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Module 3: Communication

Delve into strategies and tips to improve how you build rapport, ask questions, and communicate through body language as a tutor.

General Questions and Building Rapport


Communication is important in a tutoring session, but not all communication is focused on the course content. In the last badge module, you learned about four of the seven common characteristics of great tutors.  Can you recall what they are?  (If you said "intelligent, progressive, indirect, and encouraging," then you're correct!) Now we'll cover the remaining characteristics- nurturing, Socratic, and reflective.


Let's start with nuturing.  A nurturing tutor recognizes that building rapport helps the session and tutoring relationship have a stronger foundation. They genuinely care about their tutee’s personal interest, life, and successes outside of the session or academics. This not only creates a more comfortable and welcoming space for the tutee, but it also helps you as the tutor create examples, case studies, and word problems that relate the material to the tutee’s interests.


Since it is a major aspect of being a Nurturant tutor, let’s talk a bit more about what building rapport means.


Building rapport IS:


  • Taking the time to get to know your tutees during the session

  • Building trust so that a tutee feels comfortable asking questions and taking risks

  • Showing the tutee that their progress and wellbeing is important to you


Building rapport IS NOT:


  • Becoming close friends with those that you tutor

  • Asking prying personal questions

  • Demanding that a tutee disclose information that they are hesitant to share



Guidelines for Rapport Building


Rapport building is a balance. You don’t want to be too invasive, but you don’t want to seem cold either. Here are some tips for how to build rapport with a brand new student.


  • Show you’re welcoming through your nonverbal communication


Good:  Smiling, Offering a handshake, Speaking in a friendly tone, Making eye contact


Bad: Letting your attention wander, Staring the student down, Excessive touching such as hugs, Sitting too close or very far away


  • Ask non-threatening questions to begin getting to know the student


Good: How are you today? What year are you? What is your major? How did you choose that major? How do you like the school?


Bad: Do you have a significant other? How much do you make at your job? What church do you go to?


  • If the student is returning, show you remember details from last time


Good: You had an exam this past week, right? How did it go? You mentioned that you were going to California for Spring break.  How was it?


Bad: We’ve had a session before, right? Are you the student I tutor who’s a Biology major or are you the Chemistry major?



The actions you take will depend on the student and will evolve over time if you meet with a student on a regular basis. Just remember to be friendly and respectful  in every session. 

What do Socratic and Reflective mean?



The last remaining common characteristics among excelling tutors are Socratic and reflective.


Socratic questioning basically means that you’re asking a lot of follow-up questions to help students come to conclusions on their own, practice using knowledge, and form deeper connections with the material. Socratic questions help tutors check for understanding of the material, to make sure that their tutee truly comprehends what they are working on.


Being a Socratic tutor relates to being a reflective one. Socratic questions can be used to guide students into deeper learning. When a student answers those types of questions, they are engaging in reflection. What steps did you take to get to that answer? How did you get to that outcome? Can you explain that solution and what it means?  How does this apply to other areas? These questions and others that will be discussed in the next section make students explain their knowledge and process. Research has shown that explaining, especially explaining out loud, helps you learn and remember better.


Together, Socratic questioning on the part of the tutor and reflection on the part of the tutee create an environment of deep learning.  In this segment, you’ll learn more about how to use Socratic questioning skills and how those questions can lead to reflective conversations.  

Using Socratic Questioning



Why do I need to have Socratic questioning skills?



Your first instinct when a student asks a question may be to immediately answer them. After all, they’re coming to you to help them learn. But learning this way is only surface level; research has shown that students who have to think about their answers, talk through problems, and come to conclusions themselves learn more and remember more. In other words, telling a student how to solve a problem is not as beneficial as helping solve the problem for themselves.



So, what does that mean for you as a tutor? Think of it this way: the person doing the most talking is the person doing the most learning. Your goal in tutoring appointments should be to ask questions that get the tutee thinking and explaining.


So how do you use Socratic questioning?


Answers through Questions


Rather than telling a student what the answer should be, ask them questions that will help them figure it out. Here’s an example. Say you’re working with a student on a math problem, and they find themselves stuck at a particular step. Should you:


A) Ask them what would happen if they tried to solve it a particular way?


B) Ask them if they remember anything about solving this step of the equation from lecture?


C) Ask them if they have their notes with them?


D) Immediately provide the answer so that the student can move on.


If you answered A, B, or C, you’re correct. These questions allow you to guide the student to the right answer, and will get them thinking about what information they already know. Then, when they see a problem like this on homework or an exam, they’re more likely to be able to solve it themselves.


There are a lot of questions you can use in your tutoring appointments to help students through the process of figuring out things for themselves. However, it’s important not to overwhelm the tutee when using these questions. Tutees have varying levels of knowledge, and asking them a very difficult follow-up question may serve only to discourage them, rather than guide them to the right answer.


Types and Purposes of Questions 


When asking questions, you should consider the type of question you are asking and its purpose. There are two major types of questions: open-ended and closed. Open-ended questions are generally broad and information-seeking. They require the responder to provide more than a word or two in their answer. Not only is the solicited answer longer than a few words, it is also independently generated rather than being a presented option or regulated response. In contrast, closed questions are typically more specific and can be answered in one or two words. They can be dichotomous, having only two ways of responding (such as yes or no, true or false, left or right, etc.), or they may have limited answers from a scripted selection of options. Generally, in your tutoring sessions you will want to avoid asking closed questions because your tutee will do most of the listening rather than most of the explaining (and learning).


The other element in asking questions is to know the purpose it serves. If you know why you are asking a question or what you want the tutee to take away from thinking through an answer, then you can easily and quickly formulate the question. While there may be many potential purposes or motives for asking questions, we’ll focus on introducing, clarifying, challenging, connecting, guiding, and fact checking. The table below shows potential purposes as well as examples you can use in sessions. Click on Fig 1.3 on the left to expand.



Asking Stronger Questions


Notice that most of the questions are open-ended. Recognizing your question’s purpose can help you reword a closed question and results in something more productive than a one word answer. For example, if you want to know if your tutee understands the concept you just went over, you may ask “Do you get it?” or “Does that make more sense now?”  Your purpose is to know if they understand, so you could address that same purpose by asking “How would you explain the concept back to me know?” or “How would you describe it?” This keeps the tutee talking and engaged in the session.


You could also strengthen a question by asking a third type of question, a scaling question. A scaling question is actually a combination of closed and open-ended types. You begin with a more closed question asking the tutee to rank or rate something like their understanding or confidence on a scale of one to ten. Once the tutee responds, you follow up with open-ended questions asking them to explain why they ranked or rated themselves at that level. You can also ask what it would take for them to rank or rate themselves at the next level.  The tutee’s response to the follow up questions allows you to see where they are at with the material, watch self-reported progress, and adjust your session plan to help the tutee “level up” their understanding or confidence. 


Overall, leading sessions through asking questions will keep the tutee thinking, explaining, and involved in their learning. It will help tutees see how much they aleady know and guide them in learning more. Questions also turn sessions into tutee-dominant conversations rather than a tutor-dominant mini-lectures repeating the material from class. Approaching tutoring and subject material you already understand through asking questions may require more effort and feel slightly awkward at first, but it will become more natural as you use it in sessions. 

More than What You Say: Wait Time


The next few challenges will focus on the importance of non-verbal communication during your tutoring session. We will go into detail about how to interpret how your tutee is feeling based on their body language, as well as the message you, the tutor, are sending to your tutee. We’ll cover topics such as wait-time, body language, creating a welcoming space, and recognizing non-verbal behavior.


First up is wait time.  Wait time is a pause or period of silence used to let the tutee have some time to think and respond to a question. You’ll ask a lot of questions in your sessions, and it’s important to give the tutee time to process – otherwise they’ll feel rushed and stressed, and you’ll end up doing all of the talking!


Watch the video HERE for more information.

More than What You Say: Body Language

Silence and wait time are important aspects of non-verbal communication, but they aren't the only ones. We can get a lot of information from a person’s subtle signals, but we’re primarily going to focus on eye contact and gestures in this challenge. 


First, watch the video HERE on your body language as a tutor.


Part of a tutor’s role is observing and responding to the nonverbal cues from their tutees. Observing your tutees body language and expressions can help you decide whether to move on to another problem, offer encouragement, or try a different learning strategy. This second video will help you practice recognizing some of the emotions and behaviors that can clue you in to how your tutee is feeling, and how you can respond to those cues to have a successful session. 

More than What You Say: Cultural Understanding


The content for non-verbal communication in the three "More than What You Say" sections has been based off an American understanding of what certain gestures and actions mean. As a tutor, however, you will work with students who have different backgrounds and cultures, and you must understand how this culture influences a session. This section briefly covers cultural understanding in the tutor/tutee relationship.


How does culture affect a tutoring appointment?


Stereotypes: Assumptions and generalizations made about others based solely on outward characteristics (thought).


Discrimination: Unfair treatment of others based on perceived group or categorization (action).


Microaggressions: “Brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group ”(Sue, Capodilupo, Torino, Bucceri, Holder, Nadal, & Esquilin, 2007, p. 273)


Example: A tutor may assume that an international student will struggle with English (stereotype), provide limited availability to international students (discrimination), or say “No, where are you really from?” to an American student the tutor perceives as an international student (microaggression). These and other kinds of stereotyping, discrimination, and microaggressions, are unacceptable in tutoring sessions. 


Misunderstood Language: Using words and phrases that are either unfamiliar or offensive.

Example: America has many idioms that are unique to the U.S. Phrases like “shooting fish in a barrel” and “train of thought” may serve to confuse non-native English speakers who have not grown up with those expressions.  


Personal Space: The amount of acceptable distance between two people in order to feel comfortable.

Example: Personal space is often smaller in Latin America than in the U.S. A student from a Latin American country might sit quite close to you during an appointment, unaware they may be causing discomfort. (Sue et al., 2007)


Conversation Habits: Methods of communication such as intonation, pauses, speech patterns, or ways of organizing thoughts.

Example: The Navajo and Japanese cultures see direct eye contact as hostile or disrespectful. When working with these students, a lack of eye contact may be a sign of respect, rather than disengagement. (Sue et al., 2007)


Age/Sex Differences: Differences in how people of a certain gender or age are regarded and treated.


Example: For some conservative Muslim women, physical contact with men (like a handshake) may be considered unacceptable. This student may specifically request to work with a female tutor, or to switch tutors if their appointment is with a male. (Wasfi, 2014)

IMPORTANT NOTE: In each of these examples, the words “may” or “might” are used rather than “will.” Each student comes to a tutoring appointment with a diverse set of life experiences, and there are no sweeping generalizations for the students you will be working with.


Tips for Communicating


So how can you successfully communicate with students of another culture? Here are some tips for cross-cultural communication in a tutoring setting.


  • Be patient and maintain a positive attitude. You might make a mistake or run into a situation that you’re not sure how to handle. Approaching the session with humor, a good attitude, and patience will help both you and your tutee avoid becoming frustrated.

  • Ask questions to check for understanding. Avoid misunderstandings by asking the student if they can repeat your idea back to you in their own words, or by clarifying if your talking speed is acceptable.

  • Always be respectful. A student’s culture may seem strange to you, but you should always respect their cultural heritage and how they express that. Telling a student that their way of doing things is wrong does not create an environment where that student can learn. Be open and understanding, and avoid being critical.


Remember, no two students are alike, and the examples provided will not be true for all members of a particular culture or group.


Reflecting on your own culture can help you be more aware of how your culture influences your approach to tutoring.



Consider some of the following dimensions of diversity. Click on fig 1.4 on the left.




Now reflect and briefly respond to the questions below.



  • Which roles and/or identities are most important to you? Why are they important to you? How do you see those roles and/or identities influencing your life and how you approach situations?

  • Are there roles and/or identities you would add to the list?

  • Which roles and/or identities do you think about least often? How do these roles and/or identities influence your life, maybe without you noticing it in your daily routine?

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Fig 1.3

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Fig 1.4

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