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Module 2: Session Management & Leadership

Explore tips for managing your tutoring sessions and serving as a peer leader.

Effective Tutoring


What do you think makes a tutor successful and effective? It isn't difficult to sit next to another student and provide answers. But is that what tutoring (and especially effective and successful tutoring) looks like?  In an effort to identify what made a tutor highly successful, several researchers  interviewed and observed many tutors and tutoring sessions (Lepper & Woolverton, 2002; Lepper, Drake, & O'Donnell-Johnson, 1997). They found that the most exceptional tutors had 7 common characteristics; these tutors were: intelligent, progressive, encouraging, indirect, nuturing, Socratic, and reflective.




The first characteristic a great tutor demonstrates is being intelligent. What comes to mind when you think about intelligence? You probably think about knowledge in the subject matter(s) in which you plan to tutor. Intelligent tutors have a solid understanding of the material and concepts but can also think about different ways to approach the information. While knowing the subject matter and being successful in related courses is important, it isn’t the only factor that impacts a student’s satisfaction with the tutoring session. Tutors who have strong facilitation and processing skills are perceived to be more effective by tutees than tutors who just show strong content knowledge (De Grave, Dolmans, & Van Der Vleuten, 1999). This is why great tutors are also intelligent in their use of learning techniques and approaches to covering the content.


Consider the following questions to guide you in being an intelligent tutor:


  • Are there specific strategies that aid in learning this subject/discipline?

  • What are different ways you might approach a topic?

  • What is my goal in approaching the topic or problem this way? Can I easily explain that to my tutee?

  • What real world examples and/or analogies can be used?

  • How might this concept be related to a previous concept? How are they similar and/or different?  

  • What concepts or problems might be more difficult for a tutee?

  • What type of errors should I anticipate? When would those errors occur?

  • What are resources that might support the tutee’s learning? 


The next two badge modules (Session Management & Leadership and Communication) will explore the remaining common characteristics along with strategies and techniques you can utilize in your sessions to excel as a tutor. 

Providing Structure to Sessions


As a tutor, you are providing your tutee and the sessions with structure. The next common charactertistic of successful tutors that we'll cover is progressive. A progressive tutor prepares for and organizes their session in a way that truly supports tutee learning. 


Three strategies that progressive tutors use are:


  • scaffolding to find errors

  • challenge development

  • routine development


Scaffolding to Find Errors


The best tutors help their students discover their own errors and “debug” or self-correct.  Instead of directly pointing out errors, they will offer questions and hints to guide a student towards re-evaluating their own work.


Good phrases or strategies to use when guiding a student:


  • “Let’s compare _____ and ______.  What do you notice?”

  • Ask them to look at the textbook/lecture example and compare their own work

  • Ask about cause and effect relationships

  • “Let’s go backwards through your steps.  Does it still make sense?”

  • “Can you explain to me how you came to that answer?”

  • “How is this [concept] related to [previously mastered concept]?"

  • If a student is working through theoretical or abstract problems, ask them if the answer makes “common sense” and ask them to put it in a real world context.



Development of Challenges & Routines


These both affect the way you organize individual tutoring sessions as well as arrange multiple sessions.  Challenge development refers to the order in which you present problems within one session: A gradual increase of the problem difficulty as a student demonstrates mastery of a concept (the student “gets it” so it’s time to move on to the next topic).  Routine development refers to the consistent structures used from session to session.  If a student knows the general routine of a session it allows them to spend less mental energy on “what’s coming next?” and allows them to focus on the actual tutoring material.


None of these strategies for progressive structure exist without goal setting and the evaluation of those goals.  Our next section will tackle how to go about doing this.


Structure Through Goal Setting


A good tutor helps his or her student set goals and also helps the student evaluate if they have achieved those goals.  One way to do this is to set SMART(ER) goals. See fig 1.1 on the left.





The goal targets a defined area or topic. 

Ask the student: What do you want to accomplish?  Why is this important?




There is a tangible, quantifiable way to complete the goal. Ask the student: How much?  How many?




The goal is within the power of the student to achieve it. Ask the student: Is it realistic? 




The goal pertains to the topic at hand. Ask the student: Does it seem worthwhile?  Is it appropriate?  Will it help you grow?




Define the amount of time it will take to achieve this goal. Ask the student: When will this be done?  How urgent is it?




Using the SMART criteria, decide to what degree the goal has been achieved.Ask the student:  How much of the goal did you achieve?  Was it done in the time you thought it would be?  What are you pleased with?  What do you think could be done better?




Set a new goal based on what has or has not been achieved.Ask the student:  What is your next focus?  What parts of the old goal can we carry forward?


SMART goals can be both short-term and long-term.  You and your student could set one SMART goal for what you will accomplish by the end of the hour, one for what will be accomplished by the next exam, and another for the entire semester.  Beginning a session can start with establishing the SMART criteria and ending a session can use –ER to assess if the goal has been achieved. By setting and evaluating goals, you and your tutee are able to set expectations and direction for your tutoring sessions.




Examples of Scaffolding to Find Errors :


  • Direct: “Go back to problem #13, you did the steps in the wrong order.”

  • Better: “Let’s review problems #10 and #13.  They are similar but it looks like you used two different strategies."


  • Direct: “You cannot conjugate a verb like that.  The he/she form ends in –a, not –o.”

  • Better: “Let’s go back to the story in the textbook.  Do your verbs match what the author used?”


  • Direct: “No, this battle happened before she was crowned queen.  You need to change your argument.”

  • Better: “Think about cause and effect.  What had to have happened first?”


  • Direct: “When you calculated the average you forgot to divide by the number of items.”

  • Better: “Your answer is the average summer temperature in Chicago is 4000 degrees.  Does that make sense from what you know?  Let’s go back and look at your steps.”


SMART(ER) Goals Examples:


Vague: I want to do better in calculus.


  • Specific: I will pass my next calculus exam.

  • Measurable: I will score at least 70%.

  • Achievable: My last score was 62%, a 70% seems reasonable.

  • Relevant: I’m in calculus and need a good grade for my GPA.

  • Timely: The next exam is three weeks from now.


Vague: I don’t understand French but I’ve already signed up for the summer study abroad.


  • Specific: I will speak French conversationally.

  • Measurable: I will be able to speak exclusively in French for at least one hour.

  • Achievable: I’ve had two semesters of French, but it was mostly reading/writing work.

  • Relevant: I will be able to use this skill in my travels.

  • Timely: The study abroad trip begins in three months.


Vague: I want to get an internship.


  • Specific: I will apply for 10 internships related to my major.

  • Measurable: I will count how many internships I applied for.

  • Achievable:  I have academic experience and will use the campus career center resources

  • Relevant: I need an internship to build practical skills for after graduation.

  • Timely: I have two months before the end of the semester.

Providing Feedback



Encouraging Feedback


The next common characteristic of successful tutors is that they are encouraging. Being an encouraging tutor does not mean providing constant positive feedback, verbal support, or exaggerated praise (we’ll talk more about this later); rather it means setting up the session to foster the tutee’s motivation.  An encouraging tutor uses motivational strategies to keep the tutee engaged throughout the session and semester. While you can approach motivation from many different theories and frameworks, Usher and Kober (2012) summarized prominent research on motivation into four reoccurring themes. With the four dimensions of motivation (Usher & Kober, 2012) in mind, you can structure your tutoring session to encourage your tutee’s efforts and inspire motivation. See fig 1.2 on the left.


When working with a tutee, consider which dimension or dimensions might be the most motivating for them. Then structure your activities and feedback to be encouraging of specific dimensions.


Indirect Feedback


Encouragement is important, but remember: it does not mean you should give exaggerated praise or constant positive feedback. This leads us to our next charactertistc of tutors- indirect. Excellent tutors provide feedback, both positive and negative, in more indirect ways.


Negative Feedback


When it comes to providing negative feedback, such as letting tutees know that a mistake has been made or an answer is incorrect, being indirect relates back to the concept of systematic debugging (covered earlier in being progressive). Instead of pointing out a mistake (direct), try to get your tutee to re-evaluate their work through questions and hints (indirect).  


In addition to examples of indirect feedback phrases provided earlier, here are a few more prompts you could try:


  • “Let’s analyze this answer.”

  • “Could you elaborate on this answer?” or “…on this component of your process?”

  • “Can you explain each step you took to me?”


Positive Feedback


For positive feedback, it can often seem more tricky and less intuitive to be indirect. However, offering direct praise can turn a tutoring session into an evaluation environment rather than an environment for learning and being safe to make mistakes in the process.


Think about these examples of direct positive feedback:


  • “You’re so smart- you solved this problem all on your own!”

  • “That makes 8 in a row correct- you’re doing great!”

  • “You got the answer so quickly. Great job!”

  • “I really like how you summarized that chapter.”


Each of the comments is meant to be positive and encouraging for the tutee. But sometimes direct praise sends hidden messages. This can be especially true if the positive feedback is attributed to a person rather than their effort. Take another look at the feedback to see if you can find hidden messages.


“You’re so smart- you solved this problem all on your own” can become “Because I solved this problem, I am smart. If I cannot solve a problem, then am I not smart?” The comment “That makes 8 in a row correct- you’re doing great” can become “I’m doing great because I got 8 answers correct. If I don’t get multiple answers correct, then I’m not doing great.” The pattern continues as success is equated to being quick to get an answer or even working so that you please the tutor.


So how can you provide indirect positive feedback? Asking questions, just like you would do for indirect negative feedback, is a strong strategy to use. Questions that prompt tutees to re-evaluate their work help them catch errors, but they also allow the tutee a chance to see how well they have mastered the content.   


Here are some prompts or strategies to guide students to positive self-evaluation:


  • “How do you feel about solving that type of problem?”

  • “What was something that went well in finding the answer that you want to apply to the next question?”

  • While setting goals or before attempting a problem, have your tutee rate how comfortable or confident they feel with the material. After working on the material, ask them to rate their comfort or confidence again. Comment on the difference in their rating or ask the tutee to reflect and comment on it.

  • Make observations on the tutee’s efforts rather than performance. “You are very hard working.” “You kept exploring options until you found one that worked best for you.” As observations, you aren’t evaluating behavior as being good, bad, smart, or dumb.  By focusing on their efforts and process, you reinforce that making mistakes or not knowing the answer right away is part of a successful learning process. 


Utilizing both encouraging and indirect components of being an excellent tutor will help create a supportive, safe, and motivating learning environment for your tutees. We'll continue looking into more strategies for asking questions and indirectly guiding students in the next badge module. 

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Fig 1.1

Fig 1.2

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