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Is having an engaged student a good thing?

In today's blog Programme Coordinator Tom discusses whether having an engaged tutee should be a tutor's goal.

At training sessions tutors often ask how they can engage their tutees more. How can they make tutorials more exciting, more entertaining, more engaging?

When I was a classroom teacher this was often the mantra too. Students should be engaged, and engaged seemed to mean busy, entertained, appearing to be excited by their learning. As a music teacher it was perhaps easier to find ways to do this in some settings, but I was always wary of doing so because I knew that lots of important learning just isn’t much fun.

As a musician I’ve had to practice my scales, both in terms of getting the physical movements fluent and understanding my lydian mode from my locrian. This has greatly improved my playing, I couldn’t have got very far without it, but there was never a time when practicing scales was exciting or fun. It was a chore and it still is.

It seems my instinctive dislike of engagement might be backed up by some real science.

No Pain, No Gain?

David Didau writes about a report by Tom Loveless for The Brown centre looking at PISA Data from 2012 that suggests:

“Countries that do well on student motivation do poorly on maths attainment and vice versa. Contrary to every intuition, student engagement and motivation may actually be retarding learning.”

Its not conclusive, but it might be the case that looking forward to your lessons and feeling engaged might not have much to do with whether you’re learning anything.

We all know from personal experience that a lot of the time you have to think hard and work hard to learn something new. It’s also the case that just because a tutee remembers something at the end of the tutorial doesn’t mean they’ve really learned it yet. That leaves a problem for the tutor. How do you know your tutee is learning anything?

It isn’t easy. You can’t see learning and there are no easy proxies, though making sure the tutee is working hard and checking understanding and recall over the longer term are probably the better proxies out of the ones we do have.

What should those tutors who worry about engaging their students do?

My advice is this:

  • Don’t worry about being entertaining, and be honest with your student. Sometimes they’ll have to work hard on something that isn’t fun. 
  • Don’t be disheartened if they’re not excited by whatever you’re working on. That doesn’t mean they’re not learning. 
  • Try and show them the progress they are making over the long term. Keep coming back to the same material you covered in previous lessons

There are over 750 tutors working with our students in London and Birmingham and while it would be lovely to have 750 students who are loving every second of every tutorial, it actually looks like 750 hard working students is much more desirable.

Image: Collegedegree360 via Flickr creative commons