One of the most difficult things about tutoring is knowing the limits of your student’s concentration span. No-one is winning if you’re just sitting there reeling off information to them while they look at you with a glazed smile. However, in the early stages of tutoring when you’re a bit nervous and need to build confidence in your teaching, that’s sometimes the habit you can develop. If-I-talk-really-fast-about-really-complicated-things-for-the-whole-hour-then-you’ll-definitely-know-that-I-know-what-I’m-talking-about-and-want-to-have-more-sessions, is a trap I have fallen into in the past. As your confidence grows however, you are able to give yourself and your student the time to interact with the material in an engaging way that will allow you to make the most of your time.
This is particularly important with younger students. Any lesson for a child under the age of 12 needs to be thought about carefully. We all know by now that everyone has a different learning style, but that the problem with classroom teaching is that it’s very difficult for one teacher to meet all of these styles. So this is where you can get creative as a tutor and really meet the needs of your student. I had one nine year old who was good at maths, but only when she had her brain switched on. If she was focused we could race through calculations with no problem, but as soon as she vaguely switched off, it was like she’d never been taught how to add two and two together.
So I got creative. It became clear to me that her mind would wander at certain intervals so I broke the hour up into twenty minute slots and at the end of each twenty minutes she’d get to play a little game, preferably something physical, to get the blood flowing back to her brain. I had her bouncing up and down on a pogo stick to see how many she could do without falling off, practicing with her diablo and yo-yo, or playing me a little tune on her piano. With times tables, I would get her to hide the numbers of, say the four times tables, around the garden and then when I would shout out ‘three times four!’ she would have to run to find where she’d put the twelve. Needless to say we had a lot more fun than if I had sat there trudging through material and getting cross with her when she wasn’t concentrating.
With my older tutees, things are a little different. I think if I got my A level Economics students to run around their garden hiding pieces of paper with the long term causes of economic growth written on them I might get a rather less enthusiastic response. But the need to monitor their concentration levels and find new ways of engaging their brain is just as key as with the younger students. If I have a two hour lesson, for example, I make sure that we break it up with a cup of tea and a chat about something entirely unrelated and in all lessons I encourage them to participate as much as possible. So, I set them little tasks of writing an essay plan in ten minutes or get them to talk me through how they’d answer an exam question. Often I play along too, writing the essay plan in the same ten minute slot and comparing notes afterwards. That way they feel like you’re in it with them and it’ll invariably help you step inside the mind of your student and have a better grasp of the obstacles they might be facing when approaching their work.
I think the task is to keep on being self critical as a tutor. If your student is not responding to your methods, don’t assume it’s them, assume that it’s you and change your approach. Too often students sit in lessons in school and are told that they are failing when in fact they are simply not being engaged in a way that makes sense for them and that allows them to learn effectively. My advice for tutors: don’t be afraid to bring fun and games into the lessons, and parents: if your tutor decides to get your child running around the garden looking for the answer to 6 x 9, don’t worry too much, you might even find that it works!