What I Would Miss About Tutoring Online

I’ve intermittently worked with clients online for a decade, and I have previously written about some of the challenges to tutoring online. My view had largely been that online tutoring provided a service that was almost as good as meeting in person … ok, it’s fine, but it’s no genuine replacement. By necessity, I’ve gained experience and competence working online in recent months. This has challenged me and changed my work, of course, but I’ve also been surprised by some of the limitations to teaching that online learning removes. Here are some of the lessons I’m learning about how I can serve clients better online.

From Host to Guest

Frankly, I’ve been a slow learner here.

I knew that environment and framing are important tools in learning. I knew that I missed the casual walk from the lobby to my office that settled a student in, the way my chair leaned back, the light banter with colleagues, the office library, and the free coffee. I knew the way in which these cues contributed to a sense of ease, competence, and belonging. I took pride in sharing a space that was welcoming, safe, and effervescent. While clients benefited from these efforts at caring for the emotional tone of a space, it was always my space more than it was my student’s. As I reflect critically, I suspect that many of the face-to-face benefits of in-office tutoring were benefits to me as a mentor and extrovert, rather than direct benefits to student learning.

With online work, that’s not the case. I don’t get to help clients feel welcome and at ease, which I miss. The other side of this, though, is that clients no longer need me to make them comfortable. They aren’t thinking about parking enforcement, the ride home, or who they may know in the lobby. True, they may be thinking about chores, playing with their dog, a video game, or a million other things … but they are on their own turf.

Student comfort removes some barriers to communication, as it lightens cognitive load and decreases anxiety. It is not without drawbacks, though. Absent the rituals of meeting together in our office space, my Zoom meetings risk becoming stale routines, mundane, and unmemorable.

In order to be a genuinely helpful mentor and not to be a mere dribble of digital content in my students’ lives, I now aim to be a good guest rather than a good host. Enthusiasm, novelty, and challenge, tempered with deference and gratitude, have become higher priorities than warm and non-anxious receptivity. This shift in perspective has helped me see the many ways in which, with thoughtful instruction, online tutoring can be more effective than in-person tutoring.    

Shared Attention in Online Sessions

When I’m tutoring online, I have far less control over the broad environment, and I gather less information from nonverbal cues. I used to think of this as an inherent limitation, but my view is changing with greater experience.

One-on-one screen sharing allows a level of shared focus that requires more effort in person. Cursor movements often track with attention, as eye movements do in person. This lets me evaluate the order and speed of the thoughts my student is having in an immediate and visual way. It also lets me model how I would take information in from a text, how that would inform my process, and then exactly what I would write down or research to find an answer.

Furthermore, often in the course of working on one question type or topic, a deeper question will arise. Perhaps there’s an opportunity to challenge an unhelpful perspective on a task or test, or a self-concept that’s self-defeating. Maybe it’s something more mundane about a general test strategy. The point is that often a student will be receptive in a narrow moment, but only if they attend right then — not in five minutes, but exactly mid-thought. If we’re sharing screens and largely the same view, I can stop sharing to explore an urgent point. In-person, I’m stuck between either missing the moment while students labor away on a problem or insisting on their full attention, an overly directive approach that can be distracting and unhelpful.

Tutoring online allows me more unmediated access to students’ reasoning, helps them settle and focus, and allows me that ability to break focus in a way that doesn’t distract from the point. Our peripheral space may differ, but our on-screen attention is shared to a far greater extent than it ever was in my office.  

Navigating Responsibility

Now, some of tutoring is clearly transferring information that I know and a student doesn’t in a way that a student can understand and hear. However, much of the value happens in subtle ways around the edges. How do we think and talk about failure? How do we remain open and humble as we gain mastery? How do we find ways to be playful and motivated amid unfavored tasks? How do we take responsibility for our own learning?

Working with adults, I often take for granted that the client will take ownership of their learning and my role in it. To varying degrees, high school students often are transitioning to taking greater responsibility for their learning. In their classrooms, students have little control over what is covered, in how much depth, for how long, and in what way.

I’m discovering that working via technology allows organic conversations about ownership. With some students, I will share my screen, direct our attention to specific problems, and lecture a good deal about how to approach them, and the student will confirm understanding and do a few problems to demonstrate competence. Other times, I’ll share my screen and take instruction from a client, or follow along with a client who is leading the conversation. In any case, the technology clarifies and makes explicit what is subtle and hidden in face-to-face conversations: who is primarily responsible for directing a conversation. These conversations are clearly beneficial to the control students take over their learning and help us collaborate in ways likely to benefit them into their college and work lives.