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Tutor Training: Module 3: Getting Started

Module 3.1. - Beginning a Session

The first moments in a tutoring session set the tone for what will follow. Take this time to gather the information you will need to run a productive session. During this time, you will also define what role you’ll play in the session.

First Impressions

Be aware of the impression you’re making on students during your first exchanges with them. Because a tutoring is more personal compared to a classroom situation, and because you aren’t in a position where you are marking the student’s work, you have an opportunity to create something closer to a peer-to-peer dynamic by

  • being friendly and welcoming,
  • building a rapport (keeping in mind professionalism and ethics)
  • clarifying your role in the situation (What is your job? What is not?)
  • establishing comfortable physical boundaries,
  • sincerely inquiring into the student’s concerns,
  • negotiating a plan with the student (What are we going to work on together?)

Creating a comfortable atmosphere can lead to a more productive tutoring session.

Body Language

Non-verbal communication is as important as verbal communication. Be aware of your body language and voice intonation. A session doesn’t need to start with a formal handshake; however, you should try to make the student feel comfortable by showing a relaxed and comfortable attitude. You can do this by facing the student, making occasional eye contact, standing with a relaxed posture, and motioning to the student where they can sit (often students feel awkward and don’t know where they’re supposed to sit).

If you can, sit beside the student so that you can both see the pages or texts. Sit a comfortable distance away from the student – close enough to share supplies back and forth, but not so close as to infringe on a student’s sense of personal space. Watch the student’s body language to determine whether they are comfortable with your proximity.


Setting Boundaries

As important as physical boundaries are the boundaries you set for your role as a tutor. These boundaries structure the relationship and inform your students about what you can and cannot do in a tutoring session. By sticking to these boundaries, you can be a better tutor and avoid confusing the student.

Here are some strategies for setting and maintaining boundaries:

  • Sticking to your tutoring hours (changing them under pressure from the student suggests your decisions can be challenged).
  • Limiting details about your personal life to academic examples, but avoiding naming names or courses, especially if they are cast in a critical light.
  • Being aware of the signals your verbal and non-verbal communication send (tone of voice, eye contact, negative language).
  • Being forthcoming about what you can and cannot accomplish in the session and in your role as tutor (e.g., “we have twenty minutes right now, so what are your priorities for this session?” or “we’re really busy here today, so it will be good for me know what your priorities are for what you’d like help with today”).
  • Stating your limits clearly (in a friendly tone, of course).
  • Avoiding exceptions. Inconsistent treatment of students can send the wrong message and make it more difficult to establish boundaries in the future. It’s reasonable on a quiet day to spend extra time with a student; however, just be sure to explain that the extra time is an exception to the centre’s usual practice, and in the future, it is up to the discretion of the tutor based on how busy the centre is. That way, the student will not expect the same extra time in the future.
  • Referring students, if what they’re asking for is beyond your expertise. Tutors do a lot of referral, especially to library services, tech help (ICT), assistive tech. via Access and Equity Services, Campus Wellness, the Language Centre, and to study skills programming at Student Learning Services in the Library. In addition, they do a lot of encouraging students to talk to their professors and TAs (students are often intimidated). Finally, tutors often look up information with the student beside them, thereby modelling how to find (online, or in physical resources such as textbooks) the information about campus services and/or resources specific to the topic at hand.

If you reflect on a tutoring session and think that your boundaries have been too loose or too rigid, don’t be hard on yourself. Just take steps to avoid it in the future.

Setting and maintaining boundaries will help you and the student to avoid the frustration that comes from a misunderstanding of roles.

Preparation to Learn

Part of the introduction process involves preparing students to learn. If students are panicked, angry, or upset, let them express their concerns before starting the session. As discussed in Module 1, showing empathy or actively listening will help. Once you have addressed this barrier, you will be better able to help the student academically.

Give the student time to calm down, but don’t let them stray too far from the academic focus. Try to keep the student focused on what they can control. For example, a student may complain about a class assignment, but they have little power to change that assignment; tactfully listen, then redirect his or her attention to positive steps to take to work toward successfully finishing the assignment.

Finally, you can prepare students to learn by explaining that tutoring can work to make them less dependent on needing tutoring in the future. A tutor is meant to help students learn how to do the work themselves so that they can be empowered to learn independently.

Module 3.2. - Needs Assessment

Gathering Information

At the beginning of a session, take a little time to collect the information needed to structure the rest of the session. Start by asking a few basic questions about why the student came:

  • What class is this assignment for?
  • What are you having trouble with?
  • What can I help you with?

Employ active listening skills when the student replies to your questions to make sure that you fully understand what the student wants to get out of your meeting.
*Review Module 1: Communication for more on active listening.

It is important to clarify your boundaries (i.e. your role, and what you can accomplish in a session) early because students can become frustrated later in the session when their expectations are disappointed.

If students say they want the answers to this week’s assignment, or that they want something fixed for them before a nearing deadline, make it clear that you cannot provide answers or fix their work, but you will be more than happy to work through a few questions, or to point out a pattern of errors, to get them working toward that goal on their own time. 

Conversation Starters and Conversation Builders

Image Credit: WOCinTechChat CC BY 2.0

Oftentimes, we overcomplicate the topic of how to build rapport with students. It often comes down to using specific questions and phrases. Here are a number of conversation starters and conversation builders you could try:

Building Rapport: "how are classes going?", "do you have lots of exams and papers due right now?

Qualifying: "what did you want to talk about here today?", "What goals do you have for our session today?", "what are you hoping to improve in this paper?"

Information-Gathering: "what approaches and/or sources have you tried?", "Have you had some help with this already?", "what approaches and/or resources have you already tried?"

Agreeing, Affirming, Connecting: "I think that's the right idea", "That's a good point", "That connects with...."

Clarifying: "could you tell me a bit more about...?" "Would you mind explaining your thinking behind that a bit more?", "Tell me more: how does that work?", "What's the difference in your mind?", "Can you think of a good example of that?"

Redirecting: "I should be wrapping things up here so that I can help the next student", "Can we get back to the earlier question/topic?", "We can get back to that later, but first...", "I'd like to add."

Closing: "Do you have any other question for me?", "Here are some resources for you", "Be sure to check things over with your professor or TA, too."


Setting Goals

After you establish your role and clarify what type of help the student wants, set some goals for the session. If students come in asking for help on several topics at once, get them to pick a couple of their bigger concerns to work on, with the provision that you’ll get to more later if there’s time. It’s important that you let them choose what they want to work on, so they are directing the session, not you. Sometimes, however, a student can seem misdirected:

A student might ask for help with punctuation in an essay when the essay would be much stronger if you worked on argumentation instead. In this kind of situation, gently suggest the possibility that there may be more pressing concerns than what they think:

“I realize you’re concerned about cleaning up the punctuation here, and that does make an impression, but I notice that your thesis statement could be stronger. A good thesis statement is more important to the strength of your essay and to your mark. Would you be open to working on your thesis statement today, and then we’ll see how much time we have for checking punctuation?”



Working one-to-one in a group drop-in setting

Students access drop-in help for a variety of reasons: some students may wish to work on their assignment with the reassurance that a tutor is nearby, some may come in with one specific question and leave quickly, some may require extensive help and aren't shy in asking for it, and others may require extra assistance but are hesitant to ask for it.

To ensure that all students who desire assistance are helped during busy times, try to get a feel for the room - take the time to look around and observe the students. Often non-verbal communication or body language will indicate that the student wants help. For example, a student may try to catch your eye or make a less visible gesture to request assistance. As well, try to approach each student once to enquire if they would like assistance.

Properly allocating time to each student is important. When assisting a student with a difficult or lengthy question, look for an appropriate break during which to leave the student to work on her own. Perhaps you've helped the student work out which formula to use and can assist another student while the first fills in the formula. Or you've helped the student to determine which key points she wants to focus her paper on and can help another student while she drafts a working thesis statement.

Providing a break for the student to work independently and then returning to help her evaluate her work enables the student to take ownership of her learning. 

Do Don't
Understand that there are many factors that impact a positive or negative experience - just because you think highly (or negatively) of the person, doesn't mean other students will Give your opinion on any professor, tutorial leader, lab instructor, or supervisor, especially if it's not positive
Set goals at the beginning of the session Make promises about what you'll get through in the session
Convey that while people learn at different speeds, everyone is capable of learning – emphasize the effectiveness of a growth mindset Comment on how much the student will improve by being tutored, or speculate on what mark you think they might get and/or deserve
 If the student doesn't know what a professor's or instructor's remarks mean and asks for clarification, attempt to clarify the remarks – if you are unsure, refer the student back to the professor or instructor Comment on a professor's or instructor's remarks and grade on a student's marked work
Support feedback with objective and specific examples Make blanket statements about a paper's quality (e.g., "this paper is good," or "this thesis statement is poor")
Maintain confidentiality Share the fact of a student's visit with anyone other than writing or math and stats centre staff
Use tutoring time to address the assignment at hand Make small talk too personal, or emotionally charged in any way. Be sensitive to the possibility that a student may want to skip the small talk and get to work
Keep additional resources or handouts available. These may be helpful for students desiring more assistance than you are able to provide Tutor on things that you are not qualified for, and do not attempt to answer a student's question if you are unsure of it yourself. Either find help for them during the session or make an appropriate referral
Understand your role and politely, yet firmly, communicate the boundaries of a tutor Be pressured into helping a student more than you should be; desperate students, often under a deadline, will beg for or even demand help that you know you shouldn’t be giving them (such as finishing their assignment)