Beginning of the Session (Greet, Set Climate, and Identify the Task)

At the start of a session, you want to accomplish three things:

  • Create a comfortable atmosphere
  • Let the student know what to expect from the session
  • Assess the student’s problems and needs

Create a comfortable atmosphere and establish rapport

The student often enters a tutoring session with concerns that make the experience very different for him/her than it is for you. Be aware that the student may be a little nervous or uncomfortable, especially if he/she is a first-time user of tutoring services. While you may be wondering what the student needs help with, he/she may be worrying about if he/she will be judged, whether or not you know what you’re talking about, if you’re nice, or if he/she can trust you enough to show you his/her weakness(es).

These worries disappear over time, but there are some things you can say or do right away to put the student at ease:

  • Smile and be friendly
  • Tell the student your name
  • Make eye contact with the student
  • Learn the student’s name and use it often during the session

Let the student know what to expect

Let the student know how you work as a tutor and what you typically like to do. That is, let the student know that you will give him/her time to work alone, that you will be thinking about how well he/she knows the concepts behind the problems, and that, overall, your job is to help the student learn to understand the material. 

Assess the student’s problems and needs

After you set the climate for the session, you need to assess the student’s needs. Students come for tutoring with different degrees of ability to identify what they do not understand or what they need. Some students can tell you exactly what the problem is, while others either won’t or can’t. For example, some students may begin a session with a statement like the following:

  • “I just don’t get it.”
  • “I don’t understand anything.”
  • “My professor made me come.”
  • “I don’t understand this professor at all; he/she is horrible.”

Those students who are vague or unable to identify what they need require more work on your part.  While all the above statements may be true to some degree, in order to make a tutoring session productive and yourself effective, you need to help the student articulate what he/she does not understand as specifically as possible. When he/she can’t do this on his/her own, you need to ask questions that will help the student identify and articulate problems. For example, you might ask:

  • What have you covered in class so far?
  • How many chapters have you covered?
  • Was there a point in the course when you were finding material easier?
  • When did the course start getting difficult?
  • Can you show me a specific example of a problem or assignment you don’t understand or can’t do?

Begin the session by asking questions that help the student fully identify his/her problem:

  • This will help in determining what the student does and does not know
  • This will enable you to identify any underlying weakness in basic skills
  • This will engage the student by making him/her take responsibility for his/her own learning

It is important to your success as a tutor that you listen carefully to how the student responds to your initial questions. Be alert not only to what the student says but to how the student says it. Be sensitive to any messages the student is sending other than those he/she intends to send. For example, be alert for reluctance to be there, uneasiness, embarrassment, shyness, nervousness, anxiety, and/or sensitivity to past tutoring experiences.

During the Session (Break Task into Parts, Address the Task, Student Summarizes Content)

The tutoring session is a combination of what you know - your expertise in a subject area and how you help someone else understand it. Your tutoring methods should facilitate learning and active engagement. They should not reinforce passivity, encourage laziness, or generally take responsibility away from the student. Three key methods to accomplish this are:

  • Explaining, demonstrating, and modeling
  • Asking questions and listening to answers
  • Giving the student the time to work alone

Get the student involved: explain, model and ask questions

After you understand what a student’s needs are and have engaged him/her in the process by asking questions, you will be able to move on to providing explanations and demonstrating right methods for solving problems. Show them how to solve problems, find answers, use information, etc.

Explaining and documenting are necessary and important parts of any tutoring session, but giving mini lectures or doing the problems for a student is not. The tutoring session should not consist entirely of you talking to or at the student, explaining concepts, working problems, or making corrections to the student’s work. Sessions like this reinforce passivity, encourage dependence, and result in boredom. The difference between explaining concepts and demonstrating how to solve problems in tutoring lies in whether or not you follow-up and how. Asking questions is the key element to being an effective tutor. Every situation you offer and every solution you demonstrate should be followed by questions you address to the student. There are different types of questions that serve different purposes during a session:

Questions that encourage the student to start thinking:

  • Where you think we should start?
  • What are the steps involved in working this problem?
  • What is the definition?

Questions that help you determine how fully the student understands your explanation:

  • Can you solve this other similar problem?
  • Can you paraphrase what I just explained?
  • Why did you solve the problem that way?
  • What made you think that?
  • You’re correct. The answer to this question is false. What would be needed to make it true?

Questions that invite the student to think or make connections between problems or examples:

  • How is this problem like the other ones you’ve seen?
  • How does this problem build on the ones you did before?
  • What is the opposite of this position?
  • What’s the new concept/skill in this problem?
  • Can you see how solving this problem depends upon your ability to solve the earlier ones?

Questions that ask the student to recall information that can be used as a tool:

  • What do you know that might help you solve this problem?
  • What do you need to know in order to solve this problem?
  • What is the key thing to remember about this kind of problem?

Questions that help the student become aware of his/her process:

  • How are you solving this problem? What strategy are you using?
  • Did reading that section in the textbook help you understand how to solve the problem?
  • Do you think you stopped trying too soon on this problem?
  • What do you need to remember when solving this kind of problem?
  • What helps you memorize this information?

Questions that allow you to gather information about the student’s study habits and skills:

  • Did the instructor go over this kind of problem/concept in class? May I see your notes?
  • Did you read the section in your textbook that explains this concept?
  • Did you ask the instructor questions in class?
  • Did you miss class that day? 

Asking questions is a key tutoring method because questions include the students in the learning process.  Asking questions:

  • Forces the student to recall information, use information, and process information.
  • Breaks the familiar pattern inside the classroom of passive listening and instead allows or forces the student to engage with subject matter and his/her own process.
  • Asks students to verbalize what and how they think. When students talk about what they know, what they are learning, what they don’t understand, and what they think, they rather than the instructor or the material become the center of the learning process.
  • Allows you to determine if your approach is working and if an adjustment is necessary.


One very important key to being an effective tutor is listening to the student. In fact, your ability to tutor will be determined in large part on how well you can listen. Here are some things to remember:

  • When you ask a question, wait for the answer.  It may take a student some time before he/she can answer you. Don’t immediately interpret the student’s silence as an indication of that he/she can’t answer or that there’s something wrong with the question. Silence can mean that the student is thinking, which is exactly the thing we want to happen! Silence may mean that the student can’t answer, but give the student enough time before you help out by clarifying or asking a different question. 
  • Try not to get distracted. Don’t begin to formulate a next question in your mind while the student is thinking how to respond. Focus on what the student says and listen for cues that the student does or does not understand.
  • Acknowledge the answer. Even if the student gives you a wrong or partially correct answer, engage what they say. Don’t dismiss or ignore it. Paraphrasing what the student has said is a good listening practice. This shows the student that you are listening and that it matters to you that you understand what he/she is saying. This is an especially good practice given the fact that not all students express themselves clearly. By paraphrasing, you may give the student an opportunity to reformulate what he/she wants to say in a much clearer and more productive way.

Give the student time to work alone

Create time during the session for the student to work independently of you. Give the student a few problems to work on or have him/her identify other problems that are similar to those you’ve talked about and worked on. Try to give the student enough time alone to engage the topic or problem.  Depending on the situation, it may even help to walk away from the student and literally leave him/her alone for some period of time and return when you feel he/she is ready.

Types of independent tasks:

  • Have the student try one problem or a group of problems
  • Have the student read a section of the text that explains the concept
  • Have the student look for errors he/she has made in solving a problem or answering a question

Giving the student time to work independently is important for several reasons:

  • It discourages dependence and passivity
  • It gives them an opportunity to test how well they understand what you are explaining to them
  • It forces them to use any tools you are giving them
  • It allows them to make mistakes or get stuck while they are with you and therefore work through that with you
  • It helps build confidence when they are able to perform the task alone

After working through some of the material, take the time to have the student summarize the process. This will solidify that the student has understood the material. This type of explanation will help the student move the understanding from short-term to long-term memory and assess his/her understanding.

Concluding the Session (Confirmation, Arrange and Plan for Next Session, Closing and Saying Goodbye)

The tutoring session does not necessarily end the moment the student indicates that he/she must leave or that he/she is done. You need to extend the session by just a minute or so to invite the student to think about how the work he/she has done in the session is connected to his/her study habits or classroom experiences beyond tutoring. This might be done by:

  • Summarizing what the student’s problem was and what you and he/she did to address it
  • Emphasizing the strategies you and the student developed for handling the difficulty
  • Reminding the student of new study skill strategies shared during tutoring
  • Asking the student what he/she will do the next time he/she encounters difficulty
  • Asking the student if he/she will come back and what might be the next thing to work on

Encourage the student to see the progress he/she has made in the session. Even if the progress is not remarkable, it and the student’s effort should be validated. Some suggestions are:

  • “You asked really good questions today.”
  • “You accomplished a lot today.”
  • “You have really gotten that concept down and that’s an important step.”
  • “You are working really hard.”
  • “You did a lot of good work on your own here today.”

If applicable, arrange for another session with the student. If another session isn’t immediately scheduled, remind student you can be contacted for additional tutoring if necessary.

Source:  Creighton EDGE/Creighton University