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Tutor Training: Module 4: Tutoring Strategies

Module 4.1. - Tutoring Strategies

Tutoring Strategies

Once you’ve gathered the information and resources needed for your session, consider how you can best respond to students’ questions without giving them the answers or doing the work for them. There are many techniques to help students become independent in their learning. 

By using the strategies described and discussed in this module, and by keeping the session focused on the student, you can help your tutees become better at helping themselves.

Reproduced from Copyright 2016 Center for Creative Leadership.

Use Open-Ended Questions

To encourage students to do the majority of the talking in the session, ask open-ended questions.  Questions that ask students to define or explain something will require them to put concepts together and will show you what they do know. Some words to start open-ended questions with are as follows:

How... What... Why... Where... When...

Interrogative words that tend to ask for one-word answers include:

Is... Who... Can... Have... Are...

Even though open-ended questions are more fruitful, sometimes it will be necessary to start by looking for one-word answers before moving on to the open-ended questions. See below for strategies to move from the simple to the complex. 

Simplify Questions and Concepts

Answering open-ended questions can be daunting, particularly for the student who is struggling with basic concepts. Build up a student's understanding by beginning with more simple questions that require one or two-word responses. That way, the student is assured of what they know, and it will be easier for you to lead them toward a more complex level of understanding.

Asking a student how the concept of a tragic flaw is portrayed in Othello might be overwhelming, but if you start with asking them to identify the hero in Othello, and what kind of characteristics he portrays, you will get them thinking about the hero and his flaws, which will hopefully move them to think about what the tragic flaw may be.

Also, if you go back to a concept the student already understands and build upon it, they will feel more competent in the subject. It can also work to relate the new concept to something they’ve taken in another class. This strategy is especially important for math and science tutoring sessions where new concepts are often built upon prior knowledge.

For example, if a student is having trouble understanding a domain problem in calculus, you may need to review some background algebra concepts such as inequalities or solving equations before dealing with the concept of domains.


After you ask a question, give the student time to think before they answer. You might think that you’re waiting long enough, but it’s surprisingly difficult to estimate how much time has passed. Try timing yourself to get a feel for how long 30 seconds actually is. Then, make sure that you are giving students this kind of buffer before speaking again. We all process things at different speeds, and cutting off this process will interfere with the student’s learning. 

Repeat and Summarize

When a student successfully answers a question, repeat their answer in your own words or summarize what was said. This reinforces that they have succeeded in answering the question and is making progress. Doing this too often, though, can become irritating, so don't rely on it too heavily.


After you cover a new concept with students, reinforce, if possible, what the student has just learned by giving them a question to work towards answering. Getting the student practice what they have just learned will reinforce the concept and bolster confidence. 


These strategies should keep the student doing the majority of the work in a session and feeling as though you are listening to their concerns; however, they are only suggestions.  Sometimes you may need to be more direct in your tutoring style to get a student to understand.  Minimalist tutoring (see reading for this module) is an ideal, but you need to realize that it’s not always possible.

If a student comes in asking what’s wrong with a specific sentence in her paper, and you see that it contains a comma splice, you are better off explaining comma splices to her than to ask her what she thinks is wrong with the sentence.  You can then go over some comma rules, ask her to try to correct a few sample errors in her paper or in online quizzes, and then the student will leave with the skills to fix her own problems the next time.

A student continues to get the wrong answer to a problem because he's making the same mistake in taking the derivative of a logarithm of a complex function. You should point out his error and tell or show him how to correctly differentiate the function. Hopefully, after fixing this small problem, he can answer other questions like it by himself.

Note that knowing when to answer a question directly and when to redirect a question back to the student is a skill that takes practice.  

Sometimes in math and science sessions students may still have difficulties answering questions after you've applied all the previous strategies.  If the student is still unable to answer the question, you can do the question yourself, modelling the correct procedure for them.  After watching you go through all the necessary steps, the student may be able to attempt a question on his or her own.

A Handbook for Mathematics Teaching Assistants (sections 13, 15, and 17)
Collaborative Dialogue Patterns in Naturalistic One-to-One Tutoring
Self-Regulating Mathematics Skills

Math & Stats Video
Watch the following video: Running a Math Session



Module 4.2. - Difficult Situations

Difficult Situations

The following section deals with some common, difficult “What if…” tutoring situations.

What if the student arrives in a panic with a last-minute assignment?

Most of us have left assignments or exam preparation until the last minute, and felt ourselves start to panic about how we are going to get it done. Remember though, that you are not responsible for making sure the student gets the assignment in on time. You can only do so much. 

The first step is to try to calm the student down. When students panic, neither they nor you are going to make effective use of the session. Rather than reminding students that handing in a late assignment is “not the end of the world,” take their concerns seriously; for them, this may feel like the end of the world. 

This is a good time to practice your skills at showing empathy. Comments like “I remember leaving a paper to the last minute. It’s really stressful” or “It’s happened to all of us at some point or another” remind the student that they are not the only one who has experienced this. Though you might want to take this moment to lecture about starting early and avoiding procrastination, this is not the best time because you will only add more bad feelings to the students’ panic. 

Start by focusing on what the student wants to focus on, but if they seem scattered, say that you can help with the areas that will make the most significant difference to the quality of the finished assignment.

If you are helping a student with an essay, you may want to focus on helping them to improve higher-order concerns – such as the thesis statement, organization, and documentation – rather than on fixating on punctuation problems.

If a student is panicked because of an upcoming test, the aforementioned discussion on empathy is even more important. Empathy will help you calm the student down, making them better able to learn. Say something like "let's see what we can do," and try to make a plan based on what material is going to be on the exam, when the exam is, what the student knows already, and what areas need the most attention. Keep the student focused on a concrete and realistic action plan, rather than their anxiety.

What if the student is unresponsive? 

Students may be unresponsive for a variety of reasons. They might be nervous or shy asking for help. If a student does seem nervous, it can help to take an extra few minutes to make some small talk and build a rapport before moving on to subject of the tutorial. You can learn things about the student that may be incorporated into examples or analogies later in the session.

Sometimes students are coerced into coming for help, or simply want the answers and resent that you cannot solve their problems immediately. If this is the case, then you may have to stress what you can do to help the student, or reaffirm the benefit to their coming to see you. 

Focus on getting students to do the work in the session. For example, get them to look definitions up in the textbook or online. Use open-ended questions so they are prompted to speak more than you. Hopefully, these suggestions will motivate them to take a more active role in the session. Try to draw comparisons with an interest of theirs, or a current event, to make the concept seem relevant and even memorable.

If your strategies for engaging the student don’t work, you may have to be more direct, re-emphasizing and listing the concrete ways in which you can help them during the time they spend with you.

What if the student is antagonistic? 

Stressed students sometimes (not often!) act antagonistically when they come to a tutoring session, perhaps because they see you as another authority figure. If students’ verbal (such as swearing, name-calling or yelling) or non-verbal (such as refusing to leave, pounding their fists on the table, or slamming a book down) aggression makes you uncomfortable, please walk away from the situation.* The important thing is to put your safety first.
*Review Module 2: Safety for emergency procedures. 

If the student is not aggressive, though, it is important to give them time to vent. As is the case with last-minute, panicked students, antagonistic students are emotional. Your first goal is to calm them so they can learn in the session. It is important to really listen.  Mirroring can be used effectively to show the student that you are listening and care about his or her concerns. See Preparation to Learn in Module Three for more on mirroring.

Once the student calms down a bit, they will be more receptive to help and ready to focus on the assignment. By getting the student to focus on something that can be changed, like what has been done for the assignment or exam preparation, rather than what can’t be changed, they will feel more in control of the situation.

What if the student is in or near tears?

University can be a stressful and emotional time for students.  In addition to coping with high academic standards, many students are living away from home, family, and friends for the first time.   While a student may be upset over an academic or non-academic issue, an emotional student is not ready to take much information you have for them.  

The challenge is that there is no 'one size fits all' when it comes to our emotions.  As a tutor, you must use your own judgment and intuition, taking cues from non-verbal communication to decide how to best proceed with the student.  Some students are best able to focus on the assignment after you have acknowledged that they are upset, given them time to express their emotions, and shown empathy. 

If a student does start crying and you are not already in a private or semi-private area, attempt to discretely guide her to a more private area, offer her tissues, and reassure her.  The goal is to take away the awkwardness for the student, so if you aren’t sure how to proceed, simply ask the student, “How can I help you right now?”  The student may just need a quick cry to release some stress or may be overwhelmed by the scope of the assignment or upset over an academic issue. 

It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with The Standard of Student Conduct in Non-Academic Matters, as well as the Regulations on Student Academic Misconduct.

In some circumstances, you may wish to refer the student to Student Wellness Centre.  Please read Module 5, “Ending a Session,” for more information on referrals. 

Working with an emotional student can be challenging, especially when the student is a one-time visitor.  However, with practice, patience, and self-reflection you will sharpen your intuition regarding how to best help the student. 

U Sask Quick Reference Guide - Assisting Students in Distress

What if you suspect the student is being academically dishonest? 

As a student and tutor, you are required to follow the University's Policy on Academic Honesty. To answer any questions students might ask about the policy, you should familiarize yourself with it before you start tutoring. 
It’s something that the institution expects all faculty and students to read.

If you suspect or know that a student is breaking the academic honesty policy, carefully bring up the subject, but don’t be accusatory. The most important thing to remember is that they are there to learn. Instead, ask questions about the suspect sections of the assignment that indirectly hint at the problem. For example, “I see that this one paragraph seems to be written in a different style than the rest of the paragraphs. Did you get some help with this one?” This approach allows the student to explain the reason. However, asking, “Did you steal this?” or "Where did you get this part?" assumes guilt. Using tact is important when approaching this type of sensitive matter. 

Another approach is to mention how the professor may see irregularities in the assignment. Phrases such as "Your professor may wonder about the lack of citation for this section” or "Your professor might wonder how you got that answer since you haven't shown any work" will hopefully work to keep the communication open between you and the student. 

Remember that making hasty accusations will only upset the student and shut down communication between the two of you. You also should give the student the benefit of the doubt in case they don't realize they are breaking policy. 

You need to keep in mind, however, that what goes on in the tutoring session is private and cannot be repeated elsewhere. Though you might want to alert the professor of a student’s cheating, you must respect the student’s privacy first. If you feel the situation warrants more decisive action, you can speak to your supervisor about the student’s intentions. If you don't have a supervisor available, you can contact either the Academic Affairs Officer at or the VP Academic Affairs at