The Three Biggest Pitfalls in Hiring a Math Tutor and How to Handle Them

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When searching for a math tutor there are things you need to have in place to ensure a good experience. Having a good tutor can be a great benefit – far more bang for your buck than classroom education – but there are three common problems that can interfere with your getting your money’s worth. These problems are inability to communicate, lack of real knowledge of the subject matter, and plain irresponsibility. On the other side of the equation, you can (if you are deliberate in your choosing) find a tutor who doesn’t merely avoid these problems but gives far greater benefit than all the teachers you’ve ever had combined.


Some brilliant mathematicians are notoriously bad communicators. (Those of us who are not downright schizophrenic, like John Nash, famously portrayed in A Beautiful Mind, often love the world of ideas especially because of its removal from real life!)

If you have an absent-minded-professor type for a tutor, you have an abundance of knowledge but no way to access it. If you have a present-minded tutor who knows how to nurture the students’ learning process, you have an invaluable aid to your learning.

What a good tutor and good tutoring company do to communicate clearly:

A good tutor listens. She/he is patient, she listens to your needs, she works with you at every step and continuously monitors your progress and takes you from where you are to where you want to be. (Not from where you aren’t.)

A good tutor is very experienced at tutoring-not just at classroom teaching, which is a very different activity. A good tutor is intuitive about students’ needs.

A good tutoring company hires good tutors, not just brilliant mathematicians, or certified teachers, or people looking to earn a buck. When it contracts a tutor, a good company director asks her/him to teach a sample lesson. They have a conversation. They interact.

An experienced tutoring director knows when someone can communicate well. They’ve paid attention to their students, to feedback, and have analyzed and reflected on the communications process to see what works.

Some students need things to be spoken slowly, some need things repeated many times, while others may need things to go fast in order to keep their attention focused.


An experienced tutor should not only take into consideration the student’s learning abilities and knowledge of a particular subject matter, but should also be able to take into consideration other factors as well. Very often the obstacle to understanding mathematics is not necessarily due to a person’s learning abilities, but is due to the person’s current psychological and emotional state. A student may have things going on at home, at work or in a relationship, which can cause a significant obstruction to learning. He or she will be with their tutor during a tutoring session, and instead of focusing on what the tutor is trying to explain, the student is engaged in thoughts pertaining to his/her problems. This can cause attention deficit, inability to focus, and lack of desire to learn or listen to the tutor. If taking on a student for long term tutoring, a good tutor or tutoring company should try as much as possible to take these factors into consideration and craft their tutoring sessions with this information in mind.


Being able to guarantee the results of your work is a big plus. An experienced tutor or tutoring company, after spending a couple of sessions with a student, and making the necessary assessments, should be able to tell how many sessions the student should need in order to do well in a course or to pass an exam. The tutors should be able to guarantee whether the student will do well in the course or on the exam (on the condition that the student does all the work that is assigned to him and cooperates with his tutor. There are many cases where families or individuals buy large tutoring packages for themselves or their families, go through the tutoring sessions, do all the necessary work, and then don’t end up doing well in their respective courses. This is unethical, because a tutoring company should take a certain measure of responsibility, to be able to guarantee the final outcomes in performance. If such a case occurs, then you should contact the company and ask for your money back. However, if you or your child spent time with a good tutor who has done all the work from his or her end, and you or your child did not participate or do the necessary work, then your failure should not be the company’s responsibility. At the same time, if a company or a tutor notices a student who is not interested in learning, this situation should be immediately addressed, and further efforts should be made to change the situation around. After carrying this out, if indeed there is no desire to continue on the student’s end, then all further sessions should be cancelled. There are many tutoring companies who take advantage of such students. Those, for example who are not interested in being tutored, but are forced to attend lessons by their parents. There is little or no benefit from such sessions.

People who apply to work as tutors at many tutoring companies have studied at some of the top universities in the country. Yet there are some candidates who shouldn’t be hired even with the kind of credentials any student of mathematics would envy, simply because they do not have listening skills.

In matching you with your tutor, a really good tutoring director listens carefully and gets a sense of what the best kind of match will be. And if he really has class, then if he doesn’t a match for you, he won’t pair you with a tutor who can’t really help your needs-he’ll simply refer you to one of his competitors.

What YOU can do to ensure your needs:

When you speak with a tutoring company the first time, be sure to ask about the communication skills of the tutors. Then, when you get matched up, have a conversation with the tutor yourself, and ask questions. Ask the tutor to explain a mathematical concept to you. If you don’t understand the explanation, or if you find you’re having to work hard to understand or keep up, this might not be worth pursuing.

What to look for:

• a great tutor will ask you questions while explaining, and find out if you’re following.
• a great tutor won’t assume that just because you’re hearing the words that you’re understanding.
• if you don’t understand the first explanation, a great tutor will explain it differently the second time, rather than simply repackaging the original explanation in different words.
• a tutor will have the attitude that if the explanation wasn’t clear, the student is not to blame (on the condition that you are cooperating and actually want to learn). The customer is always right.


A tutor needs to know the material not just well enough to pass the exam himself/herself but know it when on the spot, and be able to explain it as well as doing it. Real knowledge of subject matter is actually a different skill set from the ability to solve a problem and get a grade on a exam.

A tutor needs to have teaching-knowledge as well as learning knowledge. Concepts often seem to slip out of some people’s heads when they’re asked to explain them. A real understanding of the context for a mathematical concept is necessary, and of the fundamental principles involved, not merely a pat method for solving a problem. This is particularly true on the SAT or ACT, tests of reasoning rather than subject matter, and on higher level math courses such as college and graduate courses.

For higher-level courses: if you’re a college or graduate student, you need a tutoring company that specializes in tutoring for college graduate school classes. There are few people in New York City who are advanced enough in mathematics to be able to tutor these subjects, and very very few tutoring companies who have them. The best mathematicians in New York know the best places to work-so ask them which companies are good.

Some tutoring companies are geared toward their bottom line, not your learning. Their corporate structure legally requires them to maximize their profits-not your learning. They use rote teaching methods, formulas to ensure that quality is controlled. The downside of this is that, since the tutors aren’t free to depart from the tried-and-true methods, the improvement in students is very slight. The tutoring isn’t individualized or tailored to the student’s particular needs. As a business model it makes sense: put a large quantity of students through a rote program and ensure they’re all slightly satisfied. But the great additional gains that could have been garnered are all lost.

How a good tutoring company ensures knowledge of the subject matter:

Good companies test everyone who works for them. Potential tutors have to take several written and oral qualifying exams, to ensure complete knowledge of a subject and proper teaching skills. A good tutoring company doesn’t go by references alone.

Asking tutors to explain a concept aloud, on the spot, in order to see directly how they teach.

Many good companies give you a chance to “test-drive” a tutor for one session and guarantee a full refund if you’re not completely satisfied.

How you can ensure knowledge of subject matter:

When you approach a tutoring company, ask what credentials the tutors have. Look at the tutor profiles page. When talking with a tutor ask the tutor to explain why something works as well as how to do the math.

Factor #5: Responsibility

The reality is some tutors, especially in fast-paced New York City, just don’t show up, or don’t return phone calls for weeks at a time.

What A Good Company Does to Prevent Run-away Tutors

We’ve had a few come through our company even. We were astonished that some people could be so unprofessional. We learned.

Now, though our default attitude continues to be trust-based, we understand it is possible for this to occur, and if you came to us for tutoring you’d need to know about us that a tutor who does this is removed from her/his jobs and replaced, period. They don’t work for our company again. (Who knows, they may be working for some other company now-so be sure to do some due diligence!) We expect this is how any good company will handle this. But not all companies do have a backup tutor at the ready, one who’s fully competent to take over in the middle of the process and get your ready for your exams.

This kind of thing happens very rarely with tutoring companies, and is by far the most infrequent of the three problems we’ve outlined here. But when it does happen it can be very distressing for students. So it’s good to know you won’t run into that problem.

How to Do Your Due Diligence:

Ask a tutoring company if they’ve ever had this occur, and how they handled it. Ask for a guarantee that not only will your problem be addressed but that a backup tutor will be available immediately to ensure you’re ready for your exams in time. And that this backup tutor be at least as good as the original.

Summary: How to Get the Best Tutor for YOU

In summary, communication skill, real knowledge of the principles behind the material, and guarantees of responsiveness are the three most important things to ensure you’re getting a good tutoring experience that brings you to where you want to be in your studies and your grades. Don’t just take our word for it-ask us, ask whatever other company you look at out there.

Take the time to get it right the first time, since it will waste valuable time and make things that much more frantic if you have to do it all again later-plus adding more confusion to your studies or those of your child. And also, if you get a really good tutor, a really great match, you won’t just get the benefit of repairing what’s not been working in your education previously-you may find you are learning worlds more than you were before.

To recap:

What to ask the tutor or tutoring director:

• how do you/your tutors communicate? What tools do you use to make sure communication is getting through to me in a way that I actually get it?
• Explain a mathematical concept to me.
• Explain to me why this thing works, what’s the substance behind the method, as well as how to do the math.
• Have you/your tutors tutored before or only taught in a classroom?
• My learning style is _____. Do you have a tutor/can you tutor to my specific learning style?
• I don’t know what my learning style is. I’ve always had trouble with ____. Can you help me figure out what my learning style is, and will you/the tutor be able to tutor to that learning style?
• What qualifications do your tutors have?
• Ask if there are backup tutors in case of irresponsibility, and ask if the company has ever handled the situation of a runaway before.

What to look for:

• a great tutor will ask you questions while explaining, and find out if you’re following what she/he’s saying, rather than assuming you’re understanding (or that you’re the one who’s at fault if you don’t understand).
• a great tutor won’t assume that just because you’re hearing the words that you’re understanding.
• if you don’t understand the first explanation, a great tutor will explain it differently the second time, rather than simply repackaging the original explanation in different words.
• Backup tutors are available if anything should happen with your tutor.

Source by David Y

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