Does tutoring work if it boosts confidence?

My two main questions about 1 to 1 tuition are:

  • Does it work?
  • What works?

But what do I mean by ‘does it work’? My usual assumption is that this refers to academic achievement but frequently students and parents report that improved confidence is their primary aim. I’ve seen this with Access Project parents and students too: confidence in a subject is often cited as the most important reason for having a tutor.

It was also an important factor for parents interviewed in Reading University’s review of the Explore Learning programme (PDF) . Parents interviewed for this study talked about their children’s ‘greater self-belief and confidence’, with many considering this more important than ‘increasing performance and attainment goals’.

This also chimes with Ireson and Rushforth’s survey of parental motivations (PDF) which showed increased self confidence to be the second most important reason for employing a private tutor, with 69% of parents interviewed citing this as their reason for doing so.

Of course confidence is not entirely unconnected to achievement, but there’s no guarantee they’re the same thing. for example that Explore Learning report apparently showed lots of students who were already above average in English still receiving tuition for little gain compared to a control group.

If pupils and parents want increased confidence in a subject and tuition gives them this, surely that means tuition is working even if the eventual grade might be the same as it would always have been.

Hard or Soft?

Maybe what we’re talking about here is the difference between hard and soft outcomes. Test results? You can put a definite number on those. They’re hard and robust, sciencey and reliable. And so people like me can assume they’re more important than soft, wooly stuff like people’s feelings.

When I put it like that (slightly facetiously) it’s obviously wrong. Emotions matter and just because they’re more difficult to measure doesn’t mean they’re less important. Hard and soft is a false distinction. Better to say easy-to-measure and tough-to-measure.

Is it useful to worry about a student’s emotional education?

Yes of course it is. Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed’‘* for instance talks about grit and the idea that certain characteristics, confidence being one, are vital to educational outcomes.

It’s not a clear cut issue though. Some studies suggest that confidence is possibly inversely linked to achievement. Over confidence can be a problem, perhaps a symptom of dumbing down. As I’ve written elsewhere:

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.”

I know motivation and confidence might not be exactly the same thing, you can be motivated to engage with something you’re not confident about, but they’re not a million miles away from each other.

So what’s a tutor to do?

A good tutor is a master of balancing the student’s emotional outlook with their educational needs. If all you did was practice material the student was confident with they might very well leave your tutorials feeling confident and secure. But if you never address the material that challenges them, never push them into areas they might not feel comfortable with (to begin with) no learning is going to take place.

For a private tutor that might bring up extra challenges. Are parents going to understand the need for necessary levels of struggle? Is the tutor going to have to worry about balancing the desire for a happy student who wants to attend tutorials and a challenged student who has to work hard on new material?

For those of us in the not-for-profit arena is there a similar problem? We are keen to measure academic improvement and feel like this is easier to do (although there are all sorts of problems with educational data). Are we making a mistake if we neglect the confidence issue? Do we need to measure that?

Does tutoring work if it boosts confidence?

If that’s what you want it to do, yes it probably does.

Does boosting confidence necessarily equal better performance?

No, not necessarily.

*The blurb on Paul Tough’s website describes the book as ‘profoundly hopeful’. I do love a bit of needless hyperbole.


Does tutoring work if it boosts confidence?

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