Four Challenges to Online Tutoring (And What We Do About It)

Online tutoring is so convenient: you don’t waste time in traffic or lose any sessions to bad weather; you can chat calculus from the beach; and there are many more benefits to remote tutoring. Given how much of our social lives and business happen online, tutoring remotely makes supreme sense for many students. Videoconferencing software has come a long way in the last decade, but we still confront a few challenges to seamless, efficient tutoring sessions. Here are my top four online tutoring vexations:

1. Technical Difficulties

One frustration for online tutoring clients can be accessing or using videoconferencing software. It’s easy to expect devices to seamlessly and immediately provide content, and we often get irritable when they don’t. Though most of us know and accept that some technical difficulties are beyond anyone’s control, their impact can be eased through human communication.

Things go most smoothly when I reach out to clients ahead of our first online tutoring session and ask about which platform makes sense. While we want to leave room for any strong client preference, sending a Zoom link as a default is increasingly the most elegant solution for tutors and clients. I’ll recommend clients login 5-10 minutes before a session, so we can find any missing usernames and passwords, download any required software updates, and address any hardware or connection issues.

Students have used FaceTime most often to video chat in the past, in part because they’re often more comfortable with phones than full computers (some even opting to draft whole papers on their smartphones). FaceTime is great for sharing a quick note or connecting casually, but it’s designed to be mobile. During a tutoring session, students often learn a bit better with a stable hands-free set up that allows sustained, shared attention. It takes a little more planning but is often worth it.

2. The Impersonal Screen

There’s a reason loathsome business calls start on the topic of weather: it’s an attempt to connect people who may have come from very diverse environments to a mild, broadly shared human experience. When I work with a student in one of our offices, a whole shared world is readily evident: our friendly operations staff, colorful office, the weather outside, the emotional tone of those around us, and so on. We walk together to to my office and take the same path to the same place for the same reason. It’s easier for students to know what I’m reacting to. It’s easier for me to see how they’re processing their day and the study material. We’re in the same space. We’re together.

Being together while apart is challenging. When I’m particularly organized, I’ll text or email a student some viral video, blog post, or song to check out. If they do, it helps us increase the communication bandwidth we have – we shared the experience of watching OK Go animate a music video with printers, so we have a bit more shared environment and vocabulary. (Even if a student ignores that bit of cultural flotsam, the attempt gives a continuity of our conversations and a way into chatting about their week and their priorities at that moment).

Beyond that, I’ll always start out describing some very specific detail of my present space (Let me close the door over there…sorry my office is such a mess, etc.) and something about the day I’m having (I walked to the office and am self-conscious that I’m a bit sweaty…I’ve been drinking this tea here to stay hydrated). I want the student to know that I’m present where I am and to feel encouraged to be open about their external and mental environments. Sharing information starts before the logarithms or semi-colon talk begins, and it’s critical to get clear on the similarities and differences in our worlds.

3. The Meeting of Minds

In addition to warming and opening conversation, sharing academic materials is often crucial to a good online tutoring session. In the past, getting students on the same page as I am at the same time was one of the biggest barriers to smooth online learning. And it’s totally solvable.

Academic and test preparation differ here, as does our educational planning work. For test prep, PrepMatters provides all materials, so I can pull up a file and share screens, or I can work on a hard copy with an HD document camera. If my college planning colleagues are working with a student on college essays, a phone chat and shared, live editing of a Google document may be a better fit, where both the essay specialist and student can laser-focus to get just the right phrase to catch their perspective on the world.

If I’m doing academic work, though, especially for a math class, I need to access what a student is looking at. While I can give students excited, long-winded lectures that will help them deepen and expand their understanding of a topic, my ad-hoc lectures may not be the efficient path to success on the particulars of an imminent exam. Whenever I have an academic tutoring client, especially if there’s any urgency implicit in our initial contact, I’ll push to get an emailed file of whatever study packet or homework is proving challenging.

In an effective live session, my attention is not primarily on the substantive content (hopefully I know that well enough so that my problem solving and retrieval is automatic). Rather, it is on the small moments when a student registers confusion, frustration, illumination, etc. While the student is focused largely on performing the task, I can be minutely attentive to the student’s performance and give insights the student may not have noticed. Then we can be curious together about how we might helpful adjust a process.

4. The Distractions

While interacting with a screen, there is an expectation of partial focus: we toggle to respond to an email, check our calendars, then return to a longer task. The shared focus and attention of an in-person conversation increases (or should increase) our expectations of undivided attention. If there is an in-person distraction, we typically share it together: what is that noise? … look at that car with a giant pineapple attached! … oh man, I dripped coffee on my shirt again. If there is a clear distraction – like students texting under the desk while maintaining eye contact – it can be addressed in any number of ways. I’ll often tie the topic of “focus” into whatever we’re chatting about, maybe slow my cadence and lean in a bit, to let the student know that I know what’s up. A colleague with greater multitasking acumen takes a less subtle approach by texting the distracted student a quick “hey!”

Working with students online, though, I’m never quite as clear when their attention wanders. Perhaps their parents are sharing important information or they have a duty to care for siblings, or perhaps they are scrolling Instagram while I drone on about polynomials. Sometimes I’ll abruptly change topics, and the attentional whiplash gets their attention. Other times, I’ll model my own distraction and bringing my focus back to the task at hand. If the distraction seems persistent, I’ll call attention to it in a sympathetic way…after all, distractibility can be an issue for tutors as well, and it’s important that we be candid and open in our efforts to bracket out distractions to make room to learn together.