I hope you are excited and ready to help some students! However I bet you are very nervous, which is totally fine because I was too. I thought I had everything under control though because I thought with my knowledge and organizational skills tutoring couldn’t be that hard. My first tutoring experience was with Film 20B: Introduction to Television Studies, and at the time I was in Advanced Television Studies, so I didn’t think I needed to go out of my way to help the students, just be supportive and patient at the sessions and talk them through their questions. But I quickly learned that, a lot of the time, students will ask you questions that you do not immediately know off the top of your head. For instance, one of my tutored students was actually really smart, I wasn’t exactly sure why she even signed up for tutoring, but it turns out a lot of students just like to talk about the material and think out loud, they aren’t necessarily struggling. However, as a result of this my tutee was really challenging how much I knew and remembered from the intro class. If this happens to you I would say don’t panic, there is nothing wrong with looking over the readings or some textbook passages to refresh yourself and then have more of an idea of what to explain to the student.
I think this was a huge misunderstanding I had going into the position. Sure the LSS instructors tell you that tutors are different from TAs in that we are supposed to be at the same level as the student and not some intense master of the material, but you still want to appear intelligent. For me, I didn’t like having to read over my tutee’s notes and readings because it made me feel like the student thought I wasn’t smart enough to be tutoring. On the other hand, I think most of the time the student appreciated me taking the time to read over some passages from the readings or glance over some of the vocabulary from the textbook because it showed that I cared and wasn’t just trying to make up answers to move on to a new topic. So if you are put in this kind of a situation where you don’t feel as smart as you want, it’s ok. Just be honest and say, “Oh you know, that is a really good question. Why don’t we look at that together?” That way, you and the student can mentally process the material together and think about what kinds of things are making you understand content a certain way.
Something else I would like to advise you on that I was not prepared for was the writing ability of your students. On one occasion I was tutoring a film student who was not only struggling with writing about film, but was having trouble with basic essay-writing skills in general. This is a very tough position because sometimes the tutor session would focus a lot on how to write an essay and we wouldn’t get as much time as we wanted to go over the television studies material. I think in this case it would have been best for me to advise the student he seek the help of a writing tutor. You don’t want your session to only deal with essay writing skills because to really help someone with that it would be best to read the tutees full drafts and go over little details, whereas tutoring sessions should focus more on the critical thinking of the material. I know it is hard to tell someone they need to go back and get help with something they may feel isn’t that bad, but most likely nobody has really approached the student bluntly to open their eyes that they need the extra assistance. So if something like this comes up where you feel some basic skills are in need and require further help in addition to the help that you can provide, don’t be afraid to tell your student about the many resources we have on campus for problems just like that. Hopefully it is a situation where the student just wasn’t aware and is thankful that they can get the extra support.
One last issue that came up was telling a student that he did not answer the essay prompt. This was very hard because when the student came to me he had already written a rough draft and the essay was due the next day, but unfortunately the tutee focused on one portion of the prompt and completely forgot about the other. I did not tell him to rewrite his essay because that is just overwhelming, however I did reanalyze the prompt with him so we could tackle what kinds of things he may have missed. I would say if you are tutoring students and they want to come to you to talk about an upcoming essay or an essay they have written, tell them to bring a hard copy of the prompt or print one out yourself if you have the chance because actually reading what the professor wants is very important. So after going through the prompt line by line with my student we were able to underline key words that related to critical analysis that he did not tackle. Although his face was completely blank and I could tell he was unhappy, it was still important that he heard this concern and read for himself some of the ideas he may have overlooked. I know something like this is really difficult because you want to be the student’s friend and let them know how much you care and want them to do well, but honestly sometimes that means you need to be painfully honest and ask that he or she does a little extra work to really get a firm grasp of the ideas.
These were all the main problems that I dealt with my first quarter of tutoring. I think all of them can relate to an idea that sometimes tutors need to be straightforward, especially in the liberal arts, and explain to a student that they need to approach something differently. Which, I think this is harder for the liberal arts classes because a lot of the time the grading is subjective, so how do you tell a student that he or she needs to improve something? You are not necessarily 100 percent right or wrong, nor are they. I think what is crucial is to just explain that, in your experience, you have seen a certain style of writing or a certain manner in breaking down ideas have success. I would caution you to not be too authoritative and say that there is a right and wrong answer, but to express what has or has not worked for you and your peers.
That being said, it is also a good idea to try and relate to students as much as possible, because I found the more comfortable they feel the more they will be willing to open up about questions. If you create an image where the tutee understands that your key qualification for the tutoring position is that you took the class and got a good grade (and perhaps are also studying the subject and know about it in different contexts), then he or she will be less inclined to put you on some kind of pedestal and be intimidated to ask for help. This way, you and your tutees can have more fluid conversations about the material as opposed to your student feeling like you know so much and are just going to lecture them. One of my students actually knew the material for television studies really well, but was struggling with how to translate the ideas from the readings into his essay. However, once I started to make him feel more comfortable and open to talking about what he doesn’t get from the readings, he was able to think out loud and it made more sense! So it seemed like reading abstract thoughts out of the reader just wasn’t working for him.
In conclusion, don’t be nervous and just be ready for a wide variety of students with very different goals and needs for the tutoring sessions. You will do great!