It is estimated that there are over 1 million tutors in the UK, that’s quite a surprising number as it’s more than twice as many as the number of teachers in British schools.

Given the large number of tutors out there, I was left wondering what sets out the best tutors from the crowd. How do you work out if the tutor knows their stuff, and figure out whether they will be effective with you / your child?


There are three key questions that you need to ask a tutor to find out how effective they are, and how likely they are to be right for you:

  1. How well do you understand the subject you are tutoring? Is it your speciality?
  2. How do you get to the bottom of a student’s learning problems? What techniques do you use to do this?
  3. How do you find a way to lead the student to discover the answers for themselves?

As you might expect academics are not shy when it comes to researching the effectiveness of teaching and tutoring, and The Access Project have done a great job on summarising the research on one-to-one tuition in this area. So what does the research actually say?

The importance of subject knowledge

At first sight it may seem blindingly obvious that tutors need to be experts the subjects they teach. Interestingly this is not always necessarily the case. Whilst you can’t tutor what you don’t understand yourself, so called ‘unskilled tutors’ can be every bit as effective as ‘expert tutors’. An unskilled tutor maybe someone with broader knowledge and experience, not necessarily specialist knowledge at the subject at hand.

Now this is the important bit, it’s about how they teach. Effective tutors go beyond spouting off from a textbook about a subject. They will often illuminate the subject by providing extra information and real world examples, as well as using visual models to explain difficult concepts.

Diagnosing learning problems

There is a skill to tutoring. Experienced and trained tutors use ‘pedagogical strategies’ to diagnose learning problems, and use them to create a way forward. Good tutors can switch between these tools as they go, focusing on what works best for the student.

The sorts of techniques effective tutors use include:

  • Building on pre-requisites. Getting the basics right – they consolidate existing learning in the form of prerequisite skills / concepts before moving on to more complex areas.
  • Diagnosis of deep misconceptions. Sometimes you just don’t understand something because you misunderstand something else. Tutors look for individual errors which indicate a lack of understanding of other concepts.
  • Socratic learning. Helping the student find the answers themselves. The tutor asks questions to help the student discover misconceptions and correct them.
  • Modelling-Scaffolding-Fading. Providing a framework for understanding the problem and stepping back once the student has mastered it.
  • Reciprocal teaching. The tutor and student take turns to read and think out loud.
  • Frontier learning. Tutors set problems that push the scope and level of student knowledge.

Responsive to the needs of students

The student has to build a good relationship with the student. The one to one nature of personal tutoring allows for a much more intuitive style of teaching. They can glean alot of information from what a student says and how they say it.

I hope that you have found this article useful. If you would like to read more about the practical steps you need to make to find a tutor, then take a look at our article entitled ‘Top Tips: How to find the right tutor for your child’.

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Laura is a Francophile with a passion for literature and linguistics. She also loves skiing, cooking and painting.