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Best Practices for Teaching as a Tutor | JustAddTutor

8/26/19, Note: Since creating this page, I’ve created a free web app to help tutors implement best teaching practices into their sessions. It’s called 21st Night. Click the link to find out more about it.

One of the downsides of being independent is that, sadly enough, most of my worries and mental energy aren’t actually about teaching. I’m so concerned about getting new clients and keeping them that I find it hard to devote enough time to serving my current clients as best as I can.

I suspect the same is true of most tutors and teachers. There’s so much other stuff to worry about that it’s hard to get time to perfect the craft. Fortunately, I’ve gotten enough of my other concerns on autopilot right now that I have had some time to codify and perfect the way that I teach through experimentation and analysis.

Here’s what I’ve found is the best way for tutors to teach.

Optimal teaching strategy for tutors

General thoughts about teaching

First of all, your job is to transmit information from your brain to your client’s. You are doing this for the purpose of achieving their specific goa (in my case, getting their target score on their chosen test). Therefore, make sure that the information you transmit is useful, and that it’s not useless. You should be focusing on, reiterating, and explaining useful information. If you spend a long time on personal anecdotes or irrelevant asides, that is what your students will remember from their lesson. That is bad.

Also, most learning processes are unpleasant. Very few people enjoy doing GRE or GMAT problems. To combat this, people need to view studying as a sprint, rather than as a stroll. They need to immerse themselves in the material for a couple hours a day. Much like literal immersion in cold water, it is easier to just embrace the unpleasantness and tackle it head-on, rather than dipping their toe in but never engaging. Part of the reason I meet with people for 2 hours a week is to encourage this sort of immersion.

Immersion makes it less likely that they’ll quit in the middle of learning. Your clients will see improvements regularly, they’ll remember what they’ve been learning, and they’ll be forced to change their lifestyle to accommodate their learning. Much like how small commitments in the sales process makes your clients more likely to follow through, adjusting their lifestyle makes your clients more likely to keep with the learning process.

Finally, a teacher’s job is to be an enthusiastic optimist. If what you teach is difficult (and if people are hiring you, it almost certainly is), at some point your clients will become bored, annoyed, frustrated, or some combination of the three. That is natural, and not a slight on you or your teaching ability.

When your students express their displeasure with the learning process, you need to acknowledge that their complaints are valid, but then deflect them with optimism. They should think that you heard them, but that you believe in their abilities.

For instance, if your student messes up the same thing for the thousandth time, and says, “I suck!” You should respond, “Yeah, you’re having a bit of a tough time right now. But, you gotta get things wrong before you get them right.”

If you are a pessimist, your student will be a pessimist a thousand times over. They are taking guidance from you on how to feel. Then they become unhappy, discouraged, and quit. Don’t let that happen!

Specific recommendations for effective tutoring

So now for my specific recommendations, which are long and a bit cumbersome. For the purposes of this section, I’m going to use the extended example of giving the lessons on my website as a several day seminar. It seems pleasantly meta, and I assume you’re pretty much an expert in this stuff by now.

Create a learning structure

Explicit hierarchical structure and progress tracking

For any big subject, students need to have a mental model of what the overall field looks like, and how what they’re learning right now fits into the big picture. So, for example, if I was teaching the lessons on this website as a seminar, I’d start off with a broad overview of my business strategy: web presence, advertising, sales process, working with the student. Then I’d drill down into a specific topic, like the web page in web presence, then go further into the importance of proof, social proof, and credentials in creating a good web page.

Here’s a visual example of what I mean.

a hierarchy of learning, based off of the lessons on this site. hierarchies are a crucial part of how tutors organize lessons and information

In the seminar, this structure would be referred to explicitly and repeatedly. Every student would understand why they are learning a certain aspect of my business strategy (like how to display social proof for your web page), and what its its purpose is in my overall business strategy. To the greatest extent possible, students would never be confused about how to execute a piece of my business philosophy or, even worse, be unfamiliar with my philosophy entirely.

This explicit structure also allows for progress tracking. Students would be familiar with all the aspects of my business strategy (e.g. peripheral products, blog posts, etc.). Being familiar with all the aspects of the strategy is a crucial step towards mastering the strategy as a whole. Progress tracking is: a motivational tool for students, as they can see what they’ve learned and feel happy about it; an analytical tool for students, as the weaknesses or holes in their understanding are apparent (like if they’ve never really understood sales calls); and a planning tool for students, as they can see what they will learn next.

In my own tutoring, I use an error log for progress tracking [note: since creating this, I’ve switched over to using my web app, 21st Night, instead of a spreadsheet]. I’ve given an example of one below. Notice how the error log is set-up with explicit mentions of type of questions, so students can plan out what they will cover; difficulty, so they can measure their expertise; and color-coding, so they can immediately visually see where they need improvement.

Goals (short, intermediate, long)

Anything that’s difficult to learn will have problem with attrition. This problem is magnified if there’s not a clear sense of structure to the learning. While that’s somewhat addressed in 1, it’s also important to have clear, universal goals set by the instructor. These goals need to be universal in the sense of “here’s what any person should learn in sequence”.

In our hypothetical seminar, I’d make these goals as explicit as sections on my website. They don’t need to be super specific, as in “know how to retarget by the end of the second day of the seminar”. They can be general, like “get comfortable with the ins and outs of Google’s advertising option by the end of the second day”. But the goals do need to be explicit, and there needs to be doubts or ambiguity about their content or when students should tackle them.

If it’s not feasible for the instructor to state the goals in the seminar for whatever reason, the goals would be written, displayed, and made known among every student. Every student would be able to immediately answer two questions: what they’ve learned, and what they should learn next. This prevents them from being overwhelmed.

No student should be made to feel discouraged or ashamed about being slow to progress in sequence. People have different skills and motivation, and progressing slowly (or even regressing in extreme circumstances) is better than quitting. However, going to a multi-day seminar and not knowing what to focus on is not a good thing.

In my own tutoring, I set up these goals by coming up with strategies for individual sections, and giving students ways to measure how well they’re implementing the strategy. Implementing these strategies successfully on homework is a short-term goal, on practice tests are intermediate goals, and on their live exam is a long-term goal. It is fine if students are slow to implement my strategies and achieve improvement on practice tests. As long as they continue to achieve the next goal in front of them (like learning how to implement my strategies on the next homework question), they will eventually get there.

Improving the in-class experience


Along with structure and goals, repetition is a key part of learning. Each lesson should be structured in the beginning as “This is what we are going to learn”. In the middle: “this is what we are learning”. In the end: “this is what we have learned”.

From an instructor’s perspective, the repetition seems unnecessary and boring. But that is because the instructor doesn’t have to get over the shock of unfamiliarity. To a student, the concepts and tools I use in my tutoring are like the words of a new language. Even after hearing them, it’s very difficult to use them.

Repetition also helps orient the students as to where they are in the structure. If students understand the concepts well enough to tune out the instructor’s repetition, then they are able to think more deeply about the concept, and situate it logically.

This repetition includes repeating over a period of days. Calling back to earlier lessons helps students understand deeper, and is both satisfying and allows for a deeper understanding of the concept learned previously and the concept being learned currently.

This is, in fact, how you’re using this website right now, or at least I hope you are. You read something, read it again, take some notes, then maybe click back to another section to compare what I said before. The repetition improves your understanding, as does the reference to what was said earlier.

In my tutoring, if students struggle with a question, I approach it with this repetition in mind. I tell them how I’d set it up. Then I set it up, and walk them through my approach. Finally, I remind them how I set it up and approached it. Often, I then ask my students to try the approach on another, similar question, cementing the repetition.

Takeaways from lesson

Even if a lesson is well taught in the moment, it is too easy to forget it as soon as a student goes home and the distractions of everyday life come roaring back. Takeaways from the lesson give something for students to hold onto once the lesson is over.

If you want to give someone a takeaway to remember, keep it to a sentence or two. The idea isn’t to give the student all the details you gave in the seminar, but instead to give them a trigger for recalling. If you want to give them all the details, provide it in video or document format. Once they remember their trigger, they can use the video or document to remember the details (see 9. Supplementary Material for more information).

Often, I have a key phrase that I use with certain sorts of problems while tutoring. For example, faced with a logic problem, I ask the students: “What’s the author’s conclusion?” This begins the sequence that I use to solve logic problems. When the student works on their own, they can remember this trigger to start the sequence.

During lessons, vary levels of guidedness

During a lesson, it’s up to the teacher how best to teach a concept, technique, or tool. If it’s something that’s very technical and being taught for the first time, the teacher should be precise and detail exactly how it works step-by-step. If it’s more of a concept or feeling, the teacher should give goals, and the student should do work on their own (thinking, writing, etc.) according to the teacher’s goals or guidelines. If the teacher is testing something that’s already been learned, the student should be able to answer without any guidelines from the teacher.

Many teachers have trouble with intermediate levels of guidedness. When they teach something new, they want to dictate exactly what the student should do. When they let the students do it on their own, they give them zero guidance. However, this is a very hard gap for a student to bridge on their own. There’s a big difference between seeing someone do something (or being told to act in a certain way), and doing it yourself, especially in a new or unfamiliar situation.

To give a concrete example, when first teaching my sales process in a seminar, I would demonstrate exactly how I’d guide the conversation, and give step by step explanations of what I’m doing. Then, I’d ask students to break out and try it on their own. At that point, I would repeat the step by step instructions as the students copy what I did. Once the students are comfortable with that, I’d give the students broad, general steps, and ask them to progress through the sales conversation themselves. Finally, I’d ask the students to carry out the entire sales conversation from start-to-finish without any input from me.

In my tutoring, I first teach techniques by performing the technique on a question myself, narrating my thought process as I do so and taking clear notes. I then key the student through the techniques on another problem, asking leading questions to get them to perform the right processes. My next step is to ask open-ended questions on yet another problem, asking the student what the steps in the process should be. Finally, I let them perform the technique on another problem on their own.

The idea here is to reduce the cognitive load of the students. Remembering how the conversation is supposed to go and performing it correctly is hard. Transition from being instructed to doing it on a student’s own needs to be gradual. Otherwise, what ends up happening is that students don’t quite remember correctly, then proceed to practice incorrectly. This either results in them not remembering what’s taught, or, even worse, remembering it incorrectly, giving them problems down the road.

Give your students a chance to fail in controlled ways

Going along with teacher guidedness is the idea of giving students a chance to fail. This might either sound ridiculous or obvious, depending on your view of teaching, but first I need to clarify what I mean by this. Failure is when you try, and your try obviously doesn’t work.

So, misremembering a concept and being corrected is a failure. Setting up a tool incorrectly so that it clearly doesn’t work is a failure. Having a customer not convert after a sales conversation is not usually a failure, because it’s normally unclear where your error was, or what you should have done to correct it.

As you might imagine, much like guidedness, failures lie on a spectrum from 100% teacher controlled (like misremembering a concept when asked) to 0% teacher controlled (like failing to remember how to correctly set up tools for your own website). The intermediate levels of teacher-controlled failure (like saying something wrong when role-playing a sales conversation) are likewise lacking in most education.

Failure should be regular in any class. If students do not fail, they will not learn. And so any class must be a place where failure is welcomed and encouraged. This is difficult for students, because failure is not as fun as succeeding. The instructor must strive to create an atmosphere where students are, if not happy to fail, then not unhappy to fail.

Improvements in Communication


During class itself, the easiest way to teach is by a narrative structure. Not in the sense of creating a complex story, but in the sense of creating clear reasons why we are doing certain things  in a certain way. This allows for deeper understanding of the concepts being taught, and aids with retention.

For example, when teaching the idea of writing blog posts that people search for on Google, the teacher could explain that the entrepreneur wants to anticipate what people search for and provide answers for it. It’s a simple wording change from simply “anticipate what people search for and provide answers for it”, but it transforms the idea from a static instruction to a dynamic one, in which entrepreneurs are thinking, adjusting, and evolving in their goal to anticipate searches. Furthermore, it leads the student to useful questions: “why should I anticipate what people search for?” “How do I anticipate what people search for?” “How will Google know that I’m providing good answers?”

These can be answered by the instructor. Of course, the instructor can share these details without the questions being asked, but it’s easier for the student to remember and understand an answer when the student is motivated to know the answer. People like motivations.

In my tutoring, I phrase techniques in a similar manner. On the GMAT, there is a question type which asks what information you’d need to make a math problem solvable. Instead of saying “knowing the precise value of x makes the equation solvable”, I phrase it as: “I need to know the value of x if I want to solve this. How can I find the value of x?”

It’s the same idea, worded differently. People respond to narratives in a way that they don’t respond to abstract concepts. That’s why I have been illustrating these examples with a hypothetical narrative.

Compliment liberally, criticize gently

One of the easiest ways to motivate a student, create a welcoming learning environment, and just make people like learning is to compliment them. Compliments are key to a healthy learning environment, but it is amazing how seldom teachers use them.

For example, in my hypothetical seminar, I imagine I’d have a huge problem in keeping around people who are technophobic. People who are already uncomfortable operating new pieces of software could become easily discouraged once they realize the range of new interfaces I’d ask them to work with. Being overwhelmed leads to fear, and then soon after that the attitude that “this just isn’t something for someone like me”.

Compliments help keep people around, and working on what the teacher thinks is appropriate. Criticisms are also useful (like for letting people know they’ve failed), but they’re dangerous when used casually. It’s easy to discourage or anger people with criticisms, which leads to unproductive learning environments. Criticisms should be obvious but gentle. So, if someone does something incorrectly, the teacher can say, “Not quite. Try doing this.” It’s obvious that it’s a criticism, and that the student failed, but it’s not framed in a discouraging manner.

In my tutoring, I do the same thing. I am always complimentary when people get questions correct, and gentle to tell people when they get a question wrong. When people ask me if I’m frustrated at their slow progress, I always assure them that I am happy to help them and happy to see them trying. The tutor sets the mood, and their words carry a lot of weight. Tests are a source of great anxiety to people, and it is a tutor’s job to alleviate that anxiety.

After Class

Supplementary material and long term memory retention

It’s easy for a teacher to fall into the trap of thinking that, if they point students towards supplementary material, the students will stop taking the teacher seriously, or even stop coming altogether. This is far from the case. The enemies of teaching are forgetfulness and apathy. Students will very rarely quit going to classes because they learn too much. Far more often, they will quit because they forget too much, and they don’t want to put in the effort to remember again.

So supplementary material is crucial. There are many videos, books, and webpages available online, but most students will not seek these out on their own. They need explicit instruction to seek them out, and they need to be tested on the material. This testing should, of course, be friendly. As before, failure must be a welcome part of the learning environment.

Supplementary material is perhaps the only way that students can assist their long term memory and their progress tracking. If a tool or concept is used regularly, it remains in short term memory, and is easily recalled. But, if it is not used regularly, then it is unlikely a student will remember it again months later, unless they have been reviewing it through supplementary material.

For my tutoring, I make peripheral products that I provide to my tutoring clients for free, that I provide to them through 21st Night. I also point them towards high-quality, free online resources. Again, my worry is never losing clients to these online resources. My worry is losing clients when they give up on the test. This prevents that.