Saturday / May 25

Motivating and Accelerating Learning with Tutoring 

 Time devoted to working one-on-one with a learner or with a small group of learners is valuable, particularly in today’s schools and classrooms.  However, we often use this support and time to accomplish “housekeeping tasks” or get a head start on homework.  The resources and time allocated to provide tutoring has presented us with the opportunity to motivate learners and accelerate their learning around essential content, skills, and understandings.  However, this potential is realized if and only if we are strategic in how we implement the tutoring. 

A strategic approach to implementing tutoring starts with us recognizing our main goal: to increase students’ knowledge, skills, and understandings in specific areas that require additional scaffolding and support. However, to be clear, our learners know that if they are receiving tutoring, they have gaps in their learning and are likely sensitive to experiencing failure.  Thus, effective tutoring is much more complex than simply “telling” learners what they are missing and giving them empty praise about who they are as a learner.  So, what does work best in tutoring? How can we help learners who have a damaged relationship with learning? How can we make an impact on students, accelerating their learning in a way that leaves them with the skills to drive their own learning in the future? This last piece, teaching students to become independent learners, is of paramount importance. 

A highly effective tutoring program is composed of six interrelated components that both emphasize what learners need to know, understand, and be able to do—and places the social-emotional well-being of the learner in the center of each tutoring experience.  Let’s quickly look separately at each of these six components. 

  1. Establishing, nurturing, and repairing relationships.  The relationship between the learner and their tutor is not just important, but is the foundation for our model of tutoring.  Tutors work with students who have experienced failure, students who have difficulty learning and remembering, and students who have had ineffective instructional experiences.  Our model of tutoring begins with establishing a healthy, growth-producing relationship.  And this is more than a “getting to know you” phase.  This relationship needs to be nurtured and grown. 
    1. This relationship must be robust enough to survive those inevitable moments that will strain the relationship.  Imagine studying with a tutor only to fail on an assessment.  The student may blame the tutor. Effective tutors recognize that this is part of the process and actively work to re-establish the relationship. Once they have done so, they will be able to better support students as they identify what went wrong and how to address this in the future.  Tutors do not blame students for their circumstances and display great empathy with the students they tutor. 
  2. Addressing confidence and challenges to learning.  Learners receiving tutoring typically recognize that they are struggling.  They know that they need help.  Part of the power of tutors is their ability to address confidence issues.  Given that tutoring is individual or small group, tutors can recognize the signs of lack of confidence and include confidence building activities in each session.  But, these confidence-building activities must be authentic and directly linked to actions of the learner.  Empty praise does not fool our learners—our learners see right through those empty attempts.  Tutors must be on the lookout for cognitive challenges to learning, such as a student’s mindset or limits to working memory.  Addressing these challenges will build learners’ self-efficacy, enhance motivation, and accelerate learning.   
  3. Setting goals.  Every single tutoring session should have learning goals.  Tutors and learners should talk about the goals they have for the session and then reflect on those goals at the end of the session.  A key to this component is that students have a mastery goal orientation rather than a performance goal orientation.  In other words, it’s more valuable to say, “I want to learn to solve quadratic equations using the quadratic formula,” or “I want to use my art to speak for those without a voice,” than to say, “I want to get an A on the next quiz,” or “I just want to get this class finished so that I can graduate.”  When students have goals, they are more likely to engage in the tutoring session and to complete the tasks that are assigned to them.   
  4. Learning how to learn. Many students who require tutoring are unsure how to learn. They may possess ineffective learning strategies, meaning that the effort is there, but the result isn’t. They may complete their assignments, but they may not be learning much in the process.  Tutoring is an opportunity to help students learn how to learn.  Of course, students also need to learn content, but the tutor (and teacher) are only with students for a finite number of hours a day.  If we can teach students how to learn, the impact increases as students begin to teach themselves and learn skills and strategies that will help them in other settings. 
  5. Learning content.  This is the core of the tutoring session.  The whole point of tutoring is to ensure that students learn more concepts and skills.  The tutor needs to know the content well enough to guide students in their thinking without simply telling them answers.  There are any number of effective instructional approaches, depending on what students need to learn and where they are in their learning journey. But there are also bad choices in terms of instructional moves.  The focus should be on whether the selected tools actually increased student learning.  We discover this through assessment. 
  6. Practicing deliberately.  If the learning is going to stick, students need to engage in effective practice.  The truth is that a lot of students in need of tutoring have had reasonably good instruction.  They just didn’t engage in practice that made that instruction stick.  Effective practice needs to be spaced out, not occurring all at once over a short period of time.  In other words, the tutoring session is not just a flood of practice exercises.  The overall effectiveness of our expanded opportunities to increase student learning through tutoring is likely going to be dependent on whether we can get students to engage in effective practice. 

In your school and classroom, you know that tutors come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences.  This includes those individuals who are in the ranks of credentialed teachers, and others that are paraprofessionals. In our neighborhood school, a retired teacher recruited a group of community members who agreed to volunteer their time to support the local schools through tutoring. Wherever your tutors are coming from, they must be fully aware of the goals of the tutoring program, especially that it is for the purpose of strengthening knowledge of concepts and skills, and not just for providing homework help and helping students pass classroom tests.  Tutors should receive professional learning in order to refine their tutoring skills and provide feedback to the school about the program.  We are all in this together and how we collaborate with these very important colleagues is important in ensuring the successful implementation of tutoring.   

Think Acceleration, not Remediation  

To reiterate, the students who are assigned tutors have specific needs related to their learning progress.  And these needs are generally greater than the needs of other students in our schools and classrooms. What we want to avoid is deficit thinking and focusing on remediation.  Remediation slows down the learning and focuses on isolated skills.  This significantly limits the transferability of these skills into the classroom and subsequent learning.  Deficit thinking and remediation paints tutoring experiences as irrelevant and solely focused on “catching up” with others.  Instead, when we think about acceleration through tutoring, we direct our focus on ensuring that learners have both the access and opportunity to the highest level of learning possible and, at the same time, build their confidence and competence as learners.  This makes sure that they are not merely catching up, but enhancing their capacity to be life-long, self-directed learners.   

Written by

Dr. John Almarode has worked with schools, classrooms, and teachers all over the world. John began his career teaching mathematics and science in Augusta County to a wide range of students. Since then, he has presented locally, nationally, and internationally on the application of the science of learning to the classroom, school, and home environments. He has worked with hundreds of school districts and thousands of teachers. In addition to his time in PreK – 12 schools and classrooms he is an Associate Professor in the Department of Early, Elementary, and Reading Education and the Director of the Content Teaching Academy. At James Madison University, he works with pre service teachers and actively pursues his research interests including the science of learning, the design and measurement of classroom environments that promote student engagement and learning. John and his colleagues have presented their work to the United States Congress, the United States Department of Education as well as the Office of Science and Technology Policy at The White House. John has authored multiple articles, reports, book chapters, and over a dozen books on effective teaching and learning in today’s schools and classrooms. However, what really sustains John and is his greatest accomplishment is his family. John lives in Waynsboro, Virginia with his wife Danielle, a fellow educator, their two children, Tessa and Jackson, and Labrador retrievers, Angel, Forest, and Bella. John is the author of Captivate, Activate, and Invigorate the Student Brain in Science and Math, Grades 6-12.


Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. He is also the author of PLC+, The PLC+ Playbook, This is Balanced Literacy, The Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12, Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom for Grades K-5 and 6-12, Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12The Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbook and several other Corwin books. 


Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is Professor of Literacy in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. The recipient of the 2008 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference, she is also a teacher-leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College and a credentialed special educator, reading specialist, and administrator in California. She has been a prominent Corwin author, publishing numerous books including PLC+The PLC+ PlaybookThis is Balanced LiteracyThe Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12Engagement by DesignRigorous Reading, Texas EditionThe Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbookand many more.  To view Doug and Nancy’s books and services, please visit Fisher and Frey Professional Learning. 

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