Kimberly Smith

By Kimberly Smith, ASC Parapro
Ferris State University

What qualities are needed to be an exceptional tutor?

First, let’s begin with the obvious quality – knowledge of the material that you are tutoring. Preferably, not just knowledge, but a deep understanding of the material – the why’s and how’s. This allows a tutor to explain the material in more than one way, to draw diagrams, and to explain how the tutee might expect to see the material presented on a test.

Exceptional communication skills are also a must. Your tutee will not always “get it” the first time you explain something. You will need to be both flexible and creative, not allowing yourself to get frustrated. The ability to break down problems into smaller pieces or steps is critical. You might be able to look at the problem and just spit out the answer, but how did you get there? I like to think of it as explaining all of the thought processes that are occurring as you solve the problem.

Lastly, patience, empathy, good listening skills, and enthusiasm for your subject are a definite must when tutoring. Your tutee may need to vent about things, but never join in negative talk about any professors or staff.

What types of students will you see in the tutoring center and how do you serve them?

A wide variety of student types will visit your center. Probably every tutor’s favorite is the student who just comes in for a couple of questions. They are able to monitor their learning and they come as soon as something doesn’t quite make sense. Often, they don’t even need the entire tutoring session. As soon as you explain the concept clearly or show them an example, they have it.

Another type of student you may see is the student with a learning disability. (They may or may not give you this information.) Perhaps they were born with the disability, or maybe they were in a bad accident that affected their mental abilities. This is where patience is key. If there are short-term memory issues, you may find yourself repeating things multiple times. My best suggestion is to advise them to write down the steps for solving math-type problems, then have them follow their written steps. If it’s material that needs to be memorized, help them to organize it into flashcards. Whatever you do – do not get frustrated. You do what you can for each student!

The next type of student is what I will call the “panic student.” They come for tutoring because the test is tomorrow, and they haven’t done anything to prepare. They want you to help them learn it all. We know this is an impossible situation. Calmly tell them that you can’t teach them three chapters’ worth of material. Tell them that you have one hour to spend with them (or however long your session is) and ask them to be more specific, picking a couple of topics they would like to work on.

The other common type of student is the one who comes in looking for you to do their homework for them. Make it clear that they will need to do their own work, but that you can help them. Show them an example, talking through all of the steps. Then tell them it’s their turn and that you will guide them if they get stuck. This is where breaking things into smaller pieces is invaluable. If they can’t complete a particular problem, ask them an easier question as you help walk them through the steps.

What should a tutoring session look like?

Your first job as a tutor is to make your tutee feel comfortable about coming for help. Take a minute to introduce yourself and ask for their name. Ask them what it is that they need help with or what they are hoping to accomplish in today’s session. As you are talking to them, you should be gauging what type of student you are working with and what your approach should be. The first few minutes in a tutoring session are for you to gather information and figure out what your tutee’s needs are.

Hopefully making your tutee feel comfortable will get them talking. You do not want to dominate the conversation throughout the session. Show them an example and then have them explain it back to you. Ask them lots of leading questions. Never put a student down if they are not understanding the material. It is your job to back up and explain the material another way, or break it down more, if needed. Keep your session positive; many students who come for tutoring are in need of a confidence boost.

Try to figure out what study skills (note taking, textbook reading, memory, test taking, time management) are lacking, and give your tutee suggestions for how to improve their study habits. Incorporating study skills into what you are doing is invaluable. Ultimately, our goal is to teach them to be independent learners. You can ask questions to determine their learning style, and then suggest ways to study the material.

Do your best to always make your tutee feel good about themselves. It takes a lot of courage to ask for help. When your tutee has done something really well, don’t miss the opportunity to compliment them. Encouragement can go a long way. However, do not overuse compliments as they will lose their effectiveness.

At the end of the session, ask them to summarize what they have learned, reminding them of any suggestions you have made. Wish them luck if they have an impending quiz or exam. Let them know that you will be happy to work with them again in the future. If your center has a check-out process, remind them to complete it.


A great tutor has not only knowledge of the material, but also communication skills, patience, empathy, good listening skills and enthusiasm for their subject. You will tutor many different types of students, and it is your job to meet their needs to the best of your ability. The most productive tutoring sessions have the tutee doing the majority of the work, a large portion of the talking, and gaining valuable study strategies to utilize beyond the session.