By Lori J. Skurka, M. Ed.
So you've decided that your child would benefit from the services of a third party tutor. Typical reasons for arriving at this point include your child surpassing a level of sophistication in a given subject (that you can no longer "tutor" them yourself), your child not embracing the lesson being taught in the classroom, your child having too much on his/her plate academically/socially/athletically, and you and your child aspiring to a specific academic goal such as a test score or a grade in order to improve his/her chances for college admissions.
When diving into the tutoring world, there is a broad variety of choices. Local tutors advertising on online bulleting boards (consider their credentials carefully!), brick and mortar tutoring providers found in strip malls all across suburban America, services that provide tutor vetting, pre-qualification, and advanced matching [such as EleMental Learning], and of course, for those brave enough to embrace the fully electronic medium -- online tutors.
Online tutoring is a catch-all term for various forms of tutoring which involve you / your child not physically meeting the tutor. Some services are more robust than others, using online blackboards, moderated online text chats, live video services (such as Skype), and pre-recorded lessons available via video sharing sites. Some offer online practice tests, online exercises and drills, and even online "office hours" where you can check in (virtually of course) with your tutor or a surrogate to have your on-the-fly questions answered.
With so many flavors and choices of online tutoring available, the decision process is certainly complex. Here are some key criteria to keep in mind when choosing an online tutor:
- What is the mode of communication that your online tutor uses to interact with you and your child? When starting out in online tutoring for the first time, the best choice is usually the simplest choice.
- Is direct one-on-one online tutoring actually what you're looking for? There are other tutoring choices out there -- online tutorials, bulletin boards (including some peer-to-peer free services), services offered for free through local public libraries, and even just YouTube clips on a given academic subject...you'd be surprised how many are available!
- How does the tutor interact with your child? There is certainly a sweet spot between "completely unhelpful" and "flat out does my child's homework for him/her." Much like you would expect with an actual classroom teacher or in-person tutor, the tutor's main goal should be to guide your child up the learning curve on a given topic so that he or she can demonstrate mastery of the suject down the road. Too many online tutors like to justify their existence (i.e. their fee) by wowing students with their own knowledge on a topic. The student feels empowered by the online tutor's song and dance...and then utterly fails to perform when it's time for their own performance.
- Know your child. What sort of online interaction does your child gravitate to? In all likelihood their online habits are not the same as yours. If your child uses Skype as a norm matter-of-course, then hiring an online tutor that uses a radically different approach may be a turn off.
- What sort of support does the tutor provide out of the prescribed online tutoring session? Will your online tutor answer follow up questions? Will your tutor demonstrate that he/she actually cares for your child (in terms of whether your child ultimately learns that coveted grade, etc.)? Is that degree of feedback and relationship important to you and your child? This is likely a situation of you-get-what-you-pay-for.
- How formal is the online tutoring session? Again there is a fine line -- a line between completely formal (may remind your child too much of school and therefore be a put off), and completely informal (your child is seeking knowledge, not a friend). Be wary of young and inexperienced online tutors in this regard. You need somebody who knows how to be an educator...experience is key here, but at the same time the online tutor clearly must also "click" with your child.
- Does the tutor follow a prescribed agenda or more of a free-form "discovery" tactic. Some degree of structure in the online tutoring session is good, as long as the tutor takes time to know your child's specific learning needs, style, attitude, and areas of deficiency.
- What are your expectations? Don't expect miracles. If your child comes away from each online tutoring session a few clicks further along the learning curve, then it will have been time (and money) well spent. You'd be surprised how many parents begin looking (typically in a panic) for a tutor 7-10 days before an exam. If that's your time frame, you've waited too long.
- What sort of real-time feedback and encouragement does the online tutor provide? Like so many other facets of the online tutoring selection process, the winning formula varies from tutor-to-tutor and tutee-to-tutee. Just know what your child wants, needs, and will respond to...and confirm that the online tutor you're paying will provide this. And by all means, sit through the first few online tutoring sessions alongside your child, to witness this interaction in action.
- And finally, ask yourself very carefully whether online tutoring is the right tutoring medium at all for your child. EleMental Learning originally opted not to provide online tutoring. Quite frankly, the reasoning was that online media is not our area of maximum expertise. We prefer to focus on the provision of face-to-face tutoring by our staff of experienced actual school teachers. We feel most comfortable with this formula, in the knowledge that we are matching students with actual school teachers, in a face-to-face setting, with a mandate to provide a fully customized tutoring formula to our clients. This can be done without technological impediments and without the sort of quasi-anonymity which comes with partnering with somebody you've never met before on something as precious as your child's education. However due to client demand we started offering some of our existing trusted tutors to clients on an online basis in recent years. This service does use Skype and other tools such as online whiteboards. And the absence of travel cost and other logistical challenges enables us to offer these tutors at a lower hourly rate. If you are interested please visit our online tutors page.
Lori J. Skurka, M. Ed., the is the CEO and Founder of EleMental Learning Tutoring, a private tutoring company which matches school teachers with families looking for qualified tutors to provide one-on-one tutoring. Since founding EleMental Learning, Lori has helped hundreds of families with their tutoring needs. She lives in Naperville, Illinois with her husband and their three children.