The effects of tutoring

Does it make a difference?

An action research project at The British School, Kathmandu, has undertaken a revealing exploration of the efficacy and impact of out-of-school tutoring. 

Tutoring: an escalating arms race in education [1]

“Should I get a tutor for my child?” is a question familiar to most teachers and one that is likely to be heard more frequently. The growth in private tuition, of both primary and secondary students, across the globe is well documented.

In the UK, the most recent investigation, undertaken by the Sutton Trust, found that “Private tuition is widespread and increasingly so. Nearly half of teachers have tutored and a quarter of teenagers have been tutored”. These figures are mirrored in other countries, yet, whilst there is much anecdotal evidence and discussion of the impact of private tutors, very little research has been done on the impact on learning. 


Research literature on the effects of private tutoring is not particularly plentiful. What there is tends to suggest that doing work outside school with an extra tutor has little or no impact. John Hattie includes tutoring in the category ‘Out-of-school curriculum experiences’ and this ranks 128th out of 138 factors in terms of level of influence on learning. Tutoring has been seen as a block on independent learning (The Independent 2016) and described as “Corrosive” by the Head of the Independent Association of Prep. Schools, yet still it is on the increase. At TBS we felt further investigation was warranted.

TBS Investigates

Our research initially focused on student attainment and student perspectives. To begin the investigation we carried out a survey to discover the extent of tutoring. Students in Years 7-13 were asked to volunteer to complete the survey and 72% of students completed the survey in November 2016.

Overview of tutoring

Tutor now and in the past 26 18.31%
Tutor now but not in the past 14 9.86%
Tutor not now but in the past 59 41.55%
Never had a tutor 43 30.28%
Total 142

It was clear that tutoring was widespread and the majority of students (61%) felt that their tutors made a useful difference in their learning. That 29% were not convinced of the value of tutoring and 9% felt it was definitely not useful suggested that further discussion with students would be interesting. Unsurprisingly the traditional areas of concern, resulting in the employment of a tutor, were Science, Languages and Mathematics.

Does tutoring make a difference?

We decided to measure the distance between a students’ baseline CAT score and their summer or public examination score. Of course this is a crude analysis – a CAT score is always higher and both scores are snapshots of performance/ability. However we thought it would provide a general picture so we compared the ‘with tutor’ and ‘without tutor’ groups to enable a comparison and then applied statistical analysis to check significance.

Interestingly, the statistics suggested the best way to improve English skills was to employ a Maths tutor! Other than that, there was little significant difference between the groups, suggesting that, at least in terms of examination performance, tutoring made little difference. Next we decided to try to unpick how students felt about their tutoring and what impact it might have in a wider sense.

Digging deeper – students’ perspectives

Further questioning and discussion provided revealing details about the nature of tuition and students’ views. There was a wide variation in how tutors were used. The type of subject, the length of time, the frequency per week, the cost, the structure and the reaction of our students to their tutors all varied. The norm for tutoring seemed to focus on preparing for tests. Rarely did tuition actually revolve around asking questions about difficult concepts. Overwhelmingly the pattern of tuition for older students was that the tutor brought some past paper questions, the students did one then they marked it together. In the most positive relationships, students would prepare by writing down questions and then the tutor would go through them to ‘fill the gaps in my understanding.’

Nevertheless, it was clear that some students were finding their tutors useful in terms of ensuring they actually did past papers and the regularity of the sessions meant it provided a structure for those who may not have been as set in their study habits. When the reason for the tutoring was specific with a goal in mind it seemed to be better received by the student, however, only one student really controlled the agenda of the tutoring in a way that ensured work was focussed on specific needs. 

Usually parents and grades were the key reasons for employing a tutor. There was a sense that it was ‘a way to keep parents off your back’ and was often being done to appease worried parents rather than for any educational gains. Lack of confidence and a lack of willingness to ask questions in lessons were also cited. One student talked about how she went all the way through Double Science IGCSE without saying a single word in any lesson.

Necessary evil?

Although for some there was a sense of dread – I hate thinking that I have to go home and work with my tutor. I think about it all day and it hangs over me like a cloud, it was accepted as a necessary evil – ‘We have to do it or we will not get the grades’. The efficacy of tutoring was seemingly entrenched in the minds of many although one of the most pro-tutor students finished his explanations with ‘so it was really useful, but if I am honest I could probably have done it all myself.’ 

“Soft” and “strict” tutors

Some students talked about the difference between ‘soft’ and ‘strict’ tutors with some very obviously colluding with or manipulating the ‘softer’ tutors. Work set to be done before the next session would not be done and it would then fill the next session whilst the tutor read the newspaper or did other work.

It was alarming that some students reported being told that they were ‘too stupid’ for a subject or their tutor belittled them for not knowing or understanding topics or concepts. One girl was told she was ‘unteachable’ and another that she was the ‘biggest idiot that had ever learnt Maths’. Although this is a very small sample there may be a gender issue at play here; the view of the Year 11 girls’ group was that tutors were ‘too mean.’ 

Key findings
  • Tutoring may have a small impact on levels of English attainment and interestingly those with lower attainment in Mathematics do better in English if they have a Mathematics tutor. Similarly low levels of English do seem to be improved by one to one tutor support.
  • In the main however, it appears as if the influence of tutoring on students’ performance is not significant.
  • The opportunity cost of having a tutor who takes time away from independent work may be significant and, on the whole, students do not enjoy working with a tutor outside of school. In some cases the relationships described verged on abusive.
  • There is a vast range of experiences of tutoring and no quality control other than a rough ‘try them and see’ kind of approach.
  • Student, parent and teacher views of tutoring are so different that it is worth opening up further debate about this.

This was a very worthwhile undertaking; our research provided much food for thought and will be used to inform our teaching and thus enhance learning. Our investigations continue. 

John Moore and Edwin Zwanenbeek

[1] The Sutton Report 2016


Feature Image: Pixabay

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