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Essential Tutoring Skills

This handout introduces a set of tutoring skills that will help you help students who are experiencing difficulties in learning. With these skills you will be able to clearly identify student learning problems and then use course materials and direct instruction to overcome these difficulties.

Finding the Problem

Before you begin to help a student, you have to find out what the student knows and does not know. When you have isolated the difficulty, you can build on what the student knows to overcome the obstacle. You will thus avoid having to give a "lecture" on the whole topic, and you will not deprive the student of the sense of accomplishment that comes with solving a problem independently.

Different students come to tutors with different problems. Some students know exactly where they are having trouble. Other students point out general areas of difficulty. And some students can only vaguely describe the source of confusion.

When the student knows exactly what the difficulty is, you can immediately help solve the problem -- there is no need to waste time on further diagnosis. When the student can describe a difficulty only vaguely or generally, however, you should spend some time in isolating the source of trouble. Two strategies for this are:

Using Course Materials to Overcome Difficulties

Once isolated, problems can often be solved by focusing attention on the materials provided by the course instructor. The tutor who emphasizes the use of student's course materials makes it easier for students to solve their own problems when they are working independently of the tutor. It is particularly helpful to review with students the objectives (as stated in course materials) of any work they have been asked to do.

It is also worth reviewing procedures that have been suggested -- sometimes all you have to do is identify the section or the procedure in the course materials that relates to the student's problem.

Using Direct Instruction to Overcome Difficulties

You can perform your best service as a tutor by helping learners figure out answers by themselves. Sometimes instructional materials are weak, however, and you must resort to supplying information. In such cases you should take into account three elements of effective teaching: providing instruction, requiring a response, and giving feedback. Present the needed information briefly, have the student respond and talk about the material, and let the student know when answers are correct or incorrect.

Provide instruction. There are several ways to provide instruction, depending on the task that the student is having trouble with. The following are some of the things a tutor could do:

Demonstrate application of the rule or procedure by showing the student how to solve the problem. Break the procedure into parts or steps and teach them one at a time. Then have the student solve a problem of the same type. Remember, the student must be able to show you how to use the rule by solving the problem, not just by describing how it is used.

When memorization is necessary, mnemonics are useful. You may want to help the student make up acronyms, rules, jingles or rhymes. You may want to suggest that the student break up the information into smaller groups and work on each group separately.

Require a response. If you must give information, requiring a response will allow the student to try out the new knowledge. Requiring a response serves three functions:

  1. it lets the tutor know that the instruction provided has been understood,
  2. it reassures the learner that something has been learned, and
  3. it assists in the retention of knowledge.

You must be careful about the kind of responses you require. "Do you understand that?' will often bring a 'yes' even when the student is not sure of the material. The answer to 'What is another example of the process?" will let you know immediately if the student needs more help.

For many types of learning the tutor should ask the student to apply the knowledge to unique and different situations. If the learning task involves examples of a concept, require the student to use the new information to identify or generate new examples. If the task involves learning and applying rules to solve a problem, the student should be asked to solve a new problem that requires the rule.

Give feedback. It is important for the student to receive feedback. If a particular problem has presented difficulty in the past, the student needs to know whether or not he or she is on the right track.

If a student gives a correct answer, be specific about what makes it a correct answer. If it is incorrect, indicate what is missing, or what is there that shouldn't be. With problem solving tasks it is important to give the student an idea of what a right answer looks like. When possible, give a student a set of self-checks which can be used to tell if the solution is correct.

In general, provide praise and encouragement for positive steps. Allow the student to feel the sense of satisfaction that comes with learning something that at first was difficult.

  • Adapted by the Queen's University Instructional Development Centre from: Kozma, Robert B., Kulik, James A. and Smith, Beverly B. (1977). Guide for PSI Proctors. Ann Arbor, MI.: The University of Michigan, Center for Research on Learning and Teaching.

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    Last updated June 24, 1997

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