A+ Tips For Tutors
Tips for Effective Tutoring
From Problems to Solutions
Expand your range of tutoring skills by experimenting with the possibilities of using a solution focussed approach.
May I start by introducing myself? My name is Stephanie Duckworth and I have been tutoring for about 25 years now, including 7 years on www.aplustutors.co.uk [Jan 2010]. My subjects are Psychology, English Literature and English Language. During that time I have been able to work with a huge range of students from 16 year olds out of school, or in school and struggling, to adult students doing postgraduates and juggling work and study and family commitments. I have, as many tutors will probably agree, learnt a lot from my students, about how to encourage them and help them be the best they can be at their studies.
December 2009 brought me to the pinnacle of my own academic career when I graduated with a M.A. in Solution Focussed Brief Therapy at the University of Birmingham. I say 'pinnacle' not to boast but because learning about solution focused thinking and behaving has changed my life. It has altered for the better how I work with my students and conduct my life in general and I think it could be interesting for other tutors.
Let's return to the world of tutoring - you receive a call from a parent or teacher referring a potential student to you for tutoring. The background information about what subject, and what the problem is will be detailed. It is common to hear details about 'she didn't do well enough in the exams', 'he left it to the last minute and can you help him revise for his exam next week', 'she hasn't done very well'. Do you notice a theme here? On further probing, you talk to the student concerned. He or she will often adopt the same stance, describing in detail what they are not very good at. They need help with essay writing, how to evaluate a theory and so on. Does all this sound familiar? The parent/teacher and the student have spent time detailing their deficits. Now before you say, of course you need to know all this to know what to offer them, I invite you to just stop for a moment and ask yourself the following question:
Think of something that you could do with getting a bit of tutoring for. It can be anything, academic or not. Maybe using the internet, how to change a car tyre, how to do statistics for your M.A., manage money better, or anything else. Now consider the following: your tutor rings to make the first contact with you and to find out what you need. You say:
'I need to learn how to use the internet better'.
You have been more aware recently that the world of communication has changed dramatically and you need to catch up but you are struggling. Your confidence is low and now you have to tell somebody that you need help. The tutor will ask what problems you are having and you will tell him or her. You then arrange a few sessions.
At this point you consider your confidence at being able to improve and get competent. Look at the scale below and give your response.
How confident are you now about getting better at using the internet?
1 2 3 4 5
1 = not at all confident
2 = not confident
3 = neither confident nor unconfident
4 = confident
5 = very confident
Mark your response on the appropriate number above. Pay attention to your feelings about yourself. All you have talked about is problems and what you are not good at. Probably not the best way to encourage you or help you recognise that there are exceptions when you do quite well.
As qualified teachers, tutors and examiners we all know about the link between confidence and learning. We also know that our expectations of our students will influence what we get from them. I have no doubt that during the coming sessions your tutor would praise you when you get something right. However what I am advocating is that before you or your students come for tutoring you will all already have strengths, competencies and successes. If we know that expectations affect the learning outcome we need to have those expectations even before we start tutoring our students. We need to show them that even if they have forgotten to notice what they are good at, we will make sure they rediscover it with us. They will be far more likely to cooperate with tutoring, enjoy getting their confidence boosted, instead of being told they are not good enough, and their motivation and therefore their performance will improve. We will have been helping them see themselves in another way, with a more hopeful identity, of somebody with possibilities, endless possibilities.
So how do we actually do this when we tutor?
I have personally found this to be a mind-shift which I have had to keep reminding myself about but it is worth the effort and eventually it becomes more and more normal to think this way, and you may even find yourself celebrating in a way you never have before. It is the power of hopeful possibility, an almost magical quality that instills a self-fulfilling prophecy of achievement and development in your students. Let's go back to the example of your own request for tutoring for, say, using the internet. It can of course be anything you feel you would like to know better. This time at the first session your tutor says to you:
'tell me what you already do well'
Why bother with this? Stop and think about the unspoken assumption this question demonstrates. Your unquestioned competence is being asserted. The person is not even asking if anything works well, they assume it does. Nobody does their problem 100% well, sometimes they catch themselves out doing things right! This is useful information to continue our work helping a student develop their confidence, their knowledge and their skills. And it communicates the idea that they must be good at something. This powerful message will make the person who receives it the chance to see themselves differently, or at least one aspect of themselves, and they will respond accordingly. They may start to think of what else they do quite well, or very well, and you can imagine what that will do for their self esteem! All this will make the tutor's work easier. We can be the person that helps people remember their strengths and bring them forward to help them more. In our society we are used to hearing bad news and it is hard to avoid slipping into this unhelpful habit when we view our own lives. Now try the scale exercise (above) again and compare the scores you gave. Notice your feelings about yourself as a learner now.
Learners have strengths and resources
As tutors we can assess our students' abilities and use them to help them develop their learning. It is easy to see how when faced with the pressure of examinations, teachers' and parent's expectations, and even competitiveness in the classroom, that young people can lose sight of what they are good at. A student coming to you for tutoring may need reminding of what they are good at, academically or not, to help them use those resources to improve their understanding, their knowledge and their aspirations.
A mother of two sons living in a very rural area in England came to me in exasperation because her son was taking his GCSE English literature and was 'a bit casual about it'. She had tried to work with him herself, doing her best to encourage, cajole and motivate but she said they often ended up arguing. In my session I asked the boy what he liked doing best at school and he said English. I wasn't sure if that was to please me or if he really liked English at that point but I thought that if it were true that was half the battle. Then I asked him what he liked doing when he wasn't at school. He loved being out in the country and was leading a countryside skills for survival group for young people his own age. I was impressed. He was also entering a national competition for survival skills on the moors. So I asked him how he did it, what skills did he need to have to be able to do it, and what did other people who admire him say about him. He told me that he had to be organised, know exactly what was required on the walk, or the camp, be assertive, and a good communicator. He then told me that he wanted to do more of this when he left school and that for that he needed a good GCSE in English. This was the hook for our work together. We explored how the skills he had could be applied to his studies so that he would pass his exams and get a good grade. In detail we explored how he prepared for the walks and how he could then apply that ability to planning for his exams, allocating time and using communication skills to make sure he had what was needed. His confidence soared and his study skills improved. This is just one of many examples, some of which you will be able to notice yourself, to illustrate to you the thinking behind this model. See what you can think of!
Change is constant
We all know that one thing that is certain is that life brings constant change, some of it is welcome, some of it is not. This means that we can assume that change will occur no matter how difficult things seem to be for some of our students. We can help that change be for the better. One way in which we do this is by the power of communication, and by paying attention to the language we use in communicating with our students. Imagine you are working with your student to improve punctuality on handing in homework at school. You identify perhaps that for school life to be more pleasant one easy way to make this happen would be to start handing in the homework on time. You make a plan together how to make this happen using what skills you know they already have, perhaps teaching them other ideas. As your first session with your student comes to an end you can say:
'pay attention to what works well this week so you can tell me all about it next week'.
Then at the very beginning of the next session you say:
'tell me what went well this week'.
Remember that we are often programmed to talk about the negative stuff, so be prepared to hear a preamble about how difficult something was. Listen enough to show respect and then jump in and say.
'by the way what went well this week with handing in the homework'.
Note you are making a statement, you are not asking a question. You are assuming that something went well. It may have gone perfectly, but it may not. Your job is to elicit the tiniest change in the right direction - your student may say that they handed it in one day late rather than the usual one week late, or that they handed it in on time but the handwriting or presentation was rushed. Whatever small change there was towards the desired goal, give praise. That is progress.
Notice how the student's demeanour will change with the good news story. It tells something invaluable about them. They are talking about themselves in competent terms, even if only partial, and another person is recognising it. The positive reporting of the progress will put them in a different context to where they would be if they just said, 'oh I still handed it in late' and you just said 'oh what a pity'. Acknowledge the progress and the success and ask them what their intentions are for the next homework. Let them tell you.
If you have found this approach practical and hopeful for both you and your students, email me for five tips on thinking and communicating for positive change. Free of charge.
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