Tutoring is Harder Than Teaching

I've tutored and taught at the college level for years now, and one fact continues to strike me, no matter how long I do.

Tutoring is hard.

Okay, lots of things are hard. Neurosurgery, rocket science, teaching economics. Those are hard.

But tutoring at the college level is surprisingly hard. Even harder than teaching university courses, from my perspective.

"Teaching", of course, is a broad term. It encompasses everything from curriculum design to student assessment to tutoring students during office hours. What I'm talking about here is the core teaching task of lecturing – standing in front of a class and explaining stuff.

Lecturing well is no walk in the park, naturally. You have to know the material, organize it well, explain things clearly, give good examples, answer questions, and even be a bit of an entertainer. And these days be something of an expert with technology.

But all things considered, that's easy next to tutoring.


What makes tutoring so hard? Lots of things. But basically it comes down to the fact that you're not the teacher.

Most of the tutoring I've done has been to help students with a college course they're taking. Which is great. I love teaching, and I feel good about helping students learn.

The problem is that it's not your course. It's usually not the textbook you use, and even if it is, the course teacher may emphasize completely different parts of it. Sometimes there isn't even a textbook, so the course teacher is free to come up with whatever terminology, notation, or random theoretical approach he or she wants to. Which can be problematic.

You don't want to criticize the teacher, of course. First, there's the whole professional courtesy thing. I wouldn't want a tutor carping about my teaching approach, so I try not to do it with theirs. Plus, you can never know what the teacher was thinking, or even what they actually said, since you weren't there in class. Not to mention that regardless of whether the teacher is right or wrong, at the end of the day the student is relying on them for their grade.

So you find yourself saying things like, "Hmmm ... I usually see demand curves sloping downward, but I suppose without the law of demand ... " It gets tricky.


In economics in particular, different textbooks and different teachers frequently have very different philosophical approaches. Some are fervently free market, others more pragmatically progressive. It can be an academic minefield. Exactly what would raising the minimum wage do to unemployment, and how much of it would it do? Labor economists have wars over less. It takes tact and diplomacy to coach a student on such topics when you don't know the teacher who will be grading the exams.

And because there are so many different textbooks and so much information out there, you're occasionally going to encounter topics and questions that you simply have no idea about. "How does desiccation theory apply to the aggregate expenditures model? That's an excellent question ... "

This happens in classrooms, too, of course. But there it's a bit different. If it's something completely off-topic, it's legitimate to table it and maybe ask the student to talk with you after class. You have a lot more control when you're the teacher. If worse comes to worst, you can just say, "That's a really interesting topic, but unfortunately it won't be on the test". It's amazing how quickly students lose interest when they hear that phrase.

But when you're tutoring a student one-on-one for a class someone else is teaching, your options are limited. Sometimes a quick glance at their textbook will tell you it's just a different term for another concept you know. Sometimes you just have to fall back on an honest "I-do-not-know-but-I-will-find-out", and then find out as fast as you can.

Still, the fact that questions can come from anywhere and you really can't prepare much in advance make tutoring very challenging.


Despite all that, there are positives to tutoring. For starters, you almost always have a highly motivated student. They want to learn the material, so much so that they're willing to spend extra time and money on it. There's a lot to be said for having students like that.

It's also wonderful to be able to focus fully on a single student. You can concentrate on the topics they have the most trouble with, and tailor your approach to their own personal learning styles. You often see them week after week, and thus get to know what works best with them and what techniques to avoid.

And when it comes to student-teacher ratios, you can't beat 1.0. One-on-one teaching and learning is the absolute ideal, from both a student's perspective and a teacher's.

And when the student really, really gets it – understands the difficult concept, answers the challenging question, aces the test – tutoring is every bit as rewarding as lecturing a hall full of students.

Yeah, tutoring is hard. But all things considered, it's worth it.


John C.

Economics, Finance, and Statistics Tutor with Ph.D. and MBA

200+ hours
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