I had that day got along with me great.

    I don't intentionally talk down to people or treat them if they're stupid, but if you put in no effort, and expect me to wave my hands and somehow implant knowledge directly into your neurons, guess what? It doesn't work that way. I'm sorry if my tone of voice changes or if you take my optimistic "this is physics 1 stuff, you can do it" the wrong way, but if you're not willing to uphold your end of the educational bargain, I don't really care whether you learn or not. For those that do put in the effort, I'll work my butt off to help you. During the summer, I stayed at the tutoring center an extra hour, unpaid, to continue helping a group of students before an exam. They were putting in a lot of effort and I appreciate that. But people who don't even try? Screw'em.

    /end rant
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 13, 2011 #2


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    Well, I wouldn't say "Screw'em", but I understand your frustration. It is much more enjoyable to tutor bright, hard-working students. But it's still important to do your best with the frustrating students. Sometimes you can help them improve. Their motivation factor, though, is mostly up to them (and their support group -- parents, friends, etc.).
    Last edited: Sep 13, 2011
  4. Sep 13, 2011 #3
    I share your pain, Jack. For some reason, students don't know that science is cumulative: you will need your previous courses to get through this one.

    I don't think its unreasonable to expect your tutees to put some effort in. But many won't. I always refuse to tutor those student. It's a wasted effort.
  5. Sep 13, 2011 #4

    Andy Resnick

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    Welcome to the wonderful world of teaching. You may want to lurk around the 'teaching and education' subforum of 'academic guidance'- there's lots of good coping strategies there.

    Basically there are two separate problems- the student's factual knowledge base and the student's maturity level (and yours as well!). As for the knowledge base, I have heard your exact complaint ("WHY do some students think it's ok to completely forget EVERYTHING they learned in physics 1") expressed *verbatim* literally dozens of times. There's nothing you can do about it, and this problem has been expressed since the dawn of history- well, maybe not so specifically, but the general complaint that students are poorly prepared, lazy, etc.

    I've taught a wide range of students, ranging from online remedial math classes (i.e. how to balance a checkbook) through elite medical students. To be sure, there are students who express a sense of entitlement: "I deserve a good grade because I worked really hard!", and FWIW, we have all been on the receiving end of whiny brats who for the first time in their pampered lives hve not given something for just showing up.

    I've come to appreciate 'non traditional' students (i.e. older people) because of their maturity- they work their a$$es off, don't complain, have no tolerance for cheating, and set a great example for the younger students.

    But you have no control over who walks through the door. The only thing you control is how you deal with the student. Do not assume that the student knows anything. If the student is having trouble with basic math skills, send them to a math tutor- unless you want to teach SOCATOA instead of physics. You must be patient. You cannot 'make' the student learn anything. If possible, rather than asking confrontational questions with a right-or-wrong answer ("I get her to agree..."), try asking open-ended questions, for example:

    "Let's start with a free body diagram"
    "What's that?"
    "It's just a way to keep track of all the forces so you don't forget anything. Why did I suggest doing this?"
    "Ummm.. I dunno. Because you are smart?"
    "Ok, let's back up. What is this question asking you to do? Can you re-state the question in your own words?"

    The underlying strategy is to allow the student to find their own way- you are there to guide. After all, it ain't your homework.

    Good luck!
  6. Sep 13, 2011 #5


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    It is tough to tutor students that don't understand continuity and only study to the next test. I'm afraid that No Child Left Behind will only reinforce that mind-set.

    I have not tutored, but I have taught adult learners in industrial environments, and it is shocking how much substance people can lose when they don't have to use it regularly. If they learned the material on-the-job only to qualify for higher-paying jobs, and don't get to use it regularly, it's gone in short order.

    Even worse, if they learned the materials from another employee with no skills in providing context and technical detail, there is no causative anchor for the materials. Rote memorization of complex processes is not effective.
  7. Sep 13, 2011 #6


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    Sounds like you're a great tutor to the kids who don't really need it.

    It also sounds like you made someone who came to you for help (your job) feel like an idiot and probably not want to bother with the course, and you came here to try to absolve responsibility by listing all the good things you do.

    This is a good tutor (IMO).

    From my friends, my own and my classmates experiences throughout our learning years (because tutors and lecturers are a topic everyone loves to compare, contrast and complain about) you get these types about 5% of the time, but they're always helpful no matter what your level of knowledge/learning/intelligence is.

    Sounds like you have a long way to go :smile:.
  8. Sep 13, 2011 #7
    Thanks, I might need to hang around this forum more. When I started tutoring about a year ago, I wasn't expecting it to be such a large emotional investment, I thought it was an easy way for a few extra dollars. Now I find myself looking for ways to improve my skills.

    As for the "I get her to agree..." part, I did start with a question that was a little too-open ended, and I was unsuccessful at narrowing it down that way. I asked "other than the forces, what else do we know about this problem?" She had no idea, so after a while, I asked "are the balls moving?" She says no, and I ask what that means, and again got nothing. At that point, I just state that the sum of forces is zero, and then she seems to understand.

    I was just unprepared for the highs and lows of tutoring. When I'm helping students that actually are putting in the effort (even if they're not particularly brilliant students), tutoring is one of my favorite activities in the world. When I get a student like the above (and this isn't my first), I'd rather be a janitor.

    My tutoring coordinator is frustrated by the same things. She tutors chemistry (and has for 30 years), and I can hear the frustration in her voice when she's teaching a student how to balance a chemical reaction FOR THE FOURTH SEMESTER IN A ROW.

    My tutoring coordinator has noticed an increase in this type of thinking in the past few years, and she blames NCLB. She calls it "every child left behind." It's worse for her because the people she tutors are mainly chemistry majors. The people I tutor are only taking physics for gen ed requirements, so they have less incentive to actually learn things. I think I'm a little more patient with non-majors taking lower level classes. My coordinator has to deal with people who actually want to get into chemistry not remembering things test to test, and class to class.

    Usually, the calc-based physics people are a bit better at retaining information, so it's more jarring to me when one taking calc-based physics 2 is so clueless.

    Anyway, thanks for responding to my rant. I feel better already, and I'll visit this subforum more often.
  9. Sep 13, 2011 #8
    Agreed. I'm also a good tutor to many of the ones that do need it. I've helped quite a few that were seriously struggling.

    Agreed, and I hope she drops the course. She cannot be helped until she takes her studies seriously.

    Disagreed, my goal was to vent my frustration, not to "absolve responsibility." I'm not even convinced that I have any responsibility to teach her last year's course from scratch, especially when she wants me to do her homework for her.

    I acknowledge that I have a long way to go, and that maybe some supertutor somewhere could have been able to help her in some way. Truth is, I really don't care if she learns or not. I got the impression that she didn't want to learn, she wanted a grade. Again, I can't do her homework for her.

    Maybe I'm the one that needs to adjust my attitude, but I'm no miracle worker. I bust my butt to be a good student, I expect the people I tutor to do the same. If they don't care, I don't care.
    Last edited: Sep 13, 2011
  10. Sep 13, 2011 #9

    Andy Resnick

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    Keep trying- it sounds like your student was not confident in her ability, or simply didn't want to appear stupid. It takes time to develop a trusting relationship, but it's essential for an effective learning environment. If a student answers incorrectly, explore their reasoning (why do you think that?) instead of simply correcting them.

    That sounds about right. For example, in my intro class of 60, there are about 6 who are really engaged and help 'drive' the class- I feel really good about teaching them because I feel like I have made an impact. Then there's 6-10 'rocks', who sit in the back and don't participate at all. The majority of students are working really hard, are scared about their GPA taking a hit from this class, and just want to escape alive. These folks are the ones lining up outside my door the day before an exam, and break down in tears (in my office) the day after I hand the exams back. Most of the time I spend ''tutoring" them is really just calming them down.

    Glad to hear it- there's some really good teachers here. For better or worse, we don't teach the art of teaching as part of a science education.
  11. Sep 21, 2011 #10
    Okay, I'm going to throw in my two cents though it may be against the grain.

    I've been doing TA work as part of my graduate studies. My first experience was very traditional labs and tutorials, however, my university has a large program of research into science education and recently my experience have been with a more unorthodox style of lab work.

    The reason such a new approach is being attempted is because of experiences like yours.

    Though I and most others agree with you in regards to lazy and entitled students, if you think about the way physics is usually taught in universities would you say that we are really teaching the students to think for themselves or making them into exam-passing machines?

    In a typical physics lecture, we throw more information at the students than their short term memories can physiologically hold, and then the only expectation (because students only ever do what they will get graded/credit for) for them to reflect on this information is the occassional problem sheet. They will probably spend their time scouring the internet, their textbook and each other for the recipes to solving these problems and promptly forget it all. Then comes the exam: they spend the week before they exam restocking their short-term memory with the facts covered in class, performing the mental equivalent of carrying a huge stack of books, before regurgitating that info onto the page. Then the information is forgotten again before term restarts and they come into your class with only vague memories of the concepts haunting their brains like ghosts, mostly of which they only realise until after you've explained it to them.

    Now granted that this method has been used for decades and produced great teachers and scientists, including all of your guys. But remember, we are the minority a tiny fraction of the number of people who first stepped into that introductory Physics class. Unfortunately, we also live in a time when students seem to feel only point of education is to earn the piece of paper that they will treat as a guarantee to a job with a high salary.

    I'm feeling this all too keenly as I now know I am the product of this effect. I graduated near the top of my class. I spent a few years doing nothing but research: I learnt my instrument well and I learnt my particular area of my field well but I was living in a bubble. I rarely had to get down to the nitty-gritty of problem solving on paper and crunching through the math.

    Now I return to school and feel like I'm treading water. So much, even basic, physics seems to have leaked from my brain and my math-skills are so rusty I think I hear them creaking when I differentiate. I realise I had spent to much time learning facts and formulas and recipes and though the concepts are in there somewhere I often find myself double-guessing myself. I'm trying hard to repair the damage and this time make it stick, to teach myself to think again. Some of you may find similar student in your labs.

    Yes, there are bad, spoiled students. Yes, there are bad teachers. However, there could also be good students, good teachers but bad methods.

    Just a thought don't mean to ruffle any feathers.
  12. Sep 21, 2011 #11

    Andy Resnick

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    You are not the only person who thinks this. Certainly there's more visibility to STEM teaching practice in the US lately, and there's a lot of ideas floating around: peer instruction, just-in-time teaching, the force concept inventory and its derivatives, problem-based learning, studio-type classrooms, etc. etc. My personal experience is that there's good elements to all of them but the fundamental issue remains- there is no single best way to teach all students, because there is no single best way to learn for all students.
  13. Sep 22, 2011 #12
    Very well said.

    The problem of scale remains for most lower-level courses, though. Teaching big classes will always be difficult because of exactly the point you made. One can hope for some improvement, though!

    Tutoring may be one-to-one, but it is often trying to patch gaps that would have been better dealt with the first time around...
  14. Nov 21, 2011 #13
    I direct them to Sal, I hear hes amazing, and patient :)
  15. Nov 24, 2011 #14
    It sounds like the student you had didn't care at all for physics. You should have just left the moment you realized that.

    I've tutored a few late-highschool early-college aged kids before. If they put in no effort I just get up, politely let them know that I don't think the session is going to work because they seem to stressed out to learn at the moment (which is just an excuse but is probably true anyway), and I walk away. Once actually a girl pulled me back by force when I did that, put her thinking cap on, and really started working with me. But usually I just walk away.
  16. Dec 19, 2011 #15
    Yikes! Then why did she go to the tutoring session?

    In my experience as a teacher, no one bothers to attend such a session unless they care. The student may not *like* physics, and may not be good at it, but she did care about something - either her grade or her lack of understanding - and was able to recognize that she needed help. Just my two cents!

    In response to the rest of the thread, and the rant in particular, I hear you. I have dealt with many, many situations just like this before. Students often do not realize how much information carries over from one course to the next - and because of how they study (rote memorization rather than understanding of concepts), they forget it. Is the student responsible for this? Yes. Is it the tutor's responsibility to re-teach the earlier course? No. But it probably is the tutor's responsibility to let the student know where they went wrong, and what they can do to fix it. I have found that if I try to do this in a compassionate manner, most students will respond positively to it. It isn't an instant or complete fix, but it can make the student do more of their own preparation before the next tutoring session.

    Good luck - it's astounding how emotionally invested you can become in teaching, isn't it?
  17. Dec 29, 2011 #16
    who cares if you're getting paid? The student's grade isn't your problem
  18. Dec 29, 2011 #17


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    I'm guessing that you don't do much teaching or tutoring...
  19. Dec 29, 2011 #18
    I'm hoping that he doesn't do much teaching or tutoring.
  20. Dec 29, 2011 #19
    I do tutor and will begin teaching next semester, as far as I'm concerned it's primarily the student's job to learn. They have a responsibility too, it shouldn't be pinned all on me. If they want to learn, I will help to the best of my ability. However, if someone is actually willing to attend my SI sessions or get personal tutoring from me, it already shows they have some willingness to learn, because it isn't cheap. The only people who go to college and don't give their full undivided attention to the class are not paying for their college tuition, that is for certain.

    I've given the ''the grades you earn will affect your future'' far too many times, and when the student's ignore it, I don't waste time and energy trying to convince them, they will learn with time just like I did.
  21. Dec 29, 2011 #20

    Andy Resnick

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    I think many of the current trends in higher education: demands to produce a 'qualified' workforce, consumer-driven approaches to course offerings, the rise of for-profit degree factories, use of business models to replace shared governance, etc. can be traced to this sentence.

    Learning is *not* a job- one is not paid to learn. Education is not a commodity- one cannot purchase knowledge. The act of learning begins with a shared commitment between teacher and pupil.
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