Are you ready for robot tutors? No, me neither. But much of the interesting research into tutoring technique and efficacy over the last twenty years has been done with an eye towards replicating teaching magic in an app or program. That brave, new world has not dawned yet, which leaves us plenty of time to celebrate what makes human tutors so effective in helping students learn.
One documented fact about what occurs during individual instruction is that tutoring students ask a lot of questions, perhaps as much as 240 times more than their classroom counterparts. Research suggests that the average classroom student asks 1 question every 5 hours or so. Tutoring students, however, ask about 26 questions every hour! And unless they’re asking to go to be excused over and over again, they’re probably learning that much faster.
The personalized setting doesn’t just make students more inquisitive. Tutors ask about 150% more questions than classroom teachers. A a typical classroom teacher averages about 70 questions per hour, hopefully directed towards more than one poor target, so estimate that a tutor uses approximately 105 questions per hour evaluating understanding in a single lucky student.
Looking only at the number of questions can be misleading, as asking too many questions correlates negatively with low achievement and test scores. However, high achieving students go beyond the basics to ask deep-reasoning questions that actually lead to better academic outcomes.
Why do we love the idea of tutoring? In our experience, one student and one educator engaged in a scintillating dialogue extends learning far beyond what conventional classroom teaching can manage. Just based on the number of questions thrown back and forth, tutoring is even more interactive than most would expect. And once we go beyond the data, we learn that tutors personalize in the moment based on student questions and answers. Until programmers can create an app that can really do that, stick with good, old-fashioned, elbow-to-elbow tutoring!
Dillon, T.J. (1988). Questioning and Teaching: A Manual of Practice. New York: Teachers College Press
Graesser, A. C., & Person, N. K. (1994). Question asking during tutoring. American Educational
Research Journal, 31, 104-137
Person, N. K., & Graesser, A. C. (2003). Fourteen Facts About Human Tutoring: Food for Thought for ITS Developers. Artificial Intelligence in Education. IOS Press.