Private tuition can be worth the costs, but this is not always guaranteed

IS private tuition worth the costs? The word private can be interpreted in different ways. In the context of education, it has similar meanings to that of private health care, as it represents a potential advantage in obtaining quicker access and better resources for desired outcomes – whether in terms of educational attainment or health.

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Opinion: Dennis

This article explores the specific advantages that expert private tuition can offer in terms of learning benefits and, of course, there are costs.

Working in Asia for 25 years, I noted that the more-wealthy (and often the not-so-wealthy) families invest heavily in private tutors and enrichment classes to give their children what they see as ‘competitive advantage’ in the educational and occupational stakes.

In Singapore, for example, the average monthly expenditure on private tuition for 2018 was S$88.40, which adds up to S$1.4 billion for the year (Singapore Department of Statistics). Around 70% of parents send their children for some private tuition.

It is certainly the case that Asian students consistently perform better than the global average, and there are a number of factors that contribute to this. These include cultural values and practices in family socialisation, as well as aspects of their education systems. To what extent private tuition contributes to this heightened academic performance is difficult to ascertain as many factors combine to impact educational attainment. However, many parents believe that it does, and are prepared to make the investment.

Firstly, let’s deal with the costs, and these follow a similar pattern to those for private health care. In financial terms, tuition costs will vary depending on the personnel and services employed.

Invariably, the more complex and extensive health services will incur far greater financial resources than most private educational interventions. There can also be opportunity costs in terms of time and effort wasted, as hiring a private tutor may not lead to the desired gains in academic performance and/or learning capability – just as private health care does not always ensure better health outcomes.

Furthermore, some students may become over-dependent on the tutor, which may result in reduced personal responsibility and perseverance for doing their own schoolwork.

In terms of benefits, extensive research has shown that having a one-to-one teacher-learner arrangement is a highly effective learning situation for enhancing student attainment (Hattie, 2009) – assuming tutor expertise.

Much of the benefit results from personalised attention to the learning needs of individual students, enabling the tutor to quickly build rapport, identify the key knowledge and understanding gaps in the subject content, and then employ instructional strategies to address these (and any other) learning challenges (e.g. motivation, volition).

Apart from helping students to acquire the knowledge necessary to meet the subject specific learning outcomes, expert tutors will also seek to build their learning-to-learn capability and mindset to become self-directed as learners.

This will involve explaining and demonstrating how key aspects of the learning process work in terms of building understanding, setting clear achievable learning goals, using effective learning strategies (e.g. thinking and memory), and monitoring and evaluating their learning.

This whole learning process is facilitated by the tutor through the provision of specifically focused practice activities and ongoing two-way feedback to ensure that students achieve mastery of the learning outcomes (e.g. deep understanding and competence).

Achieving mastery of what is to be learned promotes motivation to continue learning and self-efficacy – the belief and feeling that ‘I can do this’. It also builds what is referred to as a Growth Mindset (Dweck, 2006), which is an established belief that with effort and persistence one can achieve success in learning and ‘grow intelligence’.

Of course, expert teaching helps to develop this, and that’s why we have schools and teachers. A world class education system would have the personnel and facilities to provide optimal learning environments and experiences for all students. However, in reality, public education systems, as well as public health systems, have limited resources, and high levels of immediate personalised attention may be limited.

It is for these reasons that many parents choose to invest in private tutors to provide additional learning opportunities for their children, which may make that crucial (albeit it often only a small) difference between academic success and failure. In my own family context, even though I was paying high fees to an international school, one of my daughters was not faring well in her French class, and felt a poor connection with the teachers style. While I was able to help her plan, manage, and evaluate her learning activities, I don’t speak French and could not provide the subject specific knowledge needed. Fortunately, I was able to secure a good private tutor to do this, and the result was a successful grade for university entry.

The powerful influence of having a personal tutor/coach is well illustrated in the case of top sportspeople. Despite having much expertise, most still employ a mentor/coach, not just to enhance specific technical aspects of sporting performance, but provide the psychological support necessary to manage emotions and maintain a positive mindset in critical performance situations.

Gallwey (2015) noted that top performers were able to self-regulate these mental processes in ways to consistently perform to their best potential. This ‘inner-game’, as he referred to it, is often the critical factor between success and failure, and this applies in all aspects of human activity. Low self-efficacy and poor self-esteem are major barriers for some students, and must be addressed in the learning relationship. Good teachers do this, but it is harder to personalise such support in a larger class situation than in a one-to-one learning context.

In summary, is private tuition worth the costs? In my experience it can be, but this is not guaranteed. The main mediating factors are the financial costs, and the availability of expert tutors for particular student learning needs. Of course, the receptiveness of individual students (e.g. personality and motivational status) will also impact outcomes. Skilful tutors can (though not always) address the challenges of individual differences in such areas.

Dennis Sale worked in the Singapore education system for 25 years as Advisor, Researcher, and Examiner. He coached over 15,000 teaching professionals and provided 100+ consultancies in the Asian region. Dennis is author of the books Creative Teachers: Self-directed Learners (Springer 2020) and Creative Teaching: An Evidence-Based Approach (Springer, 2015). To contact Dennis, visit dennissale.com.

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