Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine that you and I are meeting on 16th Street and Park Avenue. I walk up to you a little flustered and then say, “I’m so annoyed. Just a moment ago, my favorite pocket watch fell out of my pocket and into a subway grate.” You might shrug, offer a few cheap words of sympathy and never think about it again. Now, let’s reimagine the scenario with key difference. Instead of me telling you it was “my favorite pocket watch,” I tell you it was “a 24 karat gold Patek Philippe pocket watch.” In this scenario, I would have told you something that would stick with you for the rest of your life. Each time you pass that block, your eyes will gaze into into the subway grate wondering if you might catch a glimpse of a priceless timepiece.
The neural phenomenon that would have made you remember that second exchange for the rest of your life is called mesolimbic activation, and it’s a subconscious process. We take in a lot of information throughout the day, and all the while, our brain is sorting through that information, deciding what is worth remembering and what isn’t. In example I gave you, the brain is making a easy decision for us. But in today’s information packed world, our brain struggles. Nowhere is this dynamic more easily observable than in the teenage brain, where vital lessons necessary for future success are forgotten and trivial gossip remains permanently ingrained.
Great tutors understand the teenage brain. They understand that even though students learn in school lessons that are vital for their future success, the student’s unconscious brain—the ultimate arbiter of what is remembered—will likely regard it as trivial. As a result, simply having a thorough understanding of concepts and processes is insufficient for a tutor. Instead, it is the tutor’s ability to speak to the part of students’ brains that decides whether it will internalize new information that makes them effective. And predictably, telling students if they do well on a test, they may one day be able to afford a Patek Philippe, won’t cut it.
How great tutors can take abstract ideas, and with them stir imaginations of students is more of an art than a science, but there are two overarching principles.
Principle 1: Demonstrate Practical Value
The first is that they must demonstrate mesolimbic activation by demonstrating practical value. Students need to see a purpose to what they are learning–even if that purpose isn’t immediately applicable. Because, if students believe they can benefit from newfound knowledge, they will internalize it. For example, I never teach students “rules of comma usage.” Rather, I tell them the easiest way to get turned away from their dream job is by placing unnecessary commas in emails. Suddenly, I have students who are keenly interested in what makes a comma necessary.
Principle 2: Engage the Imagination
The second principle for effective tutoring is to engage mesolimbic activation through story. The original Wikipedia was storytelling. We naturally internalize information if it is presented to us through a compelling story, and this natural ability makes it surprisingly easy to explain just once otherwise boring concepts. For example, when I introduce a mathematical concept called “logarithms” to students, I don’t simply explain what logarithms are because I’m not trying to put anybody to sleep. Rather, I tell an interesting (and largely fabricated) story about how hundreds of years ago a few grumpy mathematicians were stuck on a seemingly simple math problem. Their creative solution was to “pretend” they solved the question by doing the following… and then I explain logs.
When it really counts:
In the high stakes world of entrance exams, these tutoring skills are most important. Sure, students can memorize concepts on their own, but they are unlikely to recognize when they need to retrieve it. However, if a concept they have learned is in the fabric of their being by way of mesolimbic activation, they will easily recognize the solution. Just like your eyes will instinctively look for that Patek Philippe, students’ eyes will instinctively look for ways their newfound lessons can guide them to a solution.