Expert Tutors

Carl Wieman (who won a Nobel for deepening our understanding of Bose-Einstein condensation) lays out some of the important findings and methodology in his talk “Science Education in the 21st Century: Using the Tools of Science to Teach Science“. In that talk he outlines some of the important responsibilies of expert tutors:

  • Focus on the student’s motivation. They try to provide context for the material, and pique the natural curiosity of each student. This requires understanding the student’s background knowledge, and relating material to that knowledge.
  • Don’t praise the person, praise the work, effort, and process. By focusing attention away from the person, we learn that effort pays off, that systematic reasoning can lead to reliable answers. We also avoid instilling a false confidence in the learner, so that they will continue to chose challenging exercises, rather than freeze up when something becomes difficult.
  • Provide feedback appropriate to the knowledge level of the learner in a timely manner. This takes an understanding of what students do and do not know, what amount of jargon they can handle, and what style of learning is most appropriate. By providing the feedback quickly, you can do more iterations of learning and questioning in less time.
  • Almost never tell the student anything. Instead, lead them through a Socratic dialog, in which the student is actively explaining, figuring, and processing the material. Especially, Don’t throw in items of knowledge that are only tangentially related with the purpose of appearing smarter than the learner.
  • Ask challenging questions within the student’s ability to answer.
  • Allow the student to make mistakes. Don’t correct early answers, instead allow the dialog to arrive at a question where the student figures out an earlier step is faulty. The student should discover their own mistake as a part of the explanatory process to later questions.
  • Force the student to reflect: how they learned, the process, the result, how it generalizes. Let them build and understanding by relating the new knowledge in a larger context. Let them see that progress has been made. Reinforce the success with self-reflection.
  • Probe for the students knowledge and state. Most incorrect answers are due to an incorrect conceptual model of the problem. The tutor has to find the fault, and lead the student to uncover through their own effort by a sequence of questions.
  • Force students to work their brain. Don’t let the off the hook with one question correctly answered. Continue the challenge, reinforce the knowledge. Explore the ways in which in applies.

The idea is to guide the novice into expert-like thinking patterns.

In addition, Wieman says that experts have the ability to “monitor their own thinking” in their area of expertise. They have the ability to ask themselves, “Do I really understand this, is this a sensible way to be solving this problem, how can I check my understanding?”
“Experts can do that. Novices can’t,” says Wieman.

In the end, there really is no such thing as teaching. There is just learning. Teachers can help you learn by pushing you and prodding you and guiding you along the way. But they can’t hand you knowledge, the way a traditional lecture is designed to do.

Novice Expert
Content is made of isolated pieces of information to be memorized. Content is a coherent structure of interrelated concepts.
Knowledge is handed down by an authority and has little to do with real life. Knowledge describes nature and is established by experiment.
Problem solving is pattern matching memorized recipes to given problem. Problem solving is using systematic, concept-based strategies that have wide applicability.
Further References:
NAS Press “How People Learn
Redish, “Teaching Physics” (Phys. Ed. Res.)
Handelsman, et al. “Scientific Teaching”
Wieman, (this talk) Change Magazine – Oct. 07