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January 24, 2023

How to Tutor for Mastery, Not Answers

When students struggle with understanding concepts in school they may turn to online tutoring as a way to get additional assistance. Online tutoring is an excellent way to bridge learning gaps for K-12 students. However, it's important to know how to tutor for mastery, not answers. If a student asks for answers, online tutors need to know how to get the student involved in the learning process so the session becomes a method of understanding content rather than an answer-giving machine!

What is content mastery, and why is it important for students?

Content mastery is the ability to fully understand a subject area. For instance, a student who has mastered the concept of adding fractions will be able to solve fraction addition problems independently, using the skills they learned to find the correct answers. Similarly, a student who demonstrates content mastery of a certain chapter in their history book will be able to answer questions about the material and derive conclusions based on the content. When students encounter new concepts and materials they usually follow a learning process that looks like this:

  • Attention: the content is brought to the student's attention.
  • Memory: parts of the content are internalized, or memorized, by the student.
  • Language: the student can then express, or tell back, the same content they just learned.
  • Processing and organizing: the student mentally uses the content to answer questions and solve problems.
  • Graphomotor: the student writes about the content, using their own words.
  • Higher order thinking: the student engages with the content on a level above basic memorization and narration.

This learning process doesn't happen overnight. It takes time, practice, and hard work. As you help students navigate through the learning process, you will find that they need to build mastery of the content. When they have built mastery, they will be able to confidently answer questions on tests and classwork. Beyond that, the content they learned will be added to their general knowledge base, which allows them to succeed in higher level classes.

Online tutoring provides students with differentiated instruction to address skill gaps that may be preventing them from mastering content. When tutors simply give out answers, they undermine the student's ability to successfully understand a subject area.

Top strategies for supporting content mastery in online tutoring

1. Help students build a growth mindset

If a student has a growth mindset, they believe they are able to learn and achieve their goals. In contrast, if a student has a fixed mindset, they believe they are going to fail. A growth mindset sets students up for success. It builds their learning endurance, so they can handle increasingly more challenging problems. Students with growth mindsets are also more open to working through a difficult problem.

Tutors love it when students come to them already equipped with a growth mindset! Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen. You should know a few strategies for encouraging your students toward developing a growth mindset. It includes strategies tutors can use to help their students embrace new challenges by using social-emotional learning language in their feedback and providing opportunities for the students to demonstrate what they know. It also gives hints on how to reframe mistakes as learning opportunities.

2. Use questioning techniques to guide the learning process

We all know how easy it is to talk too much when we are tutoring! Rather than taking over the session by doing the majority of the talking, try to engage the students more by using questioning techniques. Effective questions keep students focused, build their self-confidence, and guide them through the learning process so they can truly master the content they are studying. Also, questioning your student helps you better understand where they are at in the learning process and how you can support them best.

With practice, you will soon know when it's best to ask a deep, probing question or when you should ask a question that redirects the student. Remember that it is often helpful to have a conversation with the student by using open-ended questions. If the student struggles to answer a certain question, try rephrasing it. Most importantly, give the student time to think and formulate an answer. "Wait time" after you ask a question may feel awkward, but it gives your student the opportunity to come up with a good answer on their own.

3. Approach each session with empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand how someone feels, and then to connect with them in the midst of those feelings. Students may come to a tutoring session eagerly or reluctantly, in a terrific mood or in a grumpy mood. They may have had a really bad day in school, or they may be hungry, nervous, tired, or excited about doing something else later that day. If you don't know where the student is emotionally, you may become frustrated when the student doesn't seem to be listening or engaging with your lesson.

That's why it's important for tutors to approach each session with empathy. Ask some questions at the beginning of the session to understand more about your student's perspective of the material at hand. Try to identify how your student is feeling, and avoid being judgmental. Put yourself in your student's shoes.You may need to try different methods to get the student engaged with the material at hand, but that's better than creating a barrier between yourself and the student.

Expressing empathy is a way of reaching out and being kind to the student, helping them feel more confident, so they can conquer that next problem, master the content, and take that next step through the learning process.

Use your tutoring skills to help students with content mastery

You may find it difficult to gauge the difference you are making in students' lives. Some students come back to you for multiple tutoring sessions, so you can perceive progress and know that they are mastering content. Other students may only see you for one session. As an online tutor, you need to be prepared to use each tutoring session to your student's advantage. Each session is an opportunity to help a student learn something new. Don’t use this time to provide students with answers.Instead, use your tutoring skills wisely, asking good questions, building up your students' confidence, and empathizing with your students.

If you have great empathy for K-12 learners, and you are interested in becoming an online tutor, we invite you to apply to join the Pear Deck Tutor (formerly TutorMe) tutoring community.


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Amanda Gralto
Tutor Operations Specialist

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