May 31, 2017
Professional tutor and guest blogger Josh Sohn's thoughts on giving students homework for tutoring sessions and how to do it the right way.
I can tell. Of course I can tell. When you’ve been at a job for 16 years, you pick things up. You sense stuff. I can tell that in 10 seconds, I’m going to hear:
“I’ve had a crazy week — tests and quizzes every single day.” Or maybe, it’ll be: “My 10-page term paper was due yesterday…” There’s even a chance I’ll just get: “I’m not going to lie, Josh. I just forgot.”
I’m talking, of course, about homework.
The tutoring-homework bundle is something of a philosophical matter. Some tutors simply don’t believe it’s fair or even responsible to assign work on top of what kids are already juggling. Other tutors see the top objective of tutoring as cultivating critical thinking skills through independent work. For my part, I typically assign homework equivalent to about 1.5x our session length. So a student I see weekly for 90 minutes will have 2 or 3 hours of homework to get done by the time we meet again the following week.
Wherever a tutor lands on the philosophy, understanding the role homework plays in a student’s learning process is essential towards delivering meaningful support as a tutor.
Take Telly for example. He’s a sixteen-year-old student of mine who’s taking the SAT on June 3. We’ve been working together for about 12 weeks, during which time his homework output has varied dramatically. Right out of the gate, he completed a full-length practice SAT — a four-hour undertaking! The next week, it was 3 of the 4 sections I’d assigned. The last 10 weeks since then? Telly’s been a 1 or 2 section guy. Which Telly is real? Is it the machine who pumped out 4 hours of work in week one, or the kid who’s been giving me 20 minutes/week ever since?
Timing out the curriculum well in advance — and that includes starting the prep at a moment in which the student can actually gather a bit of homework momentum — is smart and relatively easy. Telly’s first practice test was tackled over spring break when he wasn’t dealing with mountains of school work. But students getting off to a good start on the homework front doesn’t guarantee continued diligence. Keeping parents looped in on the work that is (or isn’t) getting done allows them to nudge here and there. This can contribute meaningfully to keeping up the momentum and is a key virtue in delivering regular session reports. (Thanks, Clark!) And if that still doesn’t work? It may be on account of the complacency vs. dejected effect.
Frequently, kids conclude rather early in the tutoring process that they’re in good shape and don’t need to work particularly hard for the outcome they’re after. Or they’re over-matched and so why bother with frustrating homework. All told, getting kids to start strong and stay strong is a challenge and each student tends to require a unique remedy.
There’s quite a bit to say on this, but let me first note that tutors have this much easier than classroom teachers. While teachers have to build a homework pitch that works for 20 or 30 or more disparate learners, we tutors can uniquely tailor our sells to each student. And we can also alter the size of the workload accordingly. Still, there are some things I’ve found can keep the homework wheels turning.
The longer you work with students, the better you know them. And while that first week’s 4-hour output may not be typical of what they can do week-to-week, neither is the 20 minutes they’ve done since. Finding the sweet spot in what they can reasonably achieve is critical towards helping them progress. NOTE: You’re usually better off assigning too little and having students complete it than assigning too much and having them fall short.
Some students like to do a full practice test on Saturday or Sunday. Most students, however, are more likely to complete work if it’s broken up into smaller chunks. Not including the essay, both the SAT and the ACT have 4 sections each. One section completed every day (or two every other day) tends to be far more palatable (and viable) for most kids than a full-length practice test in one sitting.
Do kids sometimes get bombarded with more schoolwork than they can complete? Absolutely. Does that happen every single week for an extended period of time? Not really. Well, not unless: a student has legitimate time management challenges, is taking too many or too difficult classes, and/or there are extenuating circumstances eating away at his or her ability to get the work done. In short, when students come up a little or a lot short on an assignment you’ve given them, make sure they understand that you’re not angry with them but that they really need to bounce back the following week. Otherwise, you and the student will fall into a pattern of not delivering on the homework, which will only get tougher to break.
Communicate your learning plan and your expectations to both student and parents before you begin working and update them accordingly via regular session reports. If you’re extremely clear with kids and parents at the outset, you will be more able to bend the curve later on if students don’t fulfill their obligations.
In the end, there’s no scientific method for getting kids to pump in hours of work for you in between sessions. But being kind and attentive as well as firm and disciplined will not only improve your chances of better homework outcomes but drive you toward a deeper understanding of your student. And this rapport will pay enormous dividends for the tutor-student relationship that go well beyond the class or exam you’re helping them through.
For more tips from professional tutors on how to make the most of your tutoring sessions, join Clark today.