To independent tutors out there, a huge shout out for all the work you’ve done adapting to remote learning, helping students through these difficult times, and just being amazing!

The start of the new school year is here, and many students may need additional support, given the adversities and struggles that remote learning has created. Individual academic tutors offer great support and instruction, and in these times it’s even more important that we step up our game when it comes to developing an exciting, creative learning environment and inclusive practices.

One of the many roles I have is that of a math tutor. In this role I’ve worked with students to help them learn not just what they need to pass the test, but how to develop habits for success in mathematics. We practice techniques to solve exercises and create projects surrounding the interests of the student and the academic content we need to cover. I have been inspired by the many great young minds I have worked with, and I continue to learn of best practices in the field that help me connect with my students and pass along the passion that I have for the subject!

Here are some things I’ve learned as an independent instructor and tutor.

Let’s Begin! Setting the Stage for Learning

I like to start off the meeting with “how are you doing?” and “anything new or fun you’d like to share?” or “any questions about things in math you’ve noticed or questions you might have from previous sessions, conversations or things you may have seen in your life in regards to math?”

These open-ended questions give my student the floor. Encouraging them to share whatever they’re thinking about may help spark the conversation for our shared space. This may also give me an opportunity to note down things they are passionate about in their lives or interesting things they’ve experienced.

Students often tell me about their favorite games or sports they play, which might lead us to design a projectile motion problem, to start thinking about parabolic motion of falling objects, or use the derivatives of second-order polynomials (quadratics) to inquire about the slope/steepness (or “slopeiness” as one of my students likes to call it) of the function.

This is a way for students to guide the conversation, with the help of the instructor, using the course material in ways that blend well with their passions and interests. I still have some backup plans to follow in case the session needs a bit more structure and direction. Sometimes students are a bit more fatigued, and they might benefit from more passive learning, so I always have the option to let them just listen to the conversation and view the annotations on the whiteboards (or other modes of instruction) if they don’t have as much mental energy on a particular day. 

Tutoring with Context

Getting to know students is very helpful. Based on what you’ve learned from their family, an introductory meeting, and mental notes you’ve made along the way, you can tailor your instruction to them. It’s very important to know your student and have a general idea of things that may be happening in their lives, other subject areas that are of interest or frustrating them, or future directions and aspirations they have. 

For example, there was a sad session just a few months ago where the student shared with me that his pet had died and that he was very sad. He told me this in the early part of our session, where I have an open conversation with the family. We ended up not covering material that day, and with the permission of the family I mailed them a card letting the student know I was thinking of them in that tough time. Had I not given that space to the student, we might have jumped straight into math, and I would have likely misinterpreted his lack of interest in the subject that day.

Building Your Session

Building sessions, projects, and assignments in collaboration with the student is another way to foster an exciting and inclusive learning environment. Here are the ways that I have students help me build the projects they complete, the assignments I give them, and the work we spend time on.

Encourage continuous feedback: informally asking the students “does this make sense?” or “what do you think about this idea?” or “how do you feel about this method/solution?” lets the student know that you want to mold the studies to suit their learning style and their desires in the field.

Ask if they are enjoying the topic: question your own work and be humble: not all things we are interested in as instructors might be of interest to students. It’s also important to find creative ways to ask them if what we are discussing in our time together is compelling. I use phrases such as, “what do you think about this, do you find it interesting?” or “isn’t this cool?” (trust me, if they build a comfortable relationship with you they will let you know when a topic is not cool!) or “did you find this problem/exercise to be fun? would you like to see more like these?” Grant them agency in deciding what is of interest and what they’d like to spend time talking about!

Uncover what works

Use specific examples to let them know how well they’re doing (“it took me a while to understand this tricky concept, and you’re doing so great! Amazing job!”). Find creative ways to show the progress that the students are making in their studies (share notes about your meetings, whiteboards, worksheets and so on). Give them tangible takeaways that they can refer back to, giving them the chance to say to themselves, “wow, I did this!” Continue doing all the amazing work that sharpens your skills as an instructor, and learn from your students as you develop the very exciting learning environment you’re creating together!

Feed off of the momentum and energy students will have in your session, and continue to be grateful for the opportunity we have to do our work. Let them know you appreciate being able to share some space and time with them, that they are doing great, and that you look forward to all the amazing things they will do in the future!

Key Takeaways

  1. Practice empathy! Try to be aware of the moment and shared space with the student. They may be super excited about something that happened in their lives, or conversely, they might not be having a good day. Understanding how your student is doing and what they are ready to accomplish or discuss is crucial so you can be in sync with them and help them make the best of their learning. It takes practice to listen, observe, and understand situational hints that can help to foster a great learning environment.
  2. Learn about their interests! A student of mine has a huge passion for music, which is a topic I know very little about. This gave me an opportunity to research the use of math in music to find ways to spark my student’s interest while talking about the foundational components of trigonometry, which I knew a lot more about! As a tutor, you can still strive to be a proactive learner, investigating the interests of your students so you can connect with them better, and if another student comes along who is interested in that same topic, you’ll be better prepared to create that linkage between subjects.
  3. Encourage! Always push your students to achieve their goals and aspirations. They will inevitably face challenges in the subjects you’re teaching, in their lives, and with the people and peers around them. Motivating them to keep working hard and having fun with the subject can go a long way in helping them learn how to be the best version of themselves! They will feel confident to address tougher and more interesting questions and will find ways to make connections in their own lives to the topics you discuss. They’ll feel enabled to share their knowledge with their families and friends, and your work with them will reach much further than you expect. Give them the right encouragement for their amazing work and appreciate having the opportunity to be in this position!
Giambattista Giacomo Davis

Giambattista Giacomo Davis is a former Teaching Assistant for the Gifted Math Program, and currently the Advisor for Student Support Services at the University at Buffalo (UB). He was born in Buffalo, and lived in Treviso, Italy, for 12 years! He completed his undergraduate degrees at Daemen College, in Mathematics and in Liberal Studies, with a minor in art history, philosophy, and psychology. He graduated with a Master’s in Higher Education Administration from UB with interests in multicultural aspects, finance of higher education, and statistics. He is currently pursuing more coursework in Education Studies, with a focus on Comparative and Global Education, and Advanced Certificates in International Education Data Analysis as well as Qualitative Methodology.

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