Let's start at the beginning.
Do I need a tutor?
So you think you might need a physics (or math) tutor but how do you know for sure? There are a couple of big indicators you can use:
You are having trouble with the coursework
This is the most obvious reason to need a tutor. You have the desire to learn and succeed but nobody is perfect; everybody needs a little help with something. I have given and received plenty of help in classes throughout the years and I am in no way ashamed of it for a couple of reasons:
- Seeing problems and solutions from a different point of view helped me become a better student and physicist.
- Working together makes it more enjoyable and often leads to completing your work faster.
- This style of learning developed communication and teamwork skills which become increasingly important as you progress through the school years and, ultimately, towards your career.
You have no motivation
to perform well.
This doesn't mean that you do not want to learn and pass your class. Sometimes, even when you have the big picture in mind, it is hard to fight through the specifics and details of class work and homework. I had this problem when I was working on my PhD. My motivation to work every day was getting that diploma but some days it didn't seem to matter if I got any work finished. It was too easy to forget how the tasks of today affected the future. Under-performing today was rarely consequential tomorrow but would surface weeks or even months later, a consequence that didn't register at the time. My solution was to hold myself accountable by giving myself progress reports and minor rewards every week if I performed well. Hiring a tutor will attach an immediate value to your work. Instant feedback from the tutor will hold you accountable in real time instead of in periodic short-lived moments when you receive your grade on assignments.
Classroom-style teaching does not work well for you.
Classes distribute information to the masses. Having a large student-teacher ratio requires classes to be taught in a manner suitable for the average student learning style. If you have ever seen a bell curve you may realize that this approach likely reaches the most students but this fact is irrelevant if it does not match your learning style. A great tutor is adaptable to the needs of the student and together they find an effective teaching style tailored to the individual.
In essence, this section could be titled, "Qualities of a Great 'Tutoree'". If a student does not satisfy any of these point then I bet tutoring would not help much. A successful tutoring session starts with the student, not the tutor. If the student does not want to be there, how can anyone expect the session to be productive?
How do I know the tutor I pick will work for me?
The short answer is you will not know but do not let that stop you from hiring one. For one thing, how do you know anything is right for you until you experience it for yourself? Anyhow, there are a few common traits all great tutors likely possess:
The tutor is compatible with the student.
This is by far the most important quality of a great tutor. The tutor and student have to get along. A great tutor is open and nice when communicating with the student and accepting and versatile in relation to a student's learning style. Without this the entire system would fall apart. Nobody wants to learn from someone they do not respect and can't associate with in relation to the work.
The tutor has extensive knowledge of the subject.
Experience and high marks in the student's course is a must. After all, it would not make any sense to get tutored by someone who knew less than you about the subject.
The tutor has patience and persistence.
This goes right along with being compatible with the student. The tutor must be willing to keep working towards the student's goals no matter how long it takes or how many setbacks they have. These setbacks may frustrate the student but the tutor will stay calm, focused, and in control. It is the tutor's responsibility to provide a calm atmosphere while continuing to push through the educational barriers.
Tutoring physics in particular
Mention that you study physics to someone and odds are they will give you a look full of fear and pity. Fear from the thought of studying physics themselves and pity from imagining the difficulties you must be going through. And they would be right to do so. Physics is hard and here are just some of the reasons why:
- Physics requires the knowledge of both the physical world and the world of mathematics. A degree in physics almost satisfies a degree in math as well. I took calculus I-III, differential equations, linear algebra, and a few more math and statistics courses and I wish I had the time to take more. Think of it this way, a physics degree requires upper-level courses from other majors but the opposite isn't true. It is one of the most demanding fields for critical thinkers.
- Physics, by nature (pun intended), is an open-ended, multi-directional problem solving strategy. Problems in the lower-level classes have a good bit of direction, focused on teaching a specific concept, but the system gets more complex the higher you go. Often problems can be solved in multiple ways, some that take one sheet of paper and others that take 15 (no exaggeration!). And that is just undergraduate classes! Just wait until graduate school. But there is a good reason for this: physics is open-ended and extremely complex in the real world. There is no book that tells a professional physicist how to solve the next problem. There is no answer key. And sometimes there isn't even an answer.
When I tutor students in physics I do not focus on that box around that final answer (I box my final answers). Instead, focus is given to those ever-so-critical critical thinking skills. The answer is only a check that verifies the critical thinking was done correctly. It is the whole "teach a man to fish" ideal. Through the trials of solving problems I emphasize these skills at every opportunity. I know when a student grasps a concept when they can do my job; I play the student and have the student teach me how to solve the problem. You never know you know something until you can teach it to someone else.
The best skill for a tutor
My tutoring skills
originate from my ability to see each issue from the student's point of view
and it comes from two sources. The first part is my own experience as a struggling student. If you looked at only my transcripts you would by no means call me a struggling student (rarely did I fall below an A) but a transcript does not show the means, only the end. I did not coast through my classes to receive those high grades. My incredible persistence and determination to succeed led me through long nights trying to understand the same concepts every physics student must learn. Through it all I prevailed and now I can use these experiences in tutoring. When I moved to the Baltimore
and Washington D.C.
area for graduate school at UMBC, I got the opportunity to hone my skills as a physics tutor for all majors (physics, mathematics, medicine, biology, etc.) and each one has their own style of learning. The second part of this is intuition. I have a knack for getting to the root of a student's educational insufficiency and the quicker you can get to this the quicker you can fix it. And is that not what this is all about?