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I'm tutoring a student. Unfortunately he's not very good; for example, he has trouble with basic manipulations that one would expect a student of his level to have mastered. He scored 15% in a recent test, and that was a lucky score, since some of those points came from multiple-choice questions that he guessed correctly.

I don't believe he's beyond saving, but any rescue would have to involve close oversight and substantially more time spent studying, i.e., more classes. Furthermore, if one were going to attempt a rescue, then the rescuer had better start as soon as possible since the student's lecturer will be moving on to new material and not waiting for him to catch up.

However, if I recommend this to him/his parents, then I am indirectly recommending they hire me for more classes. This sounds like a conflict of interest. I could say "hire another tutor", but this looks artificial because from the point of view of the student, it's obviously better to work with the tutor who already knows you. Can I ethically recommend the student take more classes?

Related: Is it ethical to profit by having my students buy my textbook? which also deals with the teacher recommending students do something that benefits them financially.

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    @cag51 I'm not sure, would have to ask. I suspect changing streams is possible, but the cost of doing so would be substantial. Dropping out is always an option, but the cost of doing that to one's lifetime earnings is even more substantial.
    – Allure
    Feb 23 at 3:47
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    Is the student in college? If so, why would you involve his parents? And if it’s him making the decision of whether to follow your advice, wouldn’t he be in a good position to understand that you’re giving him honest advice rather than out to scam him? (If he is so delusional that he can’t see the wisdom of your advice, that seems like a very bad sign and it’s possible he’s a lost cause.)
    – Dan Romik
    Feb 23 at 5:21
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    I think you can make clear that "take more classes" means "he needs more help than I can provide alone". Whether he needs a tutor for or in addition to those classes can be addressed separately.
    – chepner
    Feb 23 at 14:49
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    Is it ethical for a skilled tradesman to make recommendations that would benefit the tradesman? Its like asking for a plumber to look at your sink leaking but he comments about how he can hear your sump pump is about to fry itself. Or a carpenter that's there to put a cabinet in for you but notices a sagging floor. Maybe you hired an electrician to put in a dimmer switch in your bedroom and on the way in he says he can fix the fire hazard of a situation you have around your electrical box. That or you might be thinking of yourself as the mechanic offering to sell blinker fluid.
    – David S
    Feb 23 at 19:34
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    Ever met some selling something thinking that selling something is unethical? You're selling something, the fact that the other side actually needs what you're selling is a bonus. Go sell something.
    – DonQuiKong
    Feb 23 at 22:50

6 Answers 6

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I don't see a problem with saying what you think; indeed, some readers would consider it to be unethical not to say anything.

As for the problem of looking as if you are merely being self-serving, I think the easiest way is to tackle this head on. Have a conversation with the student and his parents, point to the evidence (e.g., the 15% grade) that you mention in your post, along with any other evidence that you have, and acknowledge that your comments leave them with at least four options:

  • to abandon all classes on the basis that they (student and parents) might be aiming for something that is unachievable
  • recognize that things are not going well but nonetheless continue the current classes until some natural end-point ... but not seek further tuition for the student
  • hire you to continue with more classes
  • hire someone else.

The parents, at least, are adults. They can think for themselves about what a 15% grade means, and what it means to have to study harder than your student appears to be doing. They might also have a better sense than you do about whether there is any external evidence that the student is even capable of achieving what they hope.

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    Good response. A good counter to conflict-of-interest scenarios is ruthless transparency. Putting the cards on the table, and making explicitly clear that this is your professional opinion and that they making their decision after careful consideration is the way to go. It is nonsense to exclude a careful and insightful tutor from the choices they have, but you have to put the possibility of a conflict of interest clearly in front of them to evaluate for themselves. Feb 23 at 13:02
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    Great answer overall, though I'd add a fifth option: Find a study group at school / study with friends or classmates, i.e. more studying, but no additional paid classes. The more options that are not "more money for OP", the further OP is from any ethical issues.
    – Sabine
    Feb 23 at 18:40
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If I have an electrician or a plumber at my house for some minor work, and they spot some major issue that they believe should be addressed, they absolutely should tell me, "even" if they would be the logical person to do so and get the business. What's the alternative? Not telling me, and me running the risk of having my house burn down, or a broken pipe, just so nobody could accuse them of trying to acquire more business?

If I as a customer suspect they are only trying to get more business, the way to go is to get informed, perhaps get a second opinion. And keep in mind that there is a continuum here - reasonable people can differ as to what motivation is stronger between helping the customer and getting more billable time.

In the present case, not saying anything would be unethical.

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  • In short, it's ethical provided that you are being honest in stating that the work needs doing. Feb 25 at 16:37
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A natural part of any advisory or teaching profession is to be candid with people about when they need more advice/teaching than they are presently using. Such situations are common in a range of professions and there is nothing inherently unethical with suggesting more advice/teaching if that is necessary. Indeed, it is common to give an initial set of advice or teaching and then provide an assessment about what further assistance might be beneficial. So long as you are not unduly influenced by a desire for more work that is not necessary to the development of the student, I see no problem with this.

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There is no ethical issue and no conflict of interest as long as you are delivering value in your tutoring. A medical doctor might also recognize that a patient needs for care from themself and recommend more frequent visits. This is only problematic if the doctor isn't improving the condition of the patient and is doing it just for the money.

So, the question you need to ask yourself, is whether you are effective with this student. What evidence do you have? The 15% is a worry for me. Are you taking the right approach? Do they have a condition (or an attitude) that makes you ineffective no matter what you do? Will more hours make a difference or does it require a difference in the nature of the interactions? Does the student want to succeed at this or are they being compelled?

Note that it is possible that a given tutor might be effective with some but not all students. That might be attitude from some students, but it might also be that the tutor needs to up their game, seeking a better match in tutoring technique. Either or both can be affecting what is going on.

I'll also note that some students do poorly in, say, a Calculus class because they are ill prepared to start. For some of them it is a result of poor (very poor) earlier teaching that left them without the resources to succeed later. I've seen students like this and even students who have deeply ingrained but wrong ideas about some facts because earlier teaching was harmful instead of helpful. It took me much of a year once to convince a student that I didn't hate him and wasn't lying to him about operator precedence in math and computing.

Sadly, some "teachers" think that explaining something (once) is enough to assure learning. Some teachers forget their own struggles with learning. Some teachers, especially bright ones, assume that all of their students learn easily, just like they did. Some teachers assume that their students all have the same interest in a subject that they do themselves. I had some of these misconceptions myself at the start of my career.

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    I think what is missing from this otherwise useful answer is putting the possibility of a conflict-of-interest explicitly on the table concerning the suggestion to take more lessons. Note that OP specifically said they believe the student might be salvaged. I remember a case where I made no headway whatsoever, no matter what I tried; in another case, however, a change of tack literally got the student from 10 to - well not 100 - but ~80 and later even higher. Sometimes the approach matters. Sometimes the teacher matters. Sometimes nothing matters. Feb 23 at 13:07
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First of all, it's not unethical to propose oneself if you have a conversation with the parents explaining the pros and cons. As for the reason not to go to other teachers because the student is comfortable with you is not necessarily true. Students in a school have various teachers who specialize in certain subjects. If they are good at what they do they can make a new student feel comfortable right away. Also, hearing different voices is a positive thing. You the tutor may know other teachers who are qualified in knowledge and temperament. If so that would be a better way. If you are concerned you can vet any teachers before they are accepted. Good parents will appreciate this and recommend you to others.

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If there is a mismatch between achievement and expectations then you should highlight this at the earliest opportunity.

Not doing so is unethical, and may cause upset for various reasons.

Both the bill payer and the student should know, unless there is a compelling reason to withhold information. e.g. if the student is young, or takes news very negatively, then it would be sensible to discuss with the parents first.

Note: they may opt to cancel the lessons, rather than asking for additional ones. If you think that additional lessons would be helpful then you should say so but you should only suggest this if you feel confident that this represents a good way forwards. Keep in mind that students don't have unlimited time and that self study is usually an important component to achieving progress. Doubling the tuition time won't double the self study time nor the support from school/lectures.

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