Tutoring: Students and teachers discuss pros and cons of tutoring at the school

Surya Gowda and Lynne Sipprelle

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a physics student must be in want of a tutor.

Out of 185 upperclassmen who are currently taking physics or have taken physics and responded to an anonymous poll by the Record, 30 percent used a tutor. Many students expect physics, whether taken over the summer or the regular school year, to be a difficult course and seek help outside of school.

“Driving the need for tutoring can be a mix of many factors, including but not limited to the rigor of one’s course load, the presence of a learning or other disability, a family crisis, competing interests both in and out of school, or the pressure associated with any given year, Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly said.

“Summer physics (SuPhy) was really intense and I needed someone to help because if you don’t get it, you’re screwed. You need to have someone extra to help you because the teachers are helping other kids during the day,” Malka Krijestorac (11) said.

Every year for the past four years, Library Department Chair Caroline Bartels has sent out a tutoring list to every student taking Summer School, she said.

On the second day of SuPhy, Bliss Beyer (12) said, “This isn’t going to work without a tutor.” Beyer did problem sets and ICPs (in-class practice problems) and studied for tests with her tutor. She would not have passed summer physics without him, she said.

“I used a tutor every night for at least five hours during SuPhy,” Beyer said. “That’s not an exaggeration.”

Science teacher Dr. Jane Wesely said she knows students in her physics class use tutors. “I don’t know how many use tutors because students don’t tend to talk about it to me,” Wesely said.
Science teacher Oleg Zvezdin worries that using tutors may distract struggling students from using resources they already have and that he recommends, such as meeting with their teachers and working with their classmates, he said.

Casey Lutnick (11) said her physics tutor gave her an advantage in some ways over other people because she could have her questions answered out of class.

“There are times when I see students do particularly well on problem sets in physics, but their work on tests is not nearly as good,” Science Department Chair Dr. Stephen Palfrey said. “There can be lots of reasons for that, but one thing I often end up being concerned with is ‘Are they getting too much help from somebody else?’”

Physics is adored by much of the student body, but perceived as consuming too much time outside of school, Kelly said. “Our teachers worked diligently to make some changes to this year’s program in light of reported concerns, and have committed the bulk of their free time on campus to supporting their students,” he said.

“We have made some changes over the last few years cutting some content. We thought hard about the overarching themes we wanted to run through the course and cut a few topics which felt least connected to those themes. We have also tried to incorporate more time throughout the week for problem solving in the classroom,” Zvezdin said.

Tutoring is common for other academic subjects as well; out of the 342 students who responded to The Record poll, 49 percent have used a tutor for an academic class.

Ben Rosenbaum (11) has used a tutor in science and math. After struggling with tests, his parents pushed him to get a tutor, he said. Rosenbaum tried two tutors, but both of them just did all of his schoolwork and did not help him to understand the material, he said.

“I was not doing much of my work and relying on them,” Rosenbaum said.

“At any given time, the school probably recommends outside tutoring for approximately ten-15 percent of the student body,” Kelly said. “As for what the number looks like beyond what the school recommends, it’s hard to say. I’m well aware of many students thoughtfully engaged with a tutor who have chosen not to share this additional level of support with the school,” Kelly said.
Science and math are the two most common subjects for students to be tutored in. According to a recent poll of 342 students, of the 185 that had a tutor, 55 percent have been tutored in science and 66 percent have been tutored in math.

Maya Scholnick (12) began using a tutor because she was “struggling to understand concepts in science and wanted to make sure that [she] stayed at the same level as [her] class,” she said.
Anya Swift’s (12) tutors clarify the material by explaining and personalizing it, she said. “In many science classes, I found that with people who understood everything, teachers would teach at those people’s level and leave the rest of us in the dust,” she said.

Having a math tutor once a week made going over homework, studying, and doing test corrections easier because concepts that confused him were easier to understand with a tutor, Josh Benson (11) said.

School policy allows teachers to tutor students outside of the classroom, as long as they are not tutoring students they teach in school, Mathematics Department Chair Charles Worrall said.
“I do think it’s appropriate for some kids to have help with tutoring sometimes,” Worrall said. “I tend to think it’s good when it’s about helping kids to catch onto things they weren’t totally catching on to, as opposed to drilling to make the difference between an A- and an A or something like that,” he said.

Math teacher Jessica Emory occasionally tutors students in school. “Everyone benefits from hearing information from a number of different voices and resources,” Emory said. “If your teacher works, that’s great, but if not, having a tutor gives you another resource.”

Out of 342 students polled, 61.4 percent believe that tutoring creates an unfair advantage for people who have them over people who do not.

Benson said his tutor gave him an advantage over other students because it was a resource other students in his class could not access. “That’s why, when I stopped needing one at the end of sophomore year, I dropped it,” Benson said.

Scholnick, who uses a tutor in math and science, said it was extremely helpful. “It was nice just to have the one-on-one sessions and have things re-explained and to slow it down to make things easier to follow,” Scholnick said. “It hasn’t made me do better than other kids, but advanced me to do better than I could and try to get back to the same level as other kids,” she said.

Although science and math are the two subjects in which students receive the most tutoring, students have tutors in history and English as well, where in addition to the issue of receiving too much help, there can be concerns about plagiarism.

Grace Sander (12) uses a tutor for math and for writing essays. She has found her tutor to be very helpful, mostly because she always has access to him, she said.

English teacher Harry Bauld is against tutoring because it is used by students to get better grades than their work deserves and because it currently favors those who can afford tutors, especially the “best” tutors, he said.

Lucy Rittmaster (11) also uses a history tutor. “My history tutor forces me to reread my work and helps with some grammar,” Rittmaster said.

“We want students to think for themselves,” English teacher Deborah Stanford said. “We want them to process information to the best of their capability.”

“I think the whole issue of tutoring is abused because students are using it when it’s not needed,” Stanford said. “They’re trying to short-circuit the learning process.”

“It’s to succeed in this competitive environment for the endgame of college. Our mission is to make students better learners, more analytical, adaptable, creative readers, writers and thinkers,” Bauld said.

Stanford has occasionally talked to students about plagiarism in papers they submit. “The issue of a paper being organized, conceived, written by someone else, someone else feeding ideas and or words; that’s plagiarism,” Stanford said.

“You have a conversation with the student, a one-on-one asking what the process was in constructing the paper,” Stanford said. ‘It can sometimes be a very uncomfortable conversation where the young person immediately gets on the defensive and the adult is struggling to figure out how to make this truly a teachable moment.”

“You can tell the difference in someone’s authentic voice. Students don’t understand how easy it is to tell the difference between work you actually wrote and work that has been advised by others,” Bauld said.

There have been incidents in the past where tutors can aid students too much in their work, leading to students receiving “academic penalties of plagiarism,” History Department Chair Dr. Daniel Link said.

A later issue will feature the second part in our series on tutoring, focusing on the socioeconomics of tutoring as well as the school’s Tutoring Center.