WyzAnt Wants to Know: The 2 Sigma Problem

We recently passed the 30th anniversary of "the 2 Sigma Problem," which is the problem of achieving the effectiveness of personalized, one-on-one instruction at a large scale. As a tutor, how do you help multiple students at the same time while retaining the benefits of personalized tutoring?

To me, one of the major benefits of personalized tutoring is that the tutor has the space, time, and flexibility to respond to the student's needs. If I am tutoring a student in math, we can spend as many sessions as we need on a given topic to make sure the student understands it thoroughly. I can also try a lot of different methods to explain a topic, since not everyone learns the same way. If a spatial or visual learner is having trouble with division, I might bring in a bag of M&Ms and show them physically the process of dividing up a pile into smaller piles. If a student is having trouble understanding probability, I might bring in a set of polyhedral dice and discuss it practically. Those same polyhedral dice might also find a use during discussions of geometric solids, in situations where it is tough to accurately illustrate a 3-D figure on a flat piece of paper.

When working with more than one student at once, I take advantage of the fact that thoroughly understanding a topic often means that you can explain the topic to someone else. When I work with students in math, I focus a lot on the student being able to explain the concepts back to me – so if there are multiple students present, they can try explaining the concepts to each other! Maybe the student for whom the topic has just clicked will have a novel way of explaining it to the other student; a turn of phrase or an analogy that I may not have thought of myself. This is particularly effective when the students are friends outside of class, since they know each other far better than I do and are more likely to understand how the other one thinks or be able to connect the topic to a passion or interest.

Encouraging the students to help each other also helps them to feel as though they “get it,” which increases their confidence later on. I've found that a large part of math improvement is simply a question of confidence; if a student doesn't quite understand the material, it's going to be that much harder to be consistent. Once the student “gets it,” though, I often see a burst of happiness as they begin to complete problems with little or no help from me. Often when that happens that student will instinctively begin explaining the concept to the other student, subconsciously wanting their friend to feel that same burst of happiness and excitement.
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