If you have been wondering whether online tutoring is right for you, you are not alone.
There are, of course, the obvious benefits — convenience and cost, for instance — but the differences between online and in-person tutoring can be much more subtle and can contribute to a vastly different experience.
Even if you have never used a tutor before, you may be familiar with the traditional in-person approach: you make an appointment, meet one-on-one or with a group, and receive assistance in a given subject. However, the advent of the Internet has changed this dynamic in several important ways.
The Student-Tutor Connection
Teaching is a personal activity, and the success of a tutoring session may depend on the level of comfort and connection among those involved. With in-person tutoring, the instructor and the student share a physical space, and each is thus able to quickly acclimate to the other’s body language, personality, and tone of voice.
These intangible qualities comprise some of the most important differences between the two models. Online tutoring sessions rely on instant messaging and video chat, which can complicate the student’s ability to read the tutor’s body language and physical reactions. When selecting an online tutor, her communication skills and personality are especially key, as is recognizing that the acclimation process may be more gradual.
If your prospective online tutor maintains a public profile on one or more tutoring websites, review it carefully. Does she have experience working with your age group or subject? Does she discuss her preferred tutoring techniques? You can also ask if she offers a trial session, or if she would be willing to answer a question or two over Skype. This can help you gauge whether her teaching strategies align with your learning needs — as well as whether you are compatible as student and tutor.
Accessing and Sharing Resources
The digital format of online tutoring lends itself wonderfully to creating a permanent record of each session. Unlike in-person tutoring, which may involve pages of hastily handwritten notes, online tutoring is particularly suitable for sharing and accessing resources. Files can be attached to emails or text and voice chats, and you can download them for use as study guides at a later time.
Together, you and your tutor can create sample databases for a computer science course, or a step-by-step revision checklist for a challenging English class. Simple features in software like Apple Pages, Microsoft Word, or PowerPoint can transform the content of online tutoring sessions into diagrams, flow charts, graphs, outlines, and much more.
Moreover, electronic communication allows for the easy sharing of outside resources and supplementary materials. Imagine that you suddenly realize that you have forgotten a crucial resource at home, like a textbook. Depending on where you are meeting, your tutor may be able to locate a suitable substitute, but this will take valuable session time. In an online tutoring session, resources are generally stored in a digital format. They can be retrieved and shared without having to worry that a text has been misplaced or forgotten.
If your needs change, an online tutor can also choose different resources mid-session. Perhaps you are struggling to understand DNA’s structure. If your online tutor recognizes that two-dimensional pictures of DNA in a textbook or a PDF are adding to your confusion, she can direct you to an interactive 3-D model available online.
Certain subjects demand the use of specific methods — picture, for example, a painting class in which the instructor does not visually demonstrate brush techniques. Tasks that rely heavily on imitation — such as painting or music — may be more difficult to translate to an online setting.
Advances in computer technology, however, have unlocked a great deal of potential for online tutoring. The track changes feature on word processing programs, for one, makes online writing tutoring seamless, especially when paired with a real-time platform like Google Docs. Interactive Web whiteboards also make it possible to diagram math and science concepts in a digital environment. With a capable instructor and the right tools, there are few subjects that are intrinsically ill-suited to online tutoring.
However, while visual and auditory learners may find the electronic documents, instant messaging, and tutorial videos associated with online tutoring intuitive and easy-to-handle, tactile learners may face challenges.
These students, also known as kinesthetic learners, may find the best results through hands-on instruction. Those who fall into this category may struggle to remain seated in one location for an extended period of time, especially if that entails focusing on large blocks of text or on lengthy video chats. With-in person tutoring, tactile learners can master mathematics with the aid of manipulatives (counting stones, geometric tiles, or plastic money). They’re free to explore science through outdoor activities like gardening, or delve into English and history by role-playing games or participatory events.
The needs of tactile learners may not always be easily accommodated in an online tutoring format. But multiple studies suggest that the effectiveness of tutoring is not specific to the format. For instance, one researcher found that online tutoring accompanying a computer science class produced better learning outcomes than workbook-based assignments alone. Another study suggests that both synchronous (real time) and asynchronous (working back and forth over several days) online tutoring are both effective. The implication of their findings was that comfort with and understanding of the tutoring process and student-tutor relationship was the most important factor in producing beneficial outcomes.
Tutoring works best when you’re able to find an instructor you’re able to work well with. It shouldn’t matter where in the world they are or what specific tools they’re using. If you’re able to be on the same page, be comfortable with one another, and understand the learning process, you’ll be able to improve your understanding of a particular subject.
David White is a contributing writer for UniversityTutor.com, the largest global marketplace for finding independent tutors.