Should my college student get a academic tutor?

By Diane Schwemm

As parents of college students, we’re getting used to watching our kids’ lives from the sidelines. But naturally we still want to support them as they strive for academic success. What can we do when we sense they’re struggling, or if they come right out and tell us they need help?

Your instinct might be to jump right in and hire a French or chemistry tutor — your student may even be begging for one! Take a deep breath. Don’t go down this road until you’ve helped your student explore the many other possibilities for academic support on campus.

1. Talk to your student to get to the root of the problem.

Is it just one class or is the problem general? You can start with the same kinds of questions academic advisors and counselors ask students who come in looking for help (though you should probably be more roundabout to keep those fragile lines of communication open).

Believe it or not, loads of first (and even second) year students are still figuring out that good results in college-level classes require attendance and effort. Often the biggest challenge for students living independently for the first time is developing solid study habits.

  • Are you going to class?
  • Are you doing the reading?
  • How much time do you spend daily on homework?

2. Steer your student toward the rich resources available on campus.

Colleges want students to succeed. Whether your child attends a large public or small private school, there will be plentiful, high-quality, free academic support services available outside of class. Go to the website and browse the Student and Parent tabs for “Academic Resources” and “Academic Support Services.” You should see many or all of the following:

Professors’ Office Hours. This should be a student’s first stop when having trouble in a class. Professors really do want warm bodies in the chairs! Know the names of your child’s instructors and find out if she has gotten in the habit of dropping by office hours (the schedule will be listed on the syllabus and course website).

Study Sessions/Help Rooms. Academic departments and individual classes often hold regularly scheduled, drop-in study sessions. I spotted a Spanish department with free walk-in tutoring (there is a 15 minute per student per day limit, so don’t get carried away) and an undergrad engineering program with free drop-in tutoring sessions staffed by grad students. The “Academic Excellence Program” at Harvey Mudd College is a series of drop-in workshops built around content in the core classes and guided by trained upperclassmen student facilitators. This is way beyond homework help — the goal is to impart essential problem-solving and collaborative learning strategies.

Writing and Math Centers. Most schools, large and small, have a Writing Center where students can get free, individualized help. Such centers also offer workshops in time management, reading efficiency, exam prep, and more. They may provide e-mail consultations and/or online tutorials on topics such as technical writing and writing for English Language Learners. One college I researched had a “Quantitative Center” providing walk-in math, science, and economics help from faculty-approved peer tutors.

Residence Halls. On many campuses, dorms have “Academic Support Residents” who can help students locate academic support on campus. An example is the University of Colorado’s “Academic Support Assistance Program,” which arranges free small-group peer tutoring upon request for students in its residence halls.

3. If the need surpasses what can be accomplished through campus resources, consider private tutoring.

Even with all of the above, there will be times when private tutoring makes sense for your daughter. Perhaps she started college without the adequate background in a certain subject and, despite going to office hours and study sessions, still struggles with comprehension. Even with good study habits, she may not be doing as well as she wants to achieve her goals.

4. Ask your student how you can support her.

If she decides to try a tutor, she should initiate the process (even if you are paying), hire the tutor, and make (and keep!) all appointments herself. Many college websites include a “tutor locator”; individual departments will also maintain lists of recommended tutors. Hourly rates vary and financial aid may be available. Ask your child if she has a plan for working with her tutor that includes time-limited goals, and discuss how tutoring fits into your overall family higher education budget.

It can take a semester or two (or three…) for students to figure out how helpful office hours can be, and to realize that if they go to the regular Wednesday night study session they’ll see half their physics class there. It’s all part of each student’s personal journey to discover how she learns best.

Diane Schwemm is a fiction and non-fiction writer who lives with her family in Boulder, Colorado. She grew up in New England, and went to Amherst College and the University of Chicago. With three teenaged sons, one of whom is a college freshman, the subject of parenting college-aged and college-bound children is very close to her heart.