This post is part of a series written by Paper's tutors. Each post takes you behind the screen, uncovering their perspectives and expertise. This week, Tutor Disha explains how purported "barriers" to online tutoring are actually opportunities to improve students' sense of comfort and involvement in learning.

Chatting through a screen can be one of the most convenient forms of communication — but it also runs the risk of being disengaging. Especially in teacher-student or tutor-student settings, which require complete involvement of both parties, online learning can present just as many challenges as boons:

  • The student and the tutor are not in front of each other.
  • For privacy and security, there is anonymity between them.
  • Students can get impatient in online learning environments.

But Paper tutors have figured out how to use these challenges to their advantage.

The first and most difficult obstacle to overcome while tutoring online is blatant — the student and the tutor are not in the same place.

I only realized the importance of body language and facial expressions once I started tutoring online and compared it to my previous, in-person experiences with students. It is easy to gauge a student’s level of understanding and familiarity with the subject, as well as their comfort level with the tutors, just by reading their facial cues. When all you see is their first name in an online setting, it is difficult to get a sense of how the student feels about the session. And without tutors being able to directly show how invested they are in their sessions, students can feel neglected and impatient in remote environments.

While body language may be a key factor in determining a student’s interest, text messaging has evolved a virtual body language of its own.

Sending messages in lowercase letters or without proper punctuation marks are read as signs of low involvement. All-caps messages connote anger, and messages without emojis may be misunderstood as rude. A lack of exclamations gives a sense of curtness. In short, it is not just the content of the message that matters, but the actual shape of the message too. Although it may sound quite complicated, growing up in the digital age has already prepared both tutors and students for this type of communication. Leveraging this level of comfort using virtual communication allows tutors to overcome the purported challenges of chat-based tutoring.

Another challenge often cited about online tutoring is the anonymity and lack of personal understanding between student and tutor. However, based on my experience, the anonymity created by virtual chat platforms is actually the very thing that allows students on Paper to have positive experiences.

Anonymity facilitates the creation of a safe environment, where the student feels comfortable expressing the kind of assistance they need.

Tutors enhance this safety by welcoming students on the platform by instantly sending them a message upon being matched with them. Further, by not diving into any personal questions, student privacy is respected. Students are allowed to feel safe knowing that the tutor will support them in their studies no matter what their background or personal life looks like. The efficacy of this warm yet non-intrusive approach gets reflected in the typically positive session feedback we get from students and their increased involvement in the subject matter.

Lastly, students often feel impatient in online learning environments because they cannot see the tutor thinking about a question. They simply see a blank screen, on which a tutor’s reply is not popping up. One of Paper’s policies is to reply to students almost instantly. When tutors need time to think, tutors are required to let the student know they need time to get back to them, and the platform indicates to students when their tutors are in the process of typing.

Constant communication and reassurance is critical online. Keeping the student in the loop encourages them to be patient throughout the session.

Overall, several skills are transferable from traditional in-person tutoring to online tutoring. Not only so, but the current generation of tutors comes pre-equipped with knowledge of virtual body language and tech-etiquette. Given that, a little bit of practice, and a dedication to help students achieve their full potential, students on Paper are in great hands.

— Disha, PAPER Tutor

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Founded in 2014, Paper is an Educational Support System (ESS) providing students with 24/7 live help & essay review, and teachers with real-time feedback and intervention tools. Paper partners with districts across North America to close the achievement gap and support educational equity.