THE NATURE OF STUDENT-TUTOR INTERACTIONS:
A LOOK INSIDE A MATH HELP CENTRE
John Grant McLoughlin
Faculty of Education
Memorial University of Newfoundland
Why and how do students attend the math help centre and what sort
of learning and teaching takes place there? This question guided
the research that is to be discussed in this paper. The math help
centre served as the focal point for the research. The setting is
a room at a university campus in western New York. Its principal
role is to serve the student population of three first year mathematics
courses. These courses are designed for students who require some
form of basic skills development in mathematics or, alternatively, precalculus
preparation. Students in other courses are welcome to make use of
the services offered. However, priority is given to students in any
of the three courses.
The help centre is staffed from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Monday - Friday)
by tutors. The tutors include graduate students who serve as instructors
for the three aforementioned courses as well as undergraduate students.
The instructors are present in the math help centre two hours weekly.
Most undergraduate tutors spend anywhere from three to five hours weekly
in the math help centre.
Initially, the research was restricted to participant observation
and informal conversations with some students and tutors. The observations
allowed me to develop a sense of the help centre as an environment. Paraphrasing
Taylor and Bogdan (1984), as an observer my intent was to establish open
relationships with informants. "Working with informants is the hallmark
of ethnographic fieldwork. It involves an ongoing relationship" (Spradley
& McCurdy, 1972). The desire for such a relationship led me to
visit the help centre regularly (about twice weekly for 1-2 hours on average
per visit) over a six week period.
A total of 6 in-depth interviews were conducted. Five students
and a tutor were interviewed. These students (Ann, Cliff, Ellen,
Pam, and Shelley) all visited the math help centre 3 or 4 times weekly.
The tutor, Carla, spends 10 hours weekly in the help centre. The
transcripts of these interviews combine with my field notes from observations
and informal conversations to provide the data for this research.
It is this data that lays the foundation from which themes may develop.
The spirit of the research experience is captured by the following quotation:
"Our advice is to not hold too tightly to any theoretical interest, but
to explore phenomena as they emerge during observations (Taylor & Bogdan,
This spirit was exemplified by an early experience in the course
of the study. While exploring the possibility of doing research at
the help centre, I engaged in conversations with some tutors and the coordinator
of the centre. It was suggested by them that a core group of students visited
at regular hours because they had developed bonds with specific tutors.
The tutors adhere to a weekly schedule that remains constant throughout
the semester, thus making it feasible for such routines to establish themselves.
In fact, I expected to be observing such relationships.
However, this expectation was contradicted by my early experiences
in the context of the study. It appears that students have preferences
but it is not so common for strictly one-to-one relationships to develop.
Quoting Heidi, a tutor at the help centre:
There are some people I may see more of because they
drop in when I'm here but it's not specifically to see me.
The matching seems to be more random than I had initially
anticipated. The following excerpt from my field notes echoes this
sentiment. The conversation was between a student named Bob (B) and
J: Do you use the Math Place much?
This message was reiterated throughout the course of the study.
The idea of random matching is expanded upon further along in the paper.
B: Quite a bit.
J: Do you work with a specific tutor?
B: No, whoever is here but some are better.
Let us return to the umbrella question: "Why and how do
students attend a math help centre and what sort of learning and teaching
takes place there?" Themes have been extracted from the data in an
effort to address this question.
Three themes are discussed in this paper. The first of these
concerns the random matching of students and tutors. The second deals
with the routine nature of attendance. It is to be argued that these
two themes are overshadowed by a notion of convenience. By this,
I mean that what is convenient to the student takes precedence over their
desires to work with particular tutors or to be present at specific times.
The crux of the paper rests with the third theme: the help
centre as a crutch. We shall examine this theme in greater detail
than the others. Data will be presented that suggests that students
become dependent upon the help centre as a means of coping with mathematics.
Let us begin to address the research question through the medium
of the data. The idea of random matching provides a starting point
for our discussion. The following conversation with Pam, a student,
suggests that preferences are tempered by convenience. That is, the
timing of the visit to the math help centre takes precedence over the desire
to work with particular tutors:
J: Do you find yourself drawn to particular tutors or
particular people that you try to work with when you are there?
P: Yes. I work better with some than others.
J: Does that in any way affect the timing - the times that you
come to the help centre?
P: Oh that I come at certain times.
J: Knowing that certain people will be there.
P: Yeah I mean I come when it's good for me but you know yeah
I like to look for certain people.
J: So you wouldn't say that it influences the time. It's
more that when you're there.
P: Yeah (as I speak).
J: You sort of will look for certain people.
P: Yeah but I realize that certain people I work better with but
it's just basically the one-on-one. It could be anyone.
A similar story is narrated by Ellen:
J: Do you find yourself bonding with any particular tutors?
E: Yeah - a couple of them that I know that they just help me
more than the others do.
J: In what way?
E: Well two of them - their explanations, just the way they explain
the problem to me - just it comes out a lot better. It almost seems
like they know math a little bit more than the other ones, in my opinion.
I don't really know if they do or not, but.
J: So, now with these tutors has the bond developed a bit randomly
E: Probably, yeah. I think so. It's just something
that I notice just in that I mean I don't think it's a mutual one.
You know what I mean. I'll notice that I'll be looking for a specific
one and I'll wait for her if she is with someone else versus asking someone
who I don't think really explains it as well.
J: Would you say that you attend the help centre at certain times
because these people are there?
E: No, only when it's convenient for me. It just so happens
that they're usually there - like I know one isn't there on Monday, Wednesday
and Friday when I'm there but then two times I've been there on Tuesday
she's been there.
The voices of students indicated that they indeed exhibited
preferences. However, these preferences were secondary to their desire
to be present in the help centre at times which were convenient to them.
The following excerpts from interviews with two students, Shelley and Cliff,
lend further support to this idea:
J: Have you been developing a bond with particular tutors?
S: Going to certain ones?
S: Yeah, I guess so. I think that some do explain things
better. They just are better teachers. People get things across
easier than other people do. Yeah there is a difference but I don't
say get away if they come up or scram if I don't like the way they explain
J: You don't fix your schedule based upon who will be there.
J: You work with whoever is there.
S: (laughing) I'm not that organized to fix my schedule like that.
J: Have you found that in going to the help centre that you have
developed any sort of special bonds with particular tutors?
C: Yeah. Sometimes you know you find certain tutors can
explain pretty good and certain tutors can relate to you better than other
ones, you know, which is common.
J: How do you attend the help centre? Do you attend pretty
randomly or do you tend to have a routine that you follow?
C: Mainly I'd say in between routine and random. Usually
I come whenever like after class, like after my math class, or early in
the morning. Like if I have an hour break I'll come in between.
Or sometimes I'll just come if I get the chance to come.
J: So when you come to the help centre it's not really determined
then by who the tutor is - or do you find yourself coming because so and
so will be there?
C: No, I just come because I have a break or if I am
available to come but I'm under no obligations. Or if I really just
need to learn a problem, I'll come. So it depends on the person.
[OC: Cliff meant that the timing of the visit would determine the
person with whom he'd work.]
Recall that one element of the research question concerned
itself with "how" students attend the math help centre. That is,
do students attend in some random manner or do they integrate regular visits
into their schedules in some form of routine? Again, the bells of
convenience rang loud and clear through the data. The convenience
that affected the nature of student-tutor relationships also exhibited
itself through the students' descriptions of routine visiting patterns.
In the preceding conversation with Cliff, he described his somewhat
routine attendance. In doing so, he clearly stated "I'm under no
obligations." The emphasis was on convenience. Consider the following
excerpts from conversations with two other students, Ellen and Shelley
J: How do you attend the help centre? By that I mean do
you make it part of a routine for you or is it some place that you just
go to randomly?
E: It's a routine according to my time schedule. I commute
so I don't want to come up here unless I absolutely have to. So when
I have free time usually 11-12 or whatever Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
That's usually when I come. Only once in awhile if I'm really having
trouble or if we're having a quiz or a test coming up, then I'll come in
J: How do you attend the help centre? By that I mean do
you attend it in a sort of routine as part of your schedule or is it pretty
S: I'd say it's more routine now. Well I don't have a set
schedule. I'm trying to do that but I can't say I do. It's
just try to get in a couple of days a week. Probably I've been in
more now than I ever have because it gets harder and harder.
Another student, Ann, explained that she attended the help
centre in a routine manner:
J: How often do you tend to use the help centre?
A: Every day or sometimes I'll skip a day if I really understand
the assignment well.
J: Do you use it at a particular time each day?
A: Usually at the end of the day when my classes are over.
I'll spend maybe a half hour to an hour there.
As a tutor, Carla observed the preferences of students.
She describes her observations:
J: Is there generally consistent use of the help centre
Monday to Friday?
C: It seems like Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are more busy.
J: Is that do you think because they have math on those days?
C: Yeah. It's all to do with their schedules.
My own observations did not pick up on the strong bias towards
routine that has been expressed through the comments. Although the
observation times varied somewhat, I did not tend to see the same people
each week on a Monday morning between 10:30 and 11:30 or on a Wednesday
afternoon between 2 and 3 o'clock, for example. I was usually present
at those times during the course of the study. In fact, four students
failed to show up for interviews at agreed upon times. (One of these
interviews was conducted when we met another day at the help centre).
These students selected times at which they would meet me in the help centre.
Quoting one student:
Let's meet at the help centre because then if I forget
about the interview, I'll be there anyhow. I'm usually there at that
Why were these people unreliable? I can only conjecture
that they planned to be there but something else came up that was more
important to them.
A self-centredness expressed itself through convenient selection.
It is like having a routine but...or wanting to work with a particular
tutor but... The help centre certainly played an important role in the
day to day academic life of many students. Some spent as many hours
in the centre as they did in class (three and a half hours weekly).
The question "What brings you to the help centre?" produced responses such
Shelley: Well I need extra help. It's hard
to do it on my own and I think it's just easier when you know you have
somebody there to work with. It sort of disciplines. For myself
it's hard for me to just do it at home and it's better if I come into a
separate place - I don't know how to explain it but a place where it's
quiet and everyone is doing the same thing more or less and obviously if
I have a question, I can have it answered. I can't answer my own question
Ellen: Basically to help me with my homework because there
is no point in me sitting at home you know wasting time for like 2 or 3
hours or whatever when there's people there who are qualified to help me
work through the problems.
Jeanette: I don't get stuck as much.
The comments of Shelley and Ellen reflect a dependency of
sorts. In reviewing my field notes, I came across an informal conversation
between Carla and myself. This took place at the outset of the study.
The following few lines are quite telling:
C: People who come by regularly tend to do less work.
J: Do they become dependent on you?
C: Yes. I'm interested to see what you find.
Could it be that students utilize the math help centre as
a crutch? Consider the following scenario. Two students, Patsy and
Lloyd, are both visiting the help centre for the first time. There
is a copy of a take home test on the bulletin board. An attached
note informs tutors that they may assist students with the test.
A conversation transpired among the three of us:
J: Why did you come to the help centre today?
P: We had a take home test. I have some questions. I want
to get the correct answers but I also want to understand how to do them.
They will be tested again in the final.
J: Is that why you're here, Lloyd?
L: Yes. The take home test.
P: I usually go to my teacher for help. But I didn't think
it was fair to ask her lots of questions about the take home test.
Philip regularly visited the help centre. As he was
preparing to leave one morning, he shared these comments:
J: You use the help centre a lot.
P: Me and math don't get along. I work better here.
J: Do you come here as a form of discipline - so that you'll work
P: No. I can't do the math on my own. I can do it
here but when tests come, I can't do it.
My final interview was with Carla. At the time of the
interview, I had no recollection of her earlier comment about regular
students not working as hard. However, the issue of dependency surfaced.
She identified students' need for confirmation as a reason for coming to
the help centre. The issue of self esteem was raised:
J: What's your perspective on the students that use the
help centre in terms of their backgrounds or what's bringing them here?
C: Well it seems like lots of different people come in here but
a lot of the people who come in regularly have lots of trouble with math
- like it really scares the heck out of them. They are the ones who show
up all of the time and they are the ones that don't have so much problems
with the math. Just their self esteem I think. They just need to
be told, yeah you're doing it right. That's what I think.
J: How would you describe the learning that takes place in the
C: Learning to trust themselves. I mean there's personal
things like trusting you're going to get the right answer. Or that
when the answer in the back of the book is wrong often, to be able to trust
yourself that you did it right...
Further along in the interview...
J: How many students would you say, in the afternoons,
that you see, come in here 3 or 4 days a week?
C: I'd say about 12 that come in a lot. I'd say half of
them don't really need to be in here. I'm glad they are but it's
not for math. It's just for getting their confidence up.
J: Yeah. If you were able to change something about the
set up here, in terms of the way students interact with tutors, is there
something that you'd like to change/see changed?
C: I'd like to see more, as I was talking about, more interaction
of the students instead of just talking to them. I would like them
to get more involved in the process of what they're doing. That's
hard because it would be so easy for us to sit down and just do one of
these problems and say here's the answer but then it does absolutely nothing
for them. So I'd like to see more of that, I think. But some
of it is going on so I don't know what I would change exactly.
Carla's depiction of students as passive learners seems to
be reasonable. Ann used the phrase "they'll show you how to do it"
in an interview. When asked to explain what she meant, Ann replied:
They'll actually sit down with a piece of paper and look
at the problem you're doing and tell you exactly what you're doing wrong
for each individual problem which the teacher obviously doesn't have time
to do in a classroom situation.
One day I found myself observing a student, Barbara, and a
tutor, Marsha, who happened to also be Barbara's instructor. Barbara
seemed confused. The following dialogue ensued:
M: If you believe me that this is standard form, you
would erase everything you wrote.
B: (no response)
M: Erase everything on the page. [OC: Barbara erases
the work and Marsha proceeds to instruct her on how to do the question.]
B: I see now.
M: Is that completely factored?
M: Set it equal to 0. Is it fully factored?
M: No, it isn't. [OC: Barbara smirks and completes
M: Are you trying to do things too fast. People that take
more time and write neatly tend to make less errors.
It seemed like the help centre offered a reliable source of
support to these students. However, its real function may be to act
as a coping mechanism - a crutch on which one could rest. With respect
to tutors, Ellen had this to say:
...you know they're not the replacement of a teacher
over there but I mean it's a lot better than struggling by myself.
When Ellen was invited to add any final comments at the conclusion
of her interview, this is what she said about the help centre:
They've been doing their own surveys I guess about having
it continue and I think it definitely should. It definitely has helped
me because there have been some homeworks (sic) that I mean I've had no
clue as to what to do. Then I'll go in and they'll help me through
it and then I'll see how it's done and then I can do it myself and then
you know it's done.
Carla spoke about the learning objectives of students who
used the help centre:
C: Other people they seem like they want it as a crutch.
There are a lot of people who do their homework in here. They want
to be able to have it checked in case they come up with problems.
I'd say most of them are that kind. They have a difficult subject
to get through and they just want someone here.
J: Do many of the students come in here with the intent of saying
"Look at I don't understand a topic (e.g., inequalities). Can you
help me with inequalities?" or is the help they want generally geared to
C: Most want help with a question in the book but sometimes it
will turn out that they actually do want help with a subject but they'll
never come out and say it - hardly ever.
J: So that you're saying as the tutor you would pick up that they're
looking for help beyond that question.
Here we have evidence that places the responsibility on the
tutor to root out the question that the student may really want to ask.
The student is playing a passive role in his/her own learning process.
The metaphor of the passive student leaning on a crutch seems to categorize
much of the learning that is taking place in the help centre.
Initially I set out to shed insight on the following question:
"Why and how do students attend the math help centre and what sort of learning
takes place there?" In developing the question, it was the learning
and teaching aspects which interested me most. However, this paper
may not reflect that. Why?
Insight into the nature of learning and teaching has been gained
through the discussion of each of the themes; however, the paper has taken
a different flavour the one I might have anticipated before delving into
the data. The dependent nature of the student population raises concerns
about mathematics education. My experiences as a mathematics educator
have led me to believe that the teaching of mathematics as a product oriented
subject leads to increased levels of dependency. In contrast, teaching
which places greater emphasis on process provides students with greater
potential to adapt their knowledge. This conceptual basis reduces
the dependency upon others for ideas and insight.
What are the implications for the help centre? If dependency
upon the centre is perceived to be undesirable, then tutors and instructors
may consider shifting the emphasis of teaching and testing from product
towards process. I have seen various examples of tests. In
my opinion, these tests have been extremely product oriented. The
name of the game appears to be getting the answer through the use of algorithmic
procedures. If this is the gist of the game, then students have seemingly
learned a strategy that allows them to work effectively within the rules.
While chatting with Cliff about the nature of questions and learning
in the help centre, he provided further insight into the role of the help
centre in his own academic pursuits. His assessment of the situation
indicates that his personal strategy is in place:
...O.K. when I'm going for a test or a test is coming
around, and I realize a certain section I was weak in, 'cause a lot of
times you try 'cause we get a lot of homework and it's like you got to
keep up with the homework trying the homework you get, you know.
I tend to worry more about the homework and the grade. It's like
I have to finish my homework. But when it comes test time and she,
the teacher, kind of slows down on the homework you know you have to think
about what subject, you know what chapter you were weak on and then you
go back and tell them "Could you teach, you know help me with this chapter
all over because I think a lot of things I didn't understand but I had
to go by it to keep up you know?"...
It is not my desire, nor is it my place, to judge the math
help centre. Though I must confess that it disappoints me to see
more students who perceive mathematics as a discipline defined by right
and wrong answers. The need to be right brings out a body of students
who rely heavily upon the help centre.
I wonder if the instructors would be open to placing greater emphasis
on process in their teaching? Or are they people who excelled in
the same game? Are mathematics teachers open to exposing their weaknesses?
Excellent teaching of mathematics requires a strong conceptual basis. Outstanding
performance on product oriented tests commonly does not demand such understanding.
The dependency level of the students suggests to me that they have not
been encouraged to develop a conceptual knowledge in their mathematical
experiences at university or other levels of education.
I would like to close with a challenge to take risks and experiment
with a process oriented emphasis. When that "I can't do this" becomes
"Wow! I got it!", students feel proud of their accomplishment.
That is how self confidence can grow!
Spradley, James P. and McCurdy, David W. (1972). The Cultural
Experience: Ethnography in Complex Society. Chicago:
Science Research Associates.
Taylor, Steven J. and Bogdan, Robert (1984). Introduction
to Qualitative Research Methods. New York: John Wiley and Sons.