Downsides of Excessive Tutoring at Catlin Gabel

By Jubilee Lopez, Sophie Peters, and Lauren Fogelstrom

CatlinSpeak (Portland, Oregon)

According to a recent CatlinSpeak survey, of 111 Upper School students, 45 percent of students have had or currently work with a tutor. The Learning Center and the many tutors it provides, are important resources available for Catlin Gabel students. The tutoring system’s contribution to student learning and understanding at Catlin Gabel is significant. However, due to the amount of tutoring occurring in our community, some students become dependent on the extra help of a tutor.

Cindy Murray, Catlin Gabel’s Learning Specialist, works with students who are seeking help with their schoolwork through Catlin Gabel’s associated tutors. She defined the system of tutoring at Catlin Gabel as “not really designed to just get kids better grade, but [rather] designed to improve understanding.”

She categorized tutored students at Catlin Gabel into three distinct groups. First, there are students with learning differences who require tutors to assist them with organization and structure of their time and efforts. Secondly, some tutors aid students who are new to Catlin Gabel and are struggling with Catlin Gabel’s curriculum. The third group of tutored students are ones in accelerated courses who elicit the help of tutors mostly to further excel in their classes. “[The last category] also sometimes may include parents who are really trying to get their kids up to a certain level [academically]” added Murray.

Because of the significant number of students who elicit help from tutors in the Catlin Gabel Upper School, the tutors’ role and style of assisting students is important as they do not want to not overstep their boundaries.

Peter Shulman, Head of the History Department, explained that, “A strong tutor will help the student master skills that are necessary with future success. A tutor who helps fix skill gaps without actually teaching the skill isn’t actually teaching the student.”

Jim Wysocki, Head of Upper School Math department, explains: “Tutors who are good at asking questions and guiding, without leading, students through concepts are, in my mind, the most beneficial.”

However, some students can begin to depend on their tutor too much. Beyond the attention Murray and others direct to ensure tutors do not overstep their boundaries, the more pertinent issue arises when students develop a condition described by Murray as “learned helplessness.”

Learned helplessness, as defined by Murray is “when [students] believe they can’t do [work] on their own, or without the support of a tutor.”

This concept is one of the most problematic habits that can stem from the excessive tutoring culture at Catlin Gabel. Many teachers in the Upper School have already identified and commented on this issue.

“The tutoring relationship could be one of dependency. While there are perhaps short-term advantages to that, the downside is much worse. There comes a time when the student will actually have write something on their own. It can be a real disadvantage if it’s not done right,” commented Shulman.

According to the survey, 75 percent of students met with their tutor one time per week, 21 percent met with their tutor two times a week, three percent met with their tutor three times a week and one percent met with their tutor four or more times a week.

When asked “were you ever worried that your tutor was helping you with your work too much (to a point that may be considered cheating)?” 11 percent of students answered “Yes.”

“Downfalls come from relying on the tutor to ‘fix’ something. Students can sometimes assume that because they can do it with a tutor they know it, and this is not always borne out in class or on an assessment,” said Wysocki.

Often, tutors identify this dependency before it becomes serious, and they attempt to fix it.

“Occasionally, a student becomes overly reliant on my services, usually towards the beginning of our time working together…. If it seems to be heading that way, we usually have a discussion that clarifies my role as his or her tutor,” said Danielle Frandina, a Catlin Gabel affiliated tutor.

While Upper School teachers are supportive of students and their different learning styles, all of the faculty that CatlinSpeak spoke with agreed that students should consult with them before acquiring the services of a tutor.

When asked if he suggests students to use tutors, Wysocki, commented: “That depends. I strongly encourage students to meet with me first. As the teacher in the classroom, and with the most data about performance, I feel that I have the most information to help someone. However, if it seems that there are issues beyond what I can help with, including needing regular meetings more often than I can offer, I suggest getting a tutor. I never recommend going to a tutor before seeing me.”

Becky Wynne and Nichole Tassoni, the Upper School’s Heads of Science and English, do not recommend their students meet with tutors. Instead, they too would prefer that their students meet with them.

Wynne spoke further on the increased habit of students to jumping to enlist the help of a tutor.

Of those who work with tutors, 61 percent of students work with a Catlin Gabel affiliated tutor, while 38 percent work with a private tutor.

One clear difference between private and Catlin Gabel affiliated tutors is that private tutors often don’t communicate with Catlin Gabel teachers as often or thoroughly.

But, despite whether or not a tutor is associated with Catlin, the fact remains that many students are beginning to adapt to relying on tutors for help.

“As a parent, I just think that I send my kids to a great school with great teachers and free periods where I shouldn’t have to get my kid a tutor,” Wynne explained.

There are pros and cons of working with a tutor. While having a tutor can be helpful for some students in the short term, it might hinder students’ learning in the long run by teaching them to rely on someone else for the most difficult parts of their work.

“I am aware that some tutors just do homework with the student, often significantly helping students through the most challenging – and often the most important parts – of a problem and the students don’t really learn how to do it on their own,” Wysocki commented.

Fortunately, at Catlin Gabel, the tutors that students work with are highly skilled, and they try to draw a solid line between helping too much and too little.

During the four years that Murray has been at Catlin Gabel, there have been two notable instances where tutors have helped a student to the point of plagiarism.

This type of activity happens so infrequently due to the clear boundaries that tutors set for themselves and the values of the school.

Frandina, outlined her boundaries: “My feedback, whether typed in the margins or provided verbally during our discussion in a session, often comes in the form of questions or readerly responses to the student’s writing, rather than prescriptive editing comments.” She continued, “These approaches ensure that the student’s voice is not compromised in his/her work, and keeps the responsibility on the student to make necessary changes to improve a given assignment.”

Although infrequent, when these instances surface, Catlin Gabel addresses the situations to the best of the school’s abilities. To prevent more circumstances like these, three years ago Murray initiated a requirement for tutors to submit a report after each session with students, evaluating details of their meeting.

Murray also explained that when questionable situations arise, they are addressed quickly and effectively by student’s teachers, tutor, and herself.

“One of the advantages of Catlin is that there is a Learning Center and students can get the help they need, in terms of figuring out their learning style or [addressing] a deficit. To be clear, the Learning Center is a huge resource. It’s super helpful to have it as a resource on campus,” Wynne noted.

Because of how positively the Learning Center’s resources influence many students at Catlin Gabel, it’s hard to know when and why the issue of learned helplessness is apparent in our community.

Murray estimated that between one fourth and one third of all students at Catlin Gabel are tutored at least once per cycle, suggesting that students of all ages and grades at Catlin Gabel feel pressure to seek additional help.

Perhaps this dependence, learned helplessness, comes from the challenging nature of the Catlin Gabel curriculum and pressure put on students by themselves, teachers and parents, to not only perform but excel in their courses.

“As a parent I have noticed the pressures in the parent community where there is a push to ‘keep up with the ‘Jones’s’,” noted Wynne.

This feeling was in alignment with a comment made by Murray explaining that parents often start their kids with tutoring in the 9th grade and continue the meetings through high school.

“There are some parents that push and push and push and will do anything to anything and everything to get to their kid to the next level academically” Murray commented.

Though she acknowledges these pressures, Wynne can provide the prospective of a teacher on this issue as well.

“Having tutors available is a strength of the school but it shouldn’t be an expectation that every student has a tutor. It should be an exception rather than a rule. If everyone’s doing it then we’re doing something wrong,” commented Wynne.

Perhaps it’s the high expectations placed on students at the school that lead many Catlin Gabel students to turn to tutors and begin relying on them too much.

Photo Credit: CatlinSpeak

About Grace Masback

Grace Masback, 17, aspires to give voice to the voiceless and holds the modest ambition of becoming the voice of Gen Z. Frustrated by the dearth of impactful platforms for teen journalists, she founded WANT, a news, sports, and entertainment website that aggregates the best in high school journalism from school newspapers and teen bloggers around the world (

Leave a Reply