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Context: I've been tutoring in software development for the better part of this year. I've been a hobbyist and student software engineer for the last 3 years and I have decent experience in a few different areas. Usually when someone approaches me regarding unfamiliar topics, I turn them to a different tutor.

Issue: I'm working with a student right now who is working on data structures. I'm familiar with basic data structures, but not very much so with what this student is working on. I'm trying my best to learn as I go and understand the concepts and I'm able to hang on, but I feel extremely guilty that I'm not proficient in this area. I would normally not tutor this student, but they insist that they prefer this style of tutoring (where I'm not perfectly familiar with the material) so that we can work through problems together with our time, rather than review already-solved questions, etc. This student is smart and hard-working and I enjoy tutoring them, apart from the aforementioned issues.

Question: What should I do? Should I continue tutoring them and overcome my guilt and understand them from their perspective? Should I dedicate more time than I already am to learning the topics they're learning? Should I end my tutoring with them? Or perhaps I'm thinking too deeply into this issue and should continue as I have been. Thanks.

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    "I'm working with a student right now who is working on data structures." What qualifications do you have to tutor data structure ?
    – Nobody
    Nov 7, 2023 at 3:31
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    @Nobody to be honest, not much. My qualifications go as far as studying simple data structures on leetcode, etc. and doing some research. I don't have any professional qualifications to tutor because I'm just a student and a hobbyist.
    – dvub
    Nov 7, 2023 at 3:42
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    Is this a paid relationship? Nothing in here really strikes me as related to academia. If it's a paid relationship, you're entered into a contract to provide something for which you are not (yet) qualified. You've got to figure out whether you can provide the service you're being paid for. Nov 7, 2023 at 4:07
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    @WolfgangBangerth It is a paid relationship. It is academia-related as I'm asking a question about best tutoring (and by extension, teaching) practices with clients. I understand your point on qualification -- As the marked answer points out, the student is well aware of the service they're paying for and are happy with the service.
    – dvub
    Nov 7, 2023 at 4:52
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    I think the answers are very good. I'd like to just add that as part of your effort to teach this student, if you need some help on how to improve/some difficult material, I teach data structure at my university this semester and would be happy to provide some support
    – JackRed
    Nov 7, 2023 at 11:19

4 Answers 4

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Things seem to be working so far: the student is happy with your mentoring and teaching style. As long as they (and whoever is paying you) are aware that you are not an expert in this specific topic, I would just suggest continuing as is.

Doing a paired research effort to understand a topic is a powerful way to learn.

In addition to this, you could invite an actual expert to a couple of your teaching sessions to make sure your student has understood the right concepts.

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    I think the last part is really important. Get an external evaluation to prevent getting to the end of the semester (or whatever period) to find out your and your student's assessment of the progress was dead wrong.
    – TAR86
    Nov 7, 2023 at 14:39
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    I doubt the last part will work well - a lot of the value in tutoring comes from the 1-to-1 venue. Making it 2-to-1 would be awkward, too many cooks spoil the broth, and brings up the question "why are you even attending? Send the other tutor instead."
    – Allure
    Nov 8, 2023 at 0:58
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    @Allure I think tutors and students need to stop with the all-knowing image of tutors. A tutor who is ready is learn, but lacks knowledge of some aspects is perfectly fine. Also, tutoring need not always be a 1-to-1 business. Having more people involved (such as TAs) is a good way to incorporate different view points. Nov 8, 2023 at 4:33
  • OP just needs to keep in mind that they are committing to a much more time-consuming task than normally (and if that is a commercial setting, bill accordingly). Obviously tutoring somebody in a topic you are already proficient in is a very different story than learning along with the student and trying to stay at least a half-step ahead of them.
    – xLeitix
    Nov 9, 2023 at 11:22
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    @xLeitix: But if they are themselves at least a bit interested in the subject, then this additional work they put in is actually also to their benefit to a degree greater than tutoring someone in a topic they already know.
    – tomasz
    Nov 10, 2023 at 0:47
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Imagine that you went to the grocery store to buy some cheese, but when you got to the register, the cashier said "Oh no, this cheese sucks, you're a rich, sophisticated person, you should buy better cheese, I would feel guilty if I sold you this." And you try to explain that you just need something quick for a sandwich and you didn't have the time or inclination to consult a proper cheesemonger, but the cashier absolutely refused to sell it to you. Your bemusement would quickly turn to annoyance and even indignation -- this store sells cheese, you want to buy cheese, why is this cashier creating a problem where there isn't one?

There is absolutely no indication in your post that the student is being taken advantage of. On the contrary, they are a "smart" adult, they are aware of your limitations, and they still want to work with you. And you want to work with them. Don't make this harder than it is.

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  • I agree with what I think your point is, but that is a weak analogy. A product is fundamentally different from personal services. Look at it this way, I'm a lawyer, I provide legal services. But I do civil appeals and civil litigation. If someone came with a criminal matter, I would refer them out. If they insisted, I would set an outrageous retainer fee and raise my rates as a gentle way to dissuade them because its not my field. And if they asked me to handle an SEC matter I would have to flatly decline because I could not become knowledgeable fast enough. Cheese is just cheese though. Nov 9, 2023 at 20:11
  • I likewise agree with what I think your point is, but I also find your analogy to be weak. A non-lawyer would have no way of knowing that you aren't competent as an SEC lawyer, so declining to represent them would be an ethical requirement. But OP's student, like my cheese customer, is quite capable of deciding for themselves whether OP adds value or not. And OP is just helping their student to learn material set by a qualified professor; the duty of care is way lower than if they were independently designing a curriculum and evaluating students.
    – cag51
    Nov 9, 2023 at 20:49
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In general, I think your instincts are spot on. If you do not have a reasonable degree of expertise in a field, you should not be tutoring. In general, I think you are doing the right thing by referring potential clients that want something you don't have expertise in to other potential tutors or even just turning them away when you have nowhere to refer them to.

The case you are describing though is different. You have someone that is well aware of your limitations and despite that specifically chose you for an articulable reason. They at least apparently are happy with the services you provided.

Under those specific circumstances, I do not think there is any reason for you to feel guilty or need to turn them away. If you were to be uncomfortable for other reasons, such as affirmatively not wanting to learn this material, then you are not obligated to provide your services. But under these specific circumstances, I do not think guilt or concerns about your ability should stop you.

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Students might not always need an expert; they need someone who makes them spend time with the material without being distracted by their phone. Also, tutoring is not always only about teaching the material, it is about teaching how to study.

You not being familiar with the topic is not a big issue if you know strategies on how to read the course material to extract the knowledge needed.

Students (in my experience) don't know how to read the course literature and many times just ignores it. Reading it together (even if it is new to you) is probably beneficial for the student. I suppose searching online (together) is a way for you to teach how to find answers.

As long as you are upfront about your skills, I do not see why not.

Finally, many questions are not about the material per se, but prerequisites.

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