Confidence: Why math videos are better than a tutor for many students

We recently received the email below from a customer who used our site, and I thought I’d share it because it brings up something I have been thinking about a long time regarding how in-person tutoring has its downsides, including for some people decreasing their math confidence.  And I think this email sort of crystallized the issue for me, illustrating something I’ve long suspected: that videos are better than a tutor for most people, not because it’s quicker or easier but because it makes you a stronger student instead of a weaker one.

First the email, then I’ll explain.  Allison M. writes:

“I just wanted to thank you guys, especially Chris, for what your service has done for me. I’m twenty-five, I had been stuck in a dead end, full-time retail job since I got out of high school, and I always wanted to go to college and move my life forward. The one major thing that made me think I wasn’t capable of getting a degree was the difficulty I have understanding math. I never even passed Algebra 1, despite hours of tutoring every week. I thought I was a hopeless case. Before going back to school at twenty-five, I wanted to try and improve my skills (and remind myself how to do the very basic math that I hadn’t done in years), and I stumbled upon your website and decided to try it to study for the Accuplacer. I committed to your program for months and sometimes stayed up until 2am studying up until the test. I took it two days ago and I placed in Math 227 (Stats)! I can graduate earlier than I thought possible because of you and I am so grateful! You are really making a difference for those of us who aren’t mathematically inclined, I have never felt so confident going into a difficult class. Thank you so much!”

We get a lot of emails from people who have had great success using our site to return to school after years or even decades.  That’s our strongest fan base.  But what stood out about this particular email is that back when Allison was struggling with high school math, she had a tutor!  Over the years, I’ve seen this type of thing often, where a tutor is actually counterproductive, and I think it illustrates one of the primary advantages of math videos over tutors (in addition to lower cost, easier scheduling, and high availability).

Tutors give you the instant gratification of having a helping hand, and getting you through a tough chapter, and helping you review.  But the penalty for that instant gratification is that (like sugar) you have longer-term consequences.  Most importantly, you start to rely on the tutor, and basically become less proactive because you can just save anything challenging for when the tutor is there.

For many students — maybe even the majority — having regular appointments with an in-person tutor results in a longer-term pattern along the lines of what Allison is describing, what I call “tutoring dependency syndrome”.

Here’s the pattern I saw a million times over the course of my 10-year tutoring career:

Before you get a tutor, you’re struggling, but you’re doing your best to get by: asking friends for help, reading the examples in the book, asking your teacher.  It’s obviously not totally working for you because otherwise you wouldn’t have gotten a tutor after all that, but at least you were being proactive and to some extent you were empowered to help yourself.  You were confident enough that you kept trying, and even though your efforts weren’t quite getting you over the goal line, you at least thought there was a way.  You were trying.

But what happens after you finally bite the bullet and get a tutor?  You stop asking your teacher for help.  You stop asking your friends.  You stop reading the examples in the book.  Instead, you just save your questions for the tutor, and the longer you’ve had a tutor, the more likely you are to just save all of your homework for your sessions, figuring “Hey, why even try since I’ll just end up asking Chris for help anyways?”  And the longer you get tutoring, the more this will happen.  This is even more likely to happen for students whose parents are paying the bills, because they have no financial motivation to quit tutoring.

So basically, after a few months or years of tutoring, you are less confident than you were because now you don’t even think it’s worth try without a tutor sitting beside you!  Your grade may have gone up, but your independence is reduced, and next semester you’ll more likely than not start the semester with a tutor rather than trying it on your own.  When someone (usually a parent) did tell me they were going to try next year without me, part of me was sad that I was losing a client (thus $$), but another part of me was happy that they were ready to go it alone for at least a while because they saw the value in trying to do things on their own.

Math videos don’t have the same pitfalls, though.  My videos are more like a fancy version of a textbook — with a personality and more down-to-earth explanations but still a textbook — so it’s still on you to do the work and learn.  You can’t just ask the video to do your homework for you.

Not everyone falls into this tutoring dependency cycle, but so many people do, and once it starts happening it’s very hard for the tutor to try to fix without firing the client.  What a good tutor will do is try and force you to do as much work as possible, kind of like a personal trainer who only steps in to help you on the last rep or two, encouraging you to try more on your own before our next session.

Bad tutors, on the other hand, will turn this situation into longer and more numerous sessions in order to get more billable hours.  Neither situation is optimum for the client.

What’s great about videos is that even though you’re getting an explanation from the videos, the video can’t do the problem for you.  The video can’t finish your homework for you.  The video can’t help you finish 3 weeks worth of homework the night before the test, so you have to plan ahead and keep up.

Even if you disagree with my interpretation of Allison’s email, and you don’t think the tutoring had anything to do with her high school struggles, I think you’ll agree that her recent success was all her: once she decided to return to school and study for the math test, she worked her butt off and committed herself 100% to her goal.  She jammed and worked and put in the long hours.

Success in math, and the confidence that comes from that, is only possible if you force yourself to do the work.  Tutors, even the most well-meaning ones (like I tried to be) can’t reverse human nature.  They can’t force you to work.  Almost everyone, after getting tutored for a while, will suffer from tutoring dependency syndrome to some degree.  Nobody works harder after they start tutoring.  It’s human nature to ease up a little, to take the pressure off yourself by leaning on someone else if they’re available.  Videos keep you independent.