With all of the technology available today, online tutoring can seem like a convenient way to fit math help into your family’s busy schedule. Unfortunately, online math tutoring is hard to do – it’s especially hard to do well enough to get the same benefit as in-person tutoring or enrichment classes.
What Makes Online Math Tutoring Hard? Communication
The biggest problem with tutoring online for math is the communication. When you’re tutoring someone via any videochat option, you have to rely mainly on vocal cues and so does the student. That can cause trouble in a couple of ways.
The Same Material and Books
For the student and the tutor to be on the same page mentally, they have to literally be on the same page. They have to have the same book so that each one can see what problem the other is working on. The tutor can’t just look over the student’s shoulder to see the problem.
But buying a textbook can be expensive from a tutor’s point of view. To deal with that cost, the tutor may either try to do without the book, rent it from the library, or pass down the cost of the book to you in fees.
Each of those has its pros and cons. Obviously, the first two options are cheaper, but trying to do without the book makes the tutoring unnecessarily harder (and it’s already hard enough). Also, library books may only be available for a limited amount of time before needing returned or may not be the same edition since library books are not updated as frequently as school books.
The ideal situation is for the tutor to buy the book, and a good online math tutor will understand the need for this, especially for a long-term tutoring situation.
Limited Math Symbols in Chat
In English Language Arts, social studies, and other subjects that do not require special characters, online tutoring can utilize the chat function of most videochat apps to clarify and help make sure the student and tutor understand each other. Higher level math and science, however, does not have that advantage.
The characters required for Algebra and beyond (radicals, exponents, complex division, limits, etc.) are not included in standard chat keyboards. And even with programs designed for that math, the symbols take longer to fill out on the computer than they do writing by hand.
Handwriting into the computer or tablet may be an option, depending on the program and technology used. Unfortunately, even that option is generally slower to do and harder to read.
When you think back to math classes and math tutoring and realize how much writing down the math is part of the explanation (and even the questions), it’s pretty clear that limiting access to that option can make explaining and understanding more difficult.
Video Angles for Visual Explanations
If you find a really good online math tutor, he or she will have a camera angle set up on a white board or similar option ahead of time so that he or she can write the math by hand so that the student can see. That helps the tutor get around the chat limitations, which is good. The only problem is that the student rarely has such a good set up.
When students try to show you their work through video chat, they generally try to hold up a paper to the camera. Even if they manage to get the paper in the viewfinder, they have trouble getting it in focus and holding it there long enough for the tutor to actually translate the student’s handwriting and find the issue.
That means that the student has to communicate whatever issue he or she is having verbally. And most students are not very good at that.
Actually, most students struggle to communicate math verbally when they understand a problem well. When they’re confused, it’s even harder.
Speed and Effort v. Set-up and Planning
None of the problems I mentioned stop the tutoring from happening, so are they really a big deal? IMHO, yes.
Anything that makes the tutoring process slower and harder is a problem because it makes the tutoring less effective and makes the student feel more frustrated with the process. When you have several issues slowing things down and getting in the way, that frustration is going to climb faster. Usually when that happens, students lose interest in continuing and cancel the tutoring without making much progress.
And that’s not what you want.
In-person tutoring does not have these hurdles, so when possible, I’d recommend that or an enrichment class over online math tutoring any day. But if online math tutoring is the only option that works for you, you’ll need to plan ahead and set up everything properly to get the most out of it.
Which is what makes math tutoring online hard – for everyone involved.
What online tutoring tips do you have for other parents?
Author: Elizabeth F., Writer and Teacher at A Grade Ahead