Basic Tips for Tutoring

"If you give a man a fish he will eat for a day.
But if you teach him how to fish
he can eat for a lifetime." 
                                                     - Unknown 

Welcome the tutee and establish a positive relationship:

checkMutually discuss expectations.

checkEncourage discussion; you should talk very little, except to "prompt" and clarify.

checkFocus on higher-level learning as much as possible (concepts, goals, broad understanding) to show "how to fish," rather than making specific corrections.

Gather information, for you and the tutee:

checkMake sure the student comprehends the assignment.

checkFind out what the tutee believes the problem is.

Begin by pointing out a positive aspect of the student's work:

Analyze, diagnose and set priorities:

checkWhat is an underlying problem? What would be the best technique for explaining this concept? What is the most important item to work on?

checkFor a writing tutor, for example, there may be insufficient time to work on an entire paper.  Working on the first 2 pages, however, may serve as a "sample."

Ask questions to encourage the tutee to "fish" for answers.  When ending the tutoring session, try to ensure that the tutee walks away with one or two skills or tools to aid in successfully completing the assignment.

Try to help students learn how to learn, by developing mental processes and study skills, rather than just getting answers.  For example, show the use of word association. If the tutee is having difficulty remembering the definition of a word, ask what they think of when they see or hear that word. Then help them tie the thought to the meaning of the word. Or break a word into smaller units for ease in remembering (e.g., the word "separate" is easier to spell if one remembers there is "a rat" in the word.)

Make sure students do their own work, you are not responsible for their grades.

Expect students to come prepared with questions and completed assignments; they should also have all related materials necessary for the day's session.

Show tutees how to use textbooks and encourage them to find the section being discussed, making use of notes and handouts.

Encourage tutees with positive statements and suggestions for improvements.

Be sure students are aware of limited tutoring time and the need to stay on task.

Briefly review previous material to be sure that the student understands the information.

Clarify your role for your student and yourself:

checkYou are a tutor, not a teacher.

checkYou don't know all the answers.

checkAnd you are not there to "rescue" the student.

Describe how you go about grasping an abstract idea and give the tutee an idea of your reasoning process. Demonstrate how you put all your evidence together to come to a conclusion.  For example, to explain the word "renaissance," have the tutee look up the word in the dictionary. Point out the French origin of the word and focus on the "rebirth" meaning. Ask the tutee what things could be "reborn" Guide the tutee to think along the lines of art, literature, thinking, culture, etc. Then you might have the tutee focus on present-day pressures to revive culture, art etc. as they were in the "olden days." Explain that that same "rebirth" has happened throughout time.

You can also ask students to demonstrate their own ideas or techniques. This may help you find what concepts and techniques they have developed on their own.

Paraphrase: Put students' comments or questions into other words to show them you have understood what they're trying to say and to give them confidence that they are being heard.

Diagramming: People often need to see things visually before they can understand them. Letting your student do some of the diagramming is a good practice as well, for it involves them actively and lets you check on their understanding of what is being discussed. For example, it's much easier to visualize the process of passing a bill in the State Legislature  if you quickly draw a simple flow chart to describe the steps involved. The student will become actively involved by helping verbalize the necessary steps.

Questioning:  This is often called the Socratic Method because through your questions, students become able to form their own thought processes and get the "ah-ha!" insight necessary to answer the question. This technique also allows you to direct students to new possibilities for solutions, diagnose student' strengths and weaknesses and encourage discussion. Ask open-ended questions rather than those that can only be answered by a "yes" or "no." For example, you could ask: "What would you like to express in the theme of your paper? "What do you suppose the reader will understand from this paragraph?" "What is another word to describe this activity?"

Resources:  Sometimes you may not know the answer. This does not disqualify you from tutoring the student. No one can know everything, and everyone has a right to learn. You may refer the student to other resources. In doing so, you will show the student that it is okay for someone to ask for help.

Using the Text:  If your student is using a textbook, the answer will very often be found there. You can, in fact, make this a lesson in study skills by showing the student how to retrieve information. Look it up together.

Be unorthodox!  Don't be afraid to use humor, emotions or unusual references. People tend to learn better if it is associated with an event, person, metaphor, picture or saying that can be linked with a strong emotion.

Communication Skills

Communication:  This involves conveying your information as a tutor and receiving your tutee's response, and vice versa. The act of talking as well as listening are the two halves of communication and are critical to the tutoring process.

Rapport with the Tutee:  Be aware of the physical and emotional state of your tutee. Is he or she making eye contact with you? If not, what can you do to increase his or her comfort level? Is she/he fidgeting? Are you smiling and relaxed? Awareness of these details will help you build rapport, comfort and trust.

Relationship between Tutor and Tutee:  Your role as a tutor gives you a higher status or position in the tutoring relationship. Think about how you might feel talking with your professor or medical doctor. Awareness of the subtle "power differential" between you and your tutee can help you soften or moderate your approach.

Active (Reflective) Listening:  It is helpful to periodically repeat the tutee's concern or points in your own words to double-check your comprehension, to show that she is being heard, and to check whether his or her needs are being met. Ask for clarification. Respond to a question with one of your own.

Barriers to Communication:  Here are some examples of communication barriers: poor eye contact (but remember that in some cultures, it is considered rude to look someone in the eye); being easily distracted; (your) excessive or irrelevant talk; closed posture (such as tightly folded arms or rigid expression); a bored look; using the desk or a prop (such as pointing with your pen) as a barrier: physical "tics" such as leg shaking, finger tapping, repeated yawning, etc.

The Magic of "Oh" and "Mmm-hmm."  These non-judgmental and non-talky expressions, when used with sincerity, can encourage the tutee to say more and to think through what he is saying.

Increasing Sensitivity to Differences between You and the Tutee:

Cultural beliefs and behaviors (both yours and the tutee's) can affect the tutoring experience. In some cultures, such as here in American, outspokenness and individualism are prized. Other cultures, however, such as Pacific or Asian, value humility and identification with one's group. Awareness of cultural differences enables us to be more sensitive in relating and adjusting to our clients.

Communication styles:  The style of communication can vary from open or direct, to closed or indirect, communication. Your style may differ from your tutee's. Your challenge will be to allow for these differences, while maximizing mutual communication and achievement of tutoring goals.

Learning styles:  Are you a visual, auditory (hearing) or kinesthetic (sense of touch) learner? In the classroom, do you like seeing your instructor write on the board as you listen to the lecture? If so, you may be a visual and auditory learner. When studying, do you like to hold onto your pen, or perhaps walk around the room while memorizing: If so, you may also be a kinesthetic learner. Awareness of your own learning style(s) will help you relate to your tutee. (Hint: A student's difficulty in class may be due to a difference between the instructional style and his or her learning style.)

Gender differences can also be a source of misunderstanding:

We tend to treat male children differently from females. As adults, this often translates into different behaviors and beliefs, as well as stereotypes. There are also cultural differences. In the U.S., we often reward girls for excelling in school; many boys are not similarly rewarded. We often praise boys for being adventurous, while discouraging this in girls. Awareness of gender differences (which are learned, not genetic) can sensitize you in your tutoring.

Value Judgments are based on our belief systems (Including learned biases and prejudices):

Some value judgments are verbalized and known to us, while others are not. When we see a person with an old, smelly shirt and dirty sandals, do we assume the individual is a professor (or a street person)? Value judgments can also involve positive biases. Our reaction to a well-dressed, pretty woman may be different from our reaction to an older, unsmiling woman with thin hair. We may not be able to stop value judgments, but we can keep them out of the tutoring relationship.

Expectations and tutoring goals can be misunderstood or simply not communicated:

If the student expects the tutor to "fix everything," the tutor must set the boundaries for the tutee (and the tutor, as well).  A clear, brief explanation of what the tutor can and cannot do, particularly in the allotted time, will help to create a mutually satisfactory tutoring experience.

Tutor Handbook