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To truly help students build deep understanding, effective tutoring intervention requires the right time, place, people, and curriculum.

6 keys to effective tutoring

To truly help students build deep understanding, intervention requires the right time, place, people, and curriculum

Key points:

  • For tutoring to work, students have to show up
  • Finding a curriculum designed for tutoring is important to program success

As educators continue to work to accelerate learning for students following the pandemic, many are turning to tutoring to provide support. Tutoring is one of the most effective math interventions available for students, but the quality of tutoring varies widely.

Here are six keys to ensuring your students are receiving the best tutoring available.

  1. Get students to show up.

The primary challenge with tutoring is attendance. Just getting students to show up to sessions is difficult. The most reliable way to ensure students who need extra support show up for tutoring is to offer it during the school day.

Think of it like inpatient versus outpatient medical therapy. Outpatient therapy is hit or miss based on the motivation of the patient. Even with the most engaging material and a charismatic tutor, how many students really want to be in a tutoring session?

There are different ways to get students into tutoring while they are at school. Perhaps they go to an intervention classroom and a teacher or another educator (or even a parent) is there simply to facilitate as students meet with tutors online, either in small groups or individually. Schools could also have students visit with tutors immediately before or after school.

Finding time during the daily school schedule is not easy. Schools have their schedules locked in. Any schedule changes requiring additional personnel are especially difficult: We’re in the middle of a national teacher shortage, as well, so throwing more teachers into the mix to break students into different groups is not an answer for a lot of schools right now.

Some districts have found creative ways to solve this challenge, however. In a couple of districts in Texas with giant student-to-teacher ratios, for example, students are partitioned so that part of the day they are in tutoring with Teacher Incentive Allotment-Certified teachers while their peers are in class, and then they switch. It allows the classroom teacher to be more deeply engaged with one group of students while the other is in tutoring.

In another state where there is a large number of emergency certified teachers–meaning they don’t have their teaching degree or experience–some schools and districts are putting them in classes to facilitate online tutoring that is provided by highly qualified teachers. They’re using it as a kind of professional development by having emergency teachers essentially look over the shoulder of excellent teachers as they tutor students.

  1. Use highly qualified tutors.

Once students are in tutoring sessions, the next big challenge is making sure the tutors they are working with are highly qualified. A common way schools try to bridge the gap is by partnering with the local college, but that introduces many of its own challenges and uncertainties. Will the tutors show up? Will they stick with it over time to develop consistency and relationships with the students they tutor? Are they qualified to teach the subject? A physics student might be really good at advanced math, but that doesn’t mean they know how to teach young students to add and subtract.

Look for tutors who are state-certified, familiar with North American culture, and have a few years of teaching experience. If you’re offering online tutoring, it’s a good idea to look for tutors who have at least a year of experience teaching online, as well.

  1. Use stories and manipulatives to build students’ academic vocabulary.

Most students in an English class spoke English before they took that class. So why do they need English? Part of it is learning the vocabulary, such as what is a noun and what is a preposition. English teachers take students’ authentic language experience and build on top of it. When it comes to math, on the other hand, every student is a language learner.

High-quality tutoring should help students have baseline mathematical experiences that tutors can then help them translate into math vocabulary. It’s the polar opposite of how most students experience math. Tutoring needs to incorporate math stories and the use of manipulatives and math-based puzzles that help students have those baseline experiences in the first place so that they have a foundation to build on.

  1. Choose a curriculum designed for tutoring.

Often, students who need support are tutored using the same curriculum they are already struggling with in class. Anyone who’s ever changed the oil in their car probably knows that there are a lot of ways to get an oil filter off, but the easiest way is to use an oil filter wrench. Any job is significantly easier when you have the right tools. So, the question becomes: “Is the curriculum that isn’t working in class the right tool for tutoring students?”

A tutoring curriculum should be designed for tutoring. In any grade, there is a vast amount of material to cover, but if a student in a particular grade is struggling, their teacher knows what they are most likely struggling with and even why. If they are in 3rd grade, for example, there’s a very good chance they are struggling with multiplication. That, in turn, likely means they have some kind of counting issue because multiplication is just an advanced form of counting.

A good tutoring curriculum should be focused on the big concepts that tend to trip students up at each level, and it should focus on helping students develop appropriate schema to understand those concepts rather than focusing on skills. If you can help a student understand the ideas underlying counting and multiplication, their multiplication skills will also improve.

  1. Provide consistent tutoring.

Consistency in tutoring is another way to ensure students are progressing as much as possible. Consistency here refers both to having tutors meet with the same students across sessions and to having tutors help students in the same grades over time.

Tutors can often have quick insights into students’ struggles because they deal with students in a one-to-one setting or very small groups. When you have the same tutor meeting with students from session to session, that individual perspective is reinforced because they have an opportunity to learn how each student thinks over time.

Having tutors teach the same grades over time is important because they can become deeply familiar with the material. If you think about a teaching career that lasts 25 years and imagine that teacher stays in the same district at the same grade level for their entire career, in the end, they will have only taught each math lesson 25 times.

Tutors, on the other hand, can teach students the same lesson hundreds of times in a single year. They can become so familiar with it that they don’t even think about the content. They can focus entirely on what the student is doing and ask themselves, “What are they thinking? How can I draw out even better thinking from that student?”

  1. Ensure that struggle is productive.

Students will spend time doing things they like and avoid spending time on the things they don’t. If they struggle productively with math, they’ll have that good relationship that keeps them working at it. If they struggle unproductively, they’ll become frustrated and won’t want to work on it. The only difference between productive and unproductive struggle, however, is the story the students tell themselves.

Teachers and tutors can help students tell themselves a positive story about their relationship to math by providing them with informative feedback as they work. Think about a high school basketball game. If a student barely misses a shot, everyone gasps. They almost made it! The crowd is really nice about it. But if a player throws up an air ball, the crowd can be ruthless for the rest of the game.

In both instances, the result is the same. “You almost made it,” is just a nice way of saying, “You missed,” and you don’t get any points, no matter how closely you miss a shot. By letting them see how much they missed, we give students a better opportunity to correct themselves and get it right next time. They know that they have to aim a bit more to the right, if they barely missed, or a lot higher if they sent up an air ball. And as they see themselves getting closer and closer, they see that they are a person who can learn to shoot baskets or learn to do math.

To extend the basketball metaphor a bit further, think about how a young person will say something like, “Okay, but I have to make my last shot,” if you tell them to come in from shooting hoops. It’s almost like all the missed shots prior to making it don’t count. That’s more true in math than it is in basketball. All the shots they’ve taken at solving a particular kind of problem were just lessons they needed to learn on their way to mastery. Once they understand that, their relationship with math is completely transformed.

We need to help these students feel like failure is not the end of the world but, unfortunately, math is the only subject where they aren’t permitted to fail. In English, students write a first draft, receive feedback, write another draft, and continue the process until they have a piece of writing they are proud of. Science is an entire method of inquiry, the scientific method, based on failing over and over.

If students are going to feel like failure is a step towards mastery, they need informative feedback to help them refine the ideas they were working with when they got an answer wrong.

Tutoring has become a hot topic lately, and many people would point to the pandemic as the reason why, but the industry has been heading this way for years. Learning disruptions may have brought the need for more effective interventions into starker focus, but students deserve the most effective support we can deliver, even in the best of times.

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