Tutoring can be challenging, particularly for those without extensive teaching experience. Online tutoring poses it’s own problems, when you are separated by distance from the student. But there are tutoring techniques that are proven to work, and have been been recommended by academics who have studied best practice in online tutoring.

We think that this research is fascinating, and have dedicated this blog post to looking in detail in what represents the 5 areas of best practice, and provide some suggestions to you to improve your effectiveness as an online tutor. Our thanks go to Cherie Mazer who researched this area in her recent paper ‘Best Practices in Online Tutoring’.

So what does the research have to say?

1. Pre-assessment

The first step should be to understand what a student is and isn’t capable of. This is done in two key ways:

  • The best tutors performed a quick test of the syllabus or module curriculum to understand where the student needed help and what they were more comfortable with.  This allows you to prioritise different subjects over others whilst still making a plan that allows you to cover other areas.
  • In understanding what a student is capable of, tutors also looked at the different areas of course material to understand what it is they are dealing with – is the course aimed at theoretical concepts or do they contextualise the questions more?

Suggestion: Ask some basic questions that focus on the core of each topic.  For example, if you’re looking at mathematics, consider asking which simple equations they remember and understand where the gaps lie.  Maybe they’ve forgotten a few of their equations relating to laws of motion, for example.  In turn, this will give you a better idea of the course material involved.

Check out these research findings on online tutoring.

2. Active learning through guided inquiry, guided coaching or scaffolding

Guiding or coaching a student through a learning process is seen as the ‘gold standard’ of effective tutoring.  Whilst some students will go to a teacher merely searching for the answer to their question –  the best tutors will take the time to explain things to them whilst allowing the student to come to their own conclusions about what the answer is.

Through use of prompts and leading questions, it is possible to help a student form steps and processes in their head which can improve their learning of a particular subject.  Not only does it help revise their prior knowledge, but it also helps them understand the new steps they should take.

Suggestion: When a student comes to you with a particular question, make them recall the steps they would take to get to a certain point, such as where they got stuck.  Understand their thought process and how they got to that stage before attempting to push them a little further with these leading questions.  This will in turn help you to understand where they are struggling and then correct them.  Give another example to them to make sure they fully understand what they need to go in order to succeed.

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3. Work at the correct level

As we’ve already mentioned, the best tutors understand where their student’s problem lie.  This allows you to tailor your tutoring to their needs.  Through the use of different questions of varying difficulty, you can better help a student – you can work at the appropriate level.

However, your assessment should not stop there – you should be able to take a little time every so often to work out how well they are progressing.  Can you move on to something a little more testing?  Should you go over things again?

Taking time to regularly gauge how a student is doing allows you to control the speed more easily so they don’t appear lost – you can always go back and spend more time on foundation topics if you need to, and gradually tackle tougher things with increasing speed and efficiency.

Suggestion: Regularly review how well your student is developing.  You want to make sure that they understand what they are doing and at the same time you want them to be challenged and using all of their skills.  Maybe every so often throw the same question at them during consecutive progress reviews – maybe they’ll be able to grasp a trickier one better the second time.

Here is how to become effective in online tutoring.

4. Get the student to explain their workings

Remember in school when a teacher or exam said ‘show you workings!’  Me too, you always get credit for showing off how you got to an answer, even if it was the wrong final answer.  Asking a student to show their workings will help you understand their thought process – if the answer isn’t spot-on you can stop them and point out an error and they can then follow through with their correction.

By getting them to demonstrate some reasoning, you’ll help them become more and more confident in showing what they’re doing. If they’re right, it’ll be a boost to them and serve as encouragement.  If they are wrong, if gives you a chance to point out the errors and give them reassurance.

Suggestion: Ask them to work through the steps they took – don’t just ask for their answer and tell them it’s right/wrong!  Only ask for the answer at the end of the question – this means you can listen to each step without them being despondent about their answer right from the start.

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5. Instructional Explanation

One of the best ways to help reinforce the material they’re learning is to sit down and go through something by going step-by-step yourself. A good way to do this is to give a set of instructions for them to follow – a kind of process that they can use time and time again.  With enough practice, this will become second nature.  This idea of instructions is more suited to mathematics and the processes of finding an answer to, say, an equation, but it could be easily applied to other subjects too.

Suggestion: For something they are struggling with or are looking at something new, explain how to go about something with a simple set of instructions.  The best way to reinforce this is to go through a question while you do it, asking them at different points to get involved and work something out along the way.

Fascinating stuff, I am sure that you will agree. Cherie Mazer’s research also identified three other areas for successful learning:

  • Socio-affective support: demonstrated through establishing a friendly rapport and closely monitoring progress throughout the session
  • Motivational support:  help students see that they complete tasks successfully
  • Metacognitive support: develop students learning strategies and study skills

We’ll be looking at these in detail in future blog posts.

I hope that you have found this article interesting and of practical use to you, for your online tutoring. Please feel free to share your observations and thoughts via the comments below.

Also, you may find our do it yourself guide for online tutoring useful if you want to tutor online.




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As an Englishman in Paris, I enjoy growing my knowledge of other languages and cultures. I'm interested in History, Economics, and Sociology and believe in the importance of continuous learning.