I'm a PhD student in physics, and I sometimes tutor undergrads in introductory physics classes on the side. Now, there's widespread agreement among people who teach or tutor physics that the only way to effectively learn the material is to use it, generally by working through practice problems in homework assignments and sample exams.

But recently I was contacted by a student who was interested in "tutoring," where by use of the quotes I mean that what she wanted was for me to do problems, and she would watch and ask questions when she was confused about something. At one point this student wrote a long email full of what seemed like psychological mumbo-jumbo trying to justify her assertion that she actually learns that way, and that the normal method of having her do the work would not be effective. I didn't believe it (thus I declined the tutoring assignment), but was I wrong? Are there actually students who don't learn by doing the work, and for whom it is a more effective strategy to just show them how to go through a problem? I would definitely appreciate pointers to educational psychology research on the matter, if anyone knows of any.

Note that I'm not talking about how to teach a topic for the first time, to a group of students who have never seen it before. In that case I know a bit of demonstration is necessary. The situation I'm asking about is reviewing for a final exam, where the student would (or should) have already learned the material in class and completed a homework assignment or two on it.

  • Is she an exceptional student? Then,perhaps she might be looking at learning new methods/techniques for solving particular types of problems. In such a situation, observing a particular method for the first time is usually more effective than making her come up with the method on her own. – Naresh May 2 '13 at 8:32
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    Monkey see, monkey do. – Per Alexandersson May 2 '13 at 9:56
  • @Naresh I never met this student in person, so I don't know, but generally speaking, exceptional students are not the ones who seek tutoring. Besides, as I mentioned in my last paragraph, I would be using methods which she should have already seen in class and used on homework assignments. – David Z May 2 '13 at 17:48
  • If you charge a lot, she may want to try them on her own later on. – user22748 Oct 13 '14 at 19:18

I am not an expert in cognitive science or psychology but I have a few years of teaching assistant experience behind me so I will have a go at this one and I suspect that a few others might even agree with me.

My general roles are in leading discussion sections and in lab sessions (information science: so combination of coding and data analysis in context with social science literature)

Now learning by watching aka observational learning is not a new concept. Scientists have been studying this for a long, long time. However, note the example literature cited in the previous links. There is a marked difference in learning how to strike a Bobo doll and acquiring a complex skill such as deriving Newton Law's of Motion

Having laid all of this expository work, I would like to argue that personally, I believe that observational learning exists and happens in the natural world around us. I just don't believe that one can acquire complex mathematical notions and concepts just by observing (unless this girl is some sort of a savant).

I think that this student was just trying to make you do her homework problems for her.

  • Makes sense to me. Though in this case the problems I would have been doing for the student were ungraded. optional review problems, not a homework assignment. – David Z May 2 '13 at 2:24
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    I cannot answer for the specific motivations for that student. But, if these were ungraded, optional problems, then 2 possibilities come to mind: 1. The student really believes that she can learn physics by just watching and not by practicing or 2. She had extra money to burn. In my present university, I have seen plenty of surprising examples of possibility 2. – Shion May 2 '13 at 2:40
  • +1 for the last sentence. It doesn't matter whether the student can learn by watching; they're not going to be graded on their ability to watch. – JeffE May 2 '13 at 14:22
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    A lot of people watch and listen first, and then learn later. What do you think happens in most University lectures? People watch and listen to someone go through the process. Maybe she wanted to hear you think aloud as you solved problems or made decisions about what to try. That said, there would eventually need to be a point where the student transitions from only watching to doing to be effective. – Irwin May 2 '13 at 15:11
  • @Irwin Understood, but as I mentioned in the question, this is for exam review. The student should have already been to the lectures and completed homework assignments on the material, so I would think the transition from watching to doing has already been passed. – David Z May 2 '13 at 18:24

I think the student is reasonable, up to a point, then she is unreasonable.

When tutoring a student (teaching of any kind, really), you should give some examples in order to give her the key information she will need in order to do the work which will be expected of her. However, after you have covered the key points, which includes showing her how to work through a problem or two (or three, depending on the situation) then you must assess her learning (and your teaching).

The natural way to assess is to have her produce, for example by solving problems. If she only wants to watch you and does not want to produce then it seems she is not interested in you assessing her and she is not interested in assessing herself. I would not start (or continue) tutoring this kind of student.

So, yes, perhaps she does learn best that way...but part of the educator's job is to see if the education is actually taking hold and the only way to do that is to have the student produce something.


I have done almost all of my math learning so far this way. Consequently, I know a whole lot of math and I know a whole lot about a lot of areas of math, but I suck at proving things, and my knowledge isn't terribly deep. Thankfully, I am finally going to be taking some pure math courses where I will have to prove things and develop my skills.

Less generally, I think that one can learn facts and knowledge and problem solving strategies by watching, but they will not develop skills. For that they need practice.

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    I have trouble putting I know a whole lot of math and my knowledge isn't terribly deep together. – scaaahu May 2 '13 at 8:44
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    Breadth, but not depth. – fhyve May 2 '13 at 9:20
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    I think that one can learn...problem solving strategies by watching, but they will not develop skills. — Say what? Problem solving is a skill. – JeffE May 2 '13 at 14:25
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    Learn about the strategy, but not be practiced in how to apply them. Knowing problem solving strategies is not the sum total of the skill of problem solving. – fhyve May 4 '13 at 18:55

If one were to wager, the smart money is that it's a con. However, in principle, an exceptional person certainly does not need to be subjected to the orthodox fake-rigor fake-serious pretense. That is, a person with some natural talent catches on very, very, very quickly, while other kids are effectively resisting and thinking of something else anyway.

By this point in my life, I am inclined to give people a chance to "be talented", rather than to doubt that they are, even while I might privately bet against their self-estimate or pretense. After all, letting a few people "game" the system while we treat serious people well is better than brutally policing everything, crushing sincere talented people, just to be sure that no one "gets more credit than they deserve".

Btw, I think it's not about "learning styles", but about degree of engagement, optimistically. (Or else it is a con, but it's better for all of us to try to believe it's not...)

  • I totally agree with your statement about exceptional students. But it would be very odd for an exceptional student to seek tutoring, which is why I don't think that quite applies to my particular situation. Besides, an exceptional student would be able to demonstrate their ability to do the work. – David Z May 17 '13 at 7:37
  • Exceptional students take help,not for their regular studies but for working out problems for olympiads etc. Of course, there are normal students/weak students who need tutoring as well. – Naresh May 17 '13 at 8:31

I would like to provide another perspective to this question; regardless whether or not the student is trying to fool you into doing her work for her, you can take a look at it from a practical perspective.

You (=tutor) are required to teach to her (=stuent) and presumably to many others like her. Likewise you are expected to read articles and do research. I would even argue that your primary task is to do research, not to teach undergrads. So, while your responsibilities are to prepare material and give lectures etc, their responsibility is to go through the material and do the work (hw/assignments). Given that you provide enough examples during the lectures, I don't see why you should go through the review or homework assignments for the student(s).

After all it's probably not feasible (time) or reasonable for you to do all that. Are you going to have individual sessions for every single student, so that their thoughts don't get disturbed by others who might ask questions? A compromise could be to hold one lecture where you solve old exam questions for the whole class. Our calculus teachers used to do that. THey would take an old exam, and solve each question, explaining as they go.

I am all for helping people with special needs (hearing aids, dyslexia etc) but "I don't want to do the homework assignments, you do them for me and I watch you solve them" is not a special need, it's good old laziness.

  • Interesting perspective, though I'm not sure if it quite applies to my situation. Tutoring is a one-on-one activity, privately arranged between the student and a tutor (me) who is not affiliated with the class. I have complete freedom to choose which tutoring assignments I accept and which I don't. So if I do this for one student, there is no obligation to do the same for others. – David Z May 17 '13 at 7:35
  • Oh, ok well I thought you were teaching a class. My apologies. – posdef May 17 '13 at 8:26

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