How to Tutor Effectively Using Some Research-Based Approaches

What does the research say about good tutoring techniques? And how can you be an effective tutor by putting these principles into practice?


Think of yourself as a coach

Before moving on to specific tutoring strategies, it’s important to get into the right mindset for tutoring. Too often, tutors get caught up in showing off their knowledge, and they lose focus on their students’ learning. Instead of thinking of yourself as an expert who is going to share your knowledge with your student, think of yourself as a coach.

What does it mean to be a coach? It means that rather than doing a lot of telling and explaining, you should think of as many ways as possible to get your student to do his or her own work and thinking.

Let’s take a look at why this kind of approach is important.

The importance of deep processing

It’s not unusual for students put in a lot of time studying, think they understand the material, and then do poorly on their exam when asked to apply the concepts in a different way. Take the following example cited in Effective Instruction for STEM Disciplines: During a physics course, students practice a problem in which they are asked to calculate how long it takes for a ball to fall from the top of a tower down to the ground. On an exam, the students are asked to calculate how long it takes a ball to fall to the bottom of a hole. Frustrated, the students protest that they weren’t taught how to do “hole problems.”

What’s happening here? Why don't the students realize they are being tested on the same concept? The students memorized how to do the tower problem without really understanding the ideas behind it—this is called shallow processing. As a tutor, part of your job is to make sure your students engage in deep processing—thoroughly understanding the meaning behind what they’re studying.

Part of the problem with doing a lot of showing and explaining as a tutor is that these methods don’t typically encourage deep processing. By thinking of yourself as a coach, your job is to guide your students’ thinking so they achieve deep processing. How can you do this?

Ask questions

Rather than explaining, try asking questions to get your students to think deeply about they’re learning. As a tutor, one way to look at this is by thinking of your student as the one who should be doing the explaining. What should your questions do? They should help your student…

  • build on what he or she already knows
  • compare concepts with other concepts
  • distinguish concepts from other concepts
  • connect the material to his or her personal experience
  • apply concepts to new situations or problems

This doesn’t mean you should never explain anything to your students. That would just frustrate them to no end. When you do explain something, though, you need to make sure you follow up by making sure your student can explain the idea back to you and that they can apply the ideas to other situations. For example, if you find yourself explaining a problem to a student step-by-step, give them a different problem to try on their own. Don’t just use the same problem and change the numbers (remember the tower example?). Instead, ask your student to try a completely different problem that forces them to apply the concept in a different way. Really push your student to do the problem with as little guidance from you as possible. Remember, your students won't have you there to save them when they're taking an exam.


What about learning styles?

Most guides to effective tutoring encourage tutors to adapt instruction to the student’s learning style, so I’d like to take a few moments to comment on this idea. There are many different approaches, but in general, the approach goes something like this: Students prefer to learn in different ways. Some are visual learners, while some prefer to learn by listening (the exact categories vary). If a tutor can match instruction to the student’s learning style, then the student will learn better.

It’s important to point out that there is no solid research to support this hypothesis. In fact, there are some cases in which taking a learning styles approach can seriously harm a student’s ability to learn effectively. Sometimes there are ways of learning certain material that are simply more effective than others, regardless of whether a student prefers to learn that way. Preference doesn’t equal effectiveness. For example, I’ve seen “learning styles tips” for students that tell them if they’re auditory learners, they should audio record their lectures and listen to them over and over again! Instead, it would be more effective for the student to develop effective notetaking skills (even though this involves a combination of visual, auditory, and tactile styles) because it helps the student think about and process what he or she is listening to.

So, what does this mean for effective tutoring? Worry more about learning strategies than about learning styles. For example, if being successful at physics means you should draw a diagram before you start a problem, coach the student on how to do that. Try different approaches to add variety and to keep your sessions interesting, but don’t worry about trying to match your tutoring any specific learning style.

"I've figured it out!"

Let’s return to the idea of being a coach that I mentioned earlier. A good coach doesn’t play the game for you. He or she helps you develop the skills you need to play the game on your own. That’s what a good tutor does.

“If you get to solve it for yourself, you are doing the thinking. There is an ‘aha!’ kind of sensation: ‘I’ve figured it out!’—it’s not that someone just told it to me, I actually figured it out. And because I can figure it out now, that means I can figure it out on the exam, I can figure it out for the rest of my life.” (Quoted in Effective Instruction for STEM Disciplines)


Susan A. Ambrose, et. al., How Learning Works: 7 Reserach-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, Jossey-Bass, 2010

Ross B. MacDonald, The Master Tutor: A Guidebook for More Effective Tutoring, 2nd edition, Cambridge Stratford, 2010.

Edward J. Mastascusa, et. al., Effective Instruction for STEM Disciplines: From Learning Theory to College Teaching, Jossey-Bass, 2011.

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