Fri 08 Feb 2008 08:31 AM
Earlier this week, I received a call on my office phone. The caller explained that her son is taking an introductory philosophy course at another college in the area. He is having difficulty with the course, and she hoped that I could recommend a tutor. I asked if the son had spoken with the professor who is actually teaching the course. She said that he had spoken with the professor after class one day and asked where he coudl hire a tutor. The prof had recommended some office or other on campus, but that office was unable to match him with a tutor.
I suppose I could have recommended one of our graduate students as a possible tutor. The grad student might have been glad for the money, but would not have known what the professor was emphasizing or what the tests were going to be like. The professor knows these things.
So I recommended that the son should perhaps ask the professor of the course for help with the material. The professor, no doubt, has scheduled office hours.
Keep in mind that I don't know any of the faculty at this nearby college, so a fortiori I don't know who is teaching the course her son is taking. But I do know that most of my office hours are spent without any students attending them, and that students who attend office hours often leave less confused than they were when they came in.
I thought, but did not say: This kid is a college student. At some point in his life, he will have problems that can't be solved by his mom making some phone calls and spending some money.
Students (or their parental proxies) are often dubious of getting help from the instructor of a course. Perhaps they want to be given the answers, and they suspect (rightly) that that the professor will not just give them the answers. The reason for this, of course, is that many courses aim at teaching students cognitive skills. Beyond a certain point, it does not help them develop skills just to tell them what someone with the skills would have answered. The students need to work it out for themselves. Naturally, this also means that a tutor cannot just give the students answers.
Students (or their parental proxies) might also think that in order to get good grades they need to do better than their peers. To do that, they need an edge that their peers don't have: like a paid tutor. In courses graded on a curve, there is some wisdom in this. However, attending office hours also gives them an edge that most of their peers don't have. As I've already mentioned, most students don't attend office hours.
Students (or their proxies) might also just be applying a pattern that they've learned in prior domains. Performance on standardized tests typically improves after students have paid for a course. The SAT, LSAT, and GRE prep industries celebrate this fact.
Students (or their parental proxies) might also just be in the grip of the illusion that something they have to pay for is better than the default that is available for free. I have not been at this long enough to know if this attitude is more prevalent now than it used to be, but often students do want to pay a tutor for help they could get from a TA or instructor.
UPDATE: I could not find the link earlier, but Ron has written about similar tutorific phenomena.