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What Does a Tutor Do? Part One

In this thread I’m going to share some windows onto how I work with my students and what I’ve observed over the years (OK, the decades) about students and the learning process.

What do tutors do during the day? I have several homeschool, homebound and learning-support students I work with during school hours. In each of these classes-of-one, I am the teacher as well as the tutor. I design and teach the lessons, assign homework, give tests, and assign grades, and I also help out with any learning issues that occur along the way.

I just finished a session with a student (let’s call him Paul) who learns algebra from me. Here’s how it began:

I had wrapped up yesterday’s lesson with a few examples of a new concept (clearing fractions) I expected Paul would find difficult. He worked the examples in his notebook as we talked them through step-by-step.

One of my goals for Paul is for him to learn to use his notes better. He has nice, neat handwriting and his algebra is organized and easy to follow.

But like so many students, Paul never looks back at his own past work. If he can’t remember how to do a problem, it doesn’t seem to occur to him to look at past examples to refresh his memory. When I pointed out that this is why we take notes, it was an Aha! moment for him.

So today we began with a few more examples of clearing fractions. Paul couldn’t remember how to get started on the first problem, so I reminded him to use his notes. I taught him to read the examples he had written yesterday, one line at a time, stopping after each line to ask himself whether he understood each step.

It took Paul several minutes to do this, but then he was able to work the new problems on his own.

So although in this case I am tutoring “math,” I am also always teaching basic study skills that many kids don’t seem to have. We often take it for granted that kids will connect certain dots, but then they don’t. We nag kids to take notes, and then we critique kids on how neat their notebooks are…but do we teach them what the notes are for, or how to use them?

As the session progressed, Paul consulted his notes several times, and sometimes he didn’t find them helpful. In these cases I intervened and re-explained the concept. Now, fix your notes so they work better for you next time.

Paul then makes amendments, but he’s not often sure what he needs to do. That’s OK. And I make some general suggestions, but, truly, I don’t really know exactly what Paul needs to write or how he needs to write it, either. Paul needs to gradually figure out what works for him, for himself.

I am encouraging Paul to be more active in his own learning, to think about how his own mind works and how to support his own study needs. This won’t happen overnight, but I’ve got Paul for the rest of the school year.

What Does a Tutor Do? Part One

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS is an educator, counselor, writer and speaker. She's been a tutor, test prep coach and home school teacher for over thirty years. Click HERE to visit Leigh's website and to subscribe to her newsletter, "Learning Something New."

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APA Reference
Cousins, L. (2009). What Does a Tutor Do? Part One. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 10 Dec 2009
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