Friday, September 23, 2005

A review of studies on learning from human tutoring.

The literature reveals that specific tutoring tactics and strategies may cause learning. However it is revealed that not all learning opportunities meet their main purpose: the construction of new knowledge and learning. As VanLehn et al (2003) argues ‘a learning opportunity is only an opportunity to learn’ and that some learning opportunities seem to result in no learning. According to their research, people best learn when they meet an impasse or make an error and get stuck and ask to receive a tutorial explanation. For his research team, a tutoring session consists of ‘asymmetric collaboration where the tutor helps the students as they learn’. However, they showed that wordy explanations have limited effect. Moreover, they tried to test whether there is any association between mentioning ‘learning goals’ in the beginning of the learning activity and gaining the goals. Goals were associated with learning, but it wasn’t the setting of the goals that caused the learning. Students only learned from goals, when they achieved a high level of self-regulation and reflection in their learning.
Similarly, Chi et al (2001) explored in three case studies tutor effectiveness. They tested some common tutoring tactics and strategies like scaffoldings, feedback and explanations from three perspectives: tutor-centred, student-centred and interactive.
Regarding the tutor-centred perspective , her initial hypothesis was: Tutoring effectiveness arise from the tutors’ pedagogical skills. Chi et al (2001) suggested that if a tutor starts a tutoring session with an initiation question followed by confirmatory (negative or positive) feedback on student’s answer and then scaffolds to improve or elaborate the student’s answer in a successive series of exchanges, student may learn. In reality, this is a common strategy for tutors, despite its controversial effectiveness. They found that during this tutor-centred approach, there were many occasions in which learning opportunities remain ‘only opportunities’ as tutors were ignored by students or tutors ignored students’ confusion and they lost the chance to maximize their effectiveness within the best learning condition: the impasse. In addition, when long-winded didactic explanations as feedback were given to the students , no evidence of deep learning was occurred. It was assumed, therefore, that it is unwarranted to hypothesize that tutoring effectiveness arises solely from the tutor’s skilful use of tutoring tactics. It worth mentioning that tutors themselves learn the subject matter and it was found that tutoring is effective even when the tutors have no special tutoring skills. This latter finding, according to Chi et al (2001:478) ‘ is consistent with the interpretation that effectiveness of tutoring derives from their elicitation of construction, which requires tutors to have domain knowledge but not any special tutoring skills’

As far as the student-centre perspective is concerned, it was hypothesised that students’ constructive responses to tutors comments and questions should correlate to learning. This approach emphasises that tutoring is effective, not necessarily because tutors select and execute a specific move in a precise and skilful manner, but because these moves encourage the students to respond in ways that might cause learning. It was found that students were being more constructive in tutoring than a traditional classroom teaching. Moreover there is evidence to support that students who actively construct knowledge learn more than students who do not (Chi at al. 1989).

Finally, the third perspective, the interactive, hypothesises that tutoring effectiveness arise from the joint effort of both tutors and the students, in the sense that tutors move by taking into account the specific students’ moves and that students’ constructive responses on learning are elicited by the tutors. Both tutors and students construct an understanding or a shared meaning that neither partner initially understands. It is their interaction, negotiation of meaning that constructs the knowledge. However, as Chi et al (2001) said: ‘ no studies have directly examined how much interaction occurs in tutoring and what its implications are for learning’. This approach is close to the socio-constructivist learning of Vygotsky, which is in the centre of the learning technologists that try to better understand e-tutoring techniques.

To sum up, the literature shows that there are tutoring tactics and strategies that are associated with students’ learning. It is suggested, however, to test all those strategies in different contexts before any generalisation. As Online learning becomes common practice in Higher Education and CMC and Online Discussions a powerful tool to facilitate learning, but a highly problematic context as well, there is still the question of effective pedagogy to be answered. What is known about e-tutoring, e-moderation or e-facilitation? How can we best ‘teach’ and ‘learn’ on-line? These are some of the questions I partly try to answer in my PhD thesis.


Chi, M., Bassok, M., Lewis, M.W., Reinmann, P., & Glaser, R. (1989).’Self-explanations: how students study and use examples in learning to solve problems’, Cognitive Science, Vol.15, pp.145-182

Chi, M.(1997) Quantifying qualitative analyses of verbal data: A practical guide. Journal of the Learning Sciences, Vol.6, pp.271-313.

Chi, M., Siler, S., Jeong, H., Yamauchi, T., & Hausmann, R. (2001).’Learning from human tutoring’, Cognitive Science, Vol. 25, (special issue), pp.471-533

VanLehn, K.; Siler, S.; Murray,C.; Yamauchi,T & Baggett,W.B. (2003). ‘Why Do Only Some Events Cause Learning During Human Tutoring?’, Cognition and Instruction, Vol.21, no.3, pp.209-249


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