Thomas Williams is a Part-Time member of the faculty at Quinnipiac University.  He is a retired Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, a member of the Military Writer’s Guild, and tweets at @twilliams01301.  Divergent Options content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization or any group.

Title:  Assessment of a Tutoring Model as a Replacement for Conventional Teaching and Learning

Date Originally Written:  May 16, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  July 15, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is a retired military reservist who teaches (adjunct status) in higher education. The author believes that education is lagging in its role as a bulwark of national security. The article is written from the point of view of an educational outsider who has been privileged to teach part time at the undergraduate level since 2008, but is not that of an administrator who must work out the logistics.

Summary:  Today’s college graduates are not adequately prepared for the world they will inherit, especially with its complex national security challenges. The current system teaches students to regurgitate the answers they are instructed to value, thus creating “excellent sheep.” A tutoring regimen combining student-educator interaction, team discussions, and individual efforts, will better prepare current students for the challenges of tomorrow.

Text:  Too many undergraduates seek credentials rather than pursue knowledge. The degree is their goal. Learning is ancillary. This observation is not an indictment of the current generation of students but of the system. These students behave as rational actors in a system designed to be efficient and risk averse.

The education system values compliant behavior, submitting carefully crafted papers on time, scoring well on tests, and participating in class, usually earns an A grade. Yet the sad truth is that students can write papers and score well on tests without actually learning the material. Former Yale professor turned full-time author William Deresiewicz derides this circumstance as the “game of school” and these A students as “excellent sheep[1].”

Furthermore, the game of school leaves many graduates incapable of using habits of mind that constitute critical thinking. Students do not learn and practice critical thinking as a discrete skill. Students learn the strategies of critical thinking by tangibly associating its many abstract concepts with domain specific problems. In other words, real-world practice. For instance, a student cannot consider multiple points of view if they do not possess basic knowledge of an event’s participants. Absent domain knowledge critical thinking becomes a meaningless phrase.

The strategies of critical thinking are more than just using evidence in support of an argument, or minding the dozens of common heuristics. The critical thinker is capable of forming novel conclusions from the information at hand. If students merely parrot back the same truths they have been told to esteem, they are, no matter how clever, only answering questions[2]. They are not practicing critical thinking. It is a troubling prospect to consider that educators are training presumed most educated citizens to be excellent sheep.

Students who obtain credentials yet avoid an education will eventually harm our the United States’ ability to compete in the global market and compromise its ability to protect and advance its interests around the world[3]. What is worse, because educated citizens are more likely to hold their governments accountable, compromising said citizens ability to think on their own jeopardizes the foundations of the republic[4].

Some Colleges and Universities offer innovative degrees and programs, but they are the exception. There are also pedagogies that try to adopt student-centered approaches, everything from problem-based learning and case-method learning to flipped classrooms and inquiry. When combined with evidenced-based learning practices, they are all strong steps in the right direction. However, none are sufficient to desist the majority of students from seeking the efficient path toward a credential.

An alternative to the conventional 50-minute Monday, Wednesday, Friday regimen is a tutoring model such as what one might find in graduate school, or in the United Kingdom at Oxford. Making allowances for student developmental levels, a class of 20 students can be divided into four teams of five. These teams meet with their Professor for 50 minutes only, one day of the week. They met as a team without a Professor on another day of their own choosing to work on various projects. On the remaining 50-minute period of the week, they wrote a short paper, usually a reflection on learning. Despite the lack of constant supervision, it is common for students to accept the imperative that they come to each session well-prepared to engage in an in-depth conversation[5].

Evolving information technology systems also enable this alternative approach to work online, as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many educators and students to connect virtually.

Using this alternative, students shift from performance goals and an emphasis on products to mastery and the desire to understand in multiple contexts, take risks, and question. Initially this change in behavior is less about attitude and more the physical reality of having no back row in which to hide, but in the end the shift was genuine.

The Professor’s role is varied, but includes facilitating the discussions, recommending content readings (covering multiple perspectives), and monitoring student learning. A significant task is to watch for instances when students rely on misconceptions or use factually incorrect information in their arguments.

In many ways, teaching with a tutoring model resembles the military’s philosophy of mission command. There is an expectation of disciplined initiative from the student. The professor emphasizes purpose in any prompt, with permission given to deviate from the task to fit the purpose, and develops in students a tolerance for risk, which turns to acceptance as they develop competence. Trust replaces rules and policies.

There are always hiccups in a course that challenges convention, and some students struggle more than others. A few students even demand a return to a military-style command and control climate, as they worry about not giving the Professor what he or she wants. Paradoxically, giving students what they demand eliminates any chance of developing their critical thinking strategies. Sometimes the conversations that result from student failure offer more lessons than the topic at hand.

Only through risk taking on the part of Professors will the current system improve. When students test boundaries, this is not a reason to abandon the trust-based system. Instead, this testing is an opportunity to recognize and channel maverick behavior into something productive. Professors responding in a traditional way, with punitive action, ends the trust-based relationship. Students will quickly surmise that a Professors actions matter more than words and they will revert to doing only as they are told. Reducing fear is vital to fostering initiative.

In this alternative, while some students struggle early on, the end-of-course evaluations will likely be good. The students will embrace having ownership of the work and the freedom to explore. Student comments regularly contrast their experience in the tutoring model with their conventional classes and they express a desire to see more of the former. These comments are a clear signal that the typical undergraduate student truly does love learning and under the right circumstances can also love school[6].


[1] Deresiewicz, W. (2008). The disadvantages of an elite education. American Scholar, 77(3), 20.

[2] Willingham, D. T. (2008). Critical thinking: Why is it so hard to teach? Arts Education Policy Review, 109(4), 21-32. doi:10.3200/AEPR.109.4.21-32

[3] Skaggs, D. (2014). Higher education as a matter of national security: Can a democracy plan ahead? Liberal Education, 100(1), 32.

[4] Botero, J., Ponce, A., & Shleifer, A. (2013). Education, complaints, and accountability. The Journal of Law & Economics, 56(4), 959-996. doi:10.1086/674133

[5] Horn, J. (2013). Signature pedagogy/powerful pedagogy: The oxford tutorial system in the humanities. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 12(4), 350-366. doi:10.1177/1474022213483487

[6] Blum, S. D. (2016). “I love learning; I hate school”: An anthropology of college (1st ed.). Ithaca: Cornell University Press. doi:10.7591/j.ctt20d8b00