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Tutor Your Student, Not Just Your Topic

A Guide for Tutors

Abby Wagner

by Abby Wagner
Ferris State University
Tutor, SLA Co-trainer and Facilitator

As a pre-medical student, one of my goals as a future physician is to practice patient-centered medicine, focusing on the overall benefit of the patient, rather than simply targeting a disease process in the patient. Similarly, as a peer tutor, my focus is on the overall benefit of the student, rather than simply targeting the transmission of a particularly difficult concept from textbook to brain.

The best physicians get to know their patients, and the best tutors get to know their students. This is a crucial step in demonstrating a genuine personal interest in the student and in their success. This personal interest may be a strong motivating factor for a student who is struggling, discouraged or is perhaps less than one hundred percent committed to academic success.

Physicians ask many diagnostic questions, and tutors too should have a question bank designed to uncover the student’s roadblocks to success. Questions such as, “How are your note taking skills?” and “Do you experience test anxiety?” and “Do you know how to enter scientific notation in your calculator?” may lead to a breakthrough for the student simply by teaching a basic technique to address the area of need.

Patients and students alike often come to their appointments with an expectation of getting all the answers. The tutor’s role, however, is not to give answers but to lead the student down the path toward the answers. The Socratic method of teaching by asking guided questions is an extremely effective tutoring method. It fully engages the student, deepens understanding, and enables the student to leave with a sense of accomplishment. The Socratic method also serves to build independent learners who have learned to draw on existing knowledge to build bridges to new concepts.

The best physicians take pains to explain complex concepts in understandable terms, and so do the best tutors. It is important for the tutor to take a step back, define basic terminology, and lay a solid foundation. For example, a beginning organic chemistry student is likely to need a review of pertinent concepts from general chemistry. Peer tutors are able to think back to a not-so-distant time when they were struggling with the same concepts and fill in the gaps in understanding for their students. They remember the confusion of encountering a nucleus that was not the nucleus of an atom, nor the nucleus of a cell, but a mysterious collection of cell bodies in the nervous system designed to befuddle the unsuspecting student.

The best physician cannot ensure well-being for a patient who does not take personal responsibility for their health, and the best tutor cannot ensure the success of a student who does not take personal responsibility for their education. Tutoring often involves not only content delivery, but coaching in the habits of successful students, such as reading the textbook, doing homework, planning ahead for exams, and going to office hours.

In summary, the best tutor will strive for the best possible outcome for their student by getting to know the student, addressing the student’s roadblocks to success, guiding the student in the quest for answers, taking time to explain foundational concepts and terminology, and mentoring the student in developing strategies that promote academic success.