Effective Tutoring in Math and Physics
By Alfred Tang
(Math and Physics Instructor at The Edge Learning Center)
March 17, 2017
Sometimes a very successful student may come to a learning center to learn some fine points and to put finishing touches on their already polished academic knowledge. Most of the time, students come to a learning center to seek emergency help because they feel helpless in certain school subjects. When a new student meets a tutor, the first thought that comes to his mind is whether this tutor can help him. The tutor cannot take it lightly when the student says things like “I am really bad at math (or physics or whatever subject)” because the student is testing the tutor either to see if he thinks he is a lost cause or to seek affirmation. If the student walks away really thinking that he is bad in math and physics, he may never take another course again.
Secondary schools and universities are run by educators who are Darwinian evolutionists operating on the survival of the fittest. They consciously or subconsciously aid evolution by hastening the natural selection process by weaning out the weaker students early in the game. Universities use the students’ calculus and introductory physics course grades as selection criteria for enrolling them into math, physics and engineering majors. It is just a fact of life that students (or anybody for that matter) are constantly evaluated based on their performance in competitions. Students can say that they are bad in math or physics and use that as an excuse to quit the competition. The matter of fact is that they will be evaluated in something else no matter what they do. Quitting is never the answer in life because there is no place in life where there is no competition. Quitting also leaves a permanent scar in the student’s mind that he fails. When enough scars build up in his mind, he stops trying and quits life all together. Instead students should take challenges in life as learning moments to master the problem solving skills to tackle whatever challenges that may come along. Math and physics are just some of these challenges. However they form a perfect playground for experimenting with coping strategies.
When a student tells me that he is “really bad in math and physics” and that he is hoping for a C in the exam, I will always reassure him that he can do better and that he should aim for at least a B or maybe an A. Am I being dishonest? Do I really believe that there is nobody in the world who has no talent in math and physics? Maybe I should have told the student to drop out from math and physics? No tutor will ever say that, not just because the tutoring business depends on students’ tuition fees, but because I truly believe that nobody can fail high school and first year university math and physics if he really tries and has the right help.
Self-confidence is an asset. The lack of it is a liability. A tutor needs to be a good teacher but also a cheerleader at times. Of course cheerleading alone is not enough. At the end of the day, the student will get a grade. That is reality no matter how much positive thinking we heap on the student. In order to help the student in a real way, a tutor must help the student to come up with a game plan and to set tangible goals.
Ages ago, I read a Reader’s Digest article that said that the art of effective communication consists of (1) clarity, (2) brevity and (3) conciseness. These qualities have stuck in my mind ever since and have become the bedrock of my teaching style. Mathematicians and physicists are never keen on rote memorization. They go out of their way to push their students to hone their deductive reasoning skills. In the course of doing that, they have a tendency to be purposedly vague in order to force the students to fill in the blanks. Instead of telling the students the long and short of it, math and physics teachers tend to provide them with lots of background information hoping that they will discover math and physics truths on their own. There is a science teacher in a well known international school in Hong Kong who has a reputation of telling the students to “think like a scientist” without providing any further instructions. That is how she teaches. As a habit of thought, math and physics teachers sometimes teach like that too in the worst case scenario. Many of these teachers are never clear nor brief and definitely not concise in their teaching style. As you can imagine, this teaching style will never work in a tutoring center. On the contrary, the reason why students find The Edge such a breath of fresh air is that we tell them plainly what they need to know in as simple a language as possible and in the smallest packages as clearly as possible.
All of our teachers at The Edge have advanced degrees and a couple including myself have Ph. D.’s. We apply the same kind of research skills that we use to decipher the structure of the nucleus to analyze the mental blocks of our students and to experiment with ways to communicate math and physics concepts to them in a way that they understand.
At the end of the day, nothing can replace the time tested formula of drilling, drilling and more drilling. Most of our students come from international schools. Unlike their local school counterparts, international schools do not assign as much homework and hence not so much drilling. Parents send their children to The Edge to fill that gap because they know that practice makes perfect.
Communication is a two way street. Teaching as a form of communication is no difference. One-on-one tutoring has the best student-teacher ratio and is the most effective communication environment for learning. Teacher’s intelligence and communication skill combined with student’s cooperation are keys to a successful tutoring relationship. Teaching is a human activity. Currently there are a lot of talks about putting courses online and automating teaching by artificial intelligence. Computer is a good tool for archiving and searching for information. Other than that, artificial intelligence is never to going to replace human intelligence. No amount of machine learning will ever make a teacher of the year. There are a lot of online tutoring services out there. I have not heard any praises about them among parents and students. Parents still pay premium tuition fees to send their children to The Edge to be taught by human teachers. For the foreseeable future, effective tutoring in math and physics will still be done by effective human teachers who are highly educated in their subject areas, skilled in communication and methodical in organizing the teaching materials. Parents and students who are looking for a learning center that has good math and physics tutoring service have to look for one that has good math and physics tutors who are knowledgeable of the subjects, has high EQ, treat the students as persons and not commercial products, care about the students’ progress and be willing to come down to the students’ levels to communicate math and physics ideas—i.e. to be clear, brief and concise and teach in a way that is relevant.