The single principle which underlies the tutoring method is:

A tutor must elicit response which demonstrates understanding

The methods below are logical conclusions of this, and we recommend that you read more about the guiding principle to understand why it is such an important idea. The first step is to realise that the effectiveness of tuition depends on what is elicited from the student. Lecturing is not tutoring.

1 Setting a Learning Goal

When teaching one-to-one it's often thought that learning goals are implicit or are stated by the student. While this is sometimes true, there is no harm in explicitly stating the goal. The most important aspect of the goal is that the student is aware of what is expected from him/her. To this end, the goal must be measurable, so that the student can judge whether the goal has been achieved, or to what extent it has been achieved. When a goal is measurable the student has the opportunity to work towards the goal without being led by the tutor, which is perfect.


Another valuable consequence of a learning goal is that it relaxes the student. It can be unsettling to travel into the unknown, and knowing what is to be achieved puts the student in a better emotional state to learn.

If the student does not know how to reach a learning goal then it may be helpful to use mini goals to break the overall goal down into more manageable pieces (before reaching D, we have to establish A, B and C). Mini-goals must also be measurable, and it's best if the student decides what the mini-goals should be. However, if the tutor states the mini-goals then it's important to ensure that they are stated within the context of the overall goal.

2 Asking Questions

Asking questions (or asking for demonstration) must be at the heart of tutoring. This doesn't mean that a tutor should lecture briefly and then ask the student a question on that lecture; asking questions should be seen as a way to make the student think and reach understanding with as little help from the tutor as possible. After this the student should verbalise or demonstrate his/her thought process. Indeed, some of the best lessons are those where a tutor's only speech is to ask questions.


A question that can be very difficult to resist when teaching is "do you understand?" or "does that make sense?" It's important to realise that it is not the student's responsibility to judge whether he/she has understood something. If the student hasn't displayed understanding of an idea then the tutor cannot assume that he/she understands it, even if the student claims to. If you do find yourself asking whether your student has understood an idea, then (if he/she says "yes") follow up with "can you show me that you understand?"


The way that you ask a question can be just as important as what you're actually asking. The perfect questions are as clear and concise as possible. By keeping your questions short and simple, and avoiding caveats, your student will be able to concentrate on one idea at a time. You should ask shorter, more frequent questions, rather than longer, less frequent questions.


Consider the questions: "How would you characterise Lady Macbeth?" and "Would you say that Lady Macbeth is ambitious?" One question is asking for a student's opinion, and the other is leading; it's asking for agreement rather than genuinely asking for an opinion. You should be attempting to develop independent thought in your student, something that he/she can replicate without you. Any question that points to a possible answer is a leading question, and should be avoided.

Of course, there will be occasions when a student hasn't mentioned an opinion/interpretation which it is important to consider, and there is nothing wrong with the tutor introducing this opinion/interpretation into the lesson. What's important is that the student is asked to argue for and against the opinion as a demonstration of understanding.

3 Holding the Space

Holding the space is probably the simplest teaching idea, but it also tends to be the idea with which tutors have most difficultly feeling comfortable.

Once you have created the space for your student; created a period of time for your student to think about an idea and improve understanding, you have to hold that space, and not fill it with your own answers. It can feel very unnatural at first; there is an instinct to 'help' your student as soon as a question isn't answered immediately, but you have to trust that your student is thinking about the question, and it's vitally important that you don't interrupt that thought process.

It's not uncommon to feel that, because you're the teacher, you should be talking a lot during a lesson, because that is how you 'teach'. This is reinforced by the style of teaching to which most students are exposed; both classroom teaching and lecturing rely on the teacher conveying lots of information, and filling every silence. However, when teaching a single student your style should be as far from classroom teaching and lecturing as possible. The best lessons are those where the teacher is asking short questions, and hardly speaking, and the student is giving long answers, not vice-versa.

Of course, taken to its extremes, this idea could lead to a standoff, where no-one speaks for a long period of time, and this will probably be counter-productive and unsettle the student. There are many signs to tell whether it is appropriate to break a silence, but reading these signs is a difficult skill. If you are new to the idea of holding the space then you should slowly count to ten in your head if you suspect that the silence is unproductive, and when breaking the silence, ask a question such as "what are you thinking?" or "how are you getting on?"

4 Dealing with Responses

When your student has answered a question, you should consider whether they have communicated their understanding to you. It's quite common for a student to give answers that required understanding, required a thought process, but the answer didn't actually involve verbalising that understanding. For example, an opinion from a text, where the student hasn't referred to evidence in the text to support the opinion. It's important that when a student gives an answer which contains 'hidden' understanding, you ask for the understanding. Asking "would you explain why?" or "why do you think that?" will usually be enough.

Why do we do this? It's very possible for a student to produce a good answer despite not fully understanding the ideas behind that answer. For example if a student says that 22 = 4, then the answer is obviously correct, but the student may think that a2 means a x 2.

Another reason to ask for understanding is because your student may have misunderstood something and you need to know why. If you state that an answer is incorrect before asking for your student's understanding then it's likely that he/she will be disappointed, and reluctant to explain how they arrived at the answer, or may begin to guess at different answers. This doesn't give you an insight into the student's understanding, and may provide a barrier to learning. If you always ask for understanding before confirming whether an answer is correct or not then you will be able to pinpoint any mistakes in your student's thought process. In fact, if the student has made a mistake then he/she will often realise him/herself by answering the question "would you explain why?"

Other Skills

What has been discussed are the mechanics of tutoring; they are logical guidelines that form the building blocks of developing a student's understanding. However, we would be remiss not to mention the benefit that a tutor's more human qualities can bring to a lesson. Empathy, enthusiasm, a sense of humour, and many more characteristics can be used to improve a student's learning experience. What we'd like to clarify, though, is that these qualities should be used in tandem with the teaching ideas above, not as a substitute for them.