What makes tutoring work so well is the one-to-one relationship between the student and tutor. With only one person to focus on, tutors can try a variety of teaching techniques in order to work out the most effective strategies to help their pupil understand a topic.

This article's introductory sentence describes the fundamental problem with classroom learning. Teachers are usually well-versed in their subject material, patient and passionate about their chosen profession. However, they are often constrained by curriculum demands, administrative mandates and Department for Education directives dictating what and how they should teach.

Many school teachers moonlight as private tutors; it's not just to make extra money - teachers are notoriously underpaid. To hold on to at least some of their passion for guiding young, inquisitive minds, they spend their nights and weekends working one on one with pupils - even some they might have in their classroom.

This gives them the chance to deploy all of their skills and intuition in teaching. It allows them to put into practice all of the theory they learned during their training; innovative ideas that flourish outside of the compulsory education system because the nature of classroom teaching does not allow them any room.

If you happen to be such a teacher moonlighting as a tutor, you will know of these theories and techniques.

If you never trained as a teacher yet are strongly motivated to share your knowledge and skills, you will find value in these strategies. Please let us know which ones work best for you in the comments section below.

In all cases, your Superprof wants to provide you with some inspiration by pointing you towards alternative and sometimes complementary ways of tutoring.

Teaching Concepts to Try

In general, students accept that learning is and forever will be an onerous duty that they must subject themselves to if they want any chance at success in life. On the other side of that equation, the teaching profession has evolved little over the centuries; tutoring practices have likewise remained stagnant.

It seems like a classic chicken-and-egg scenario. Is learning boring because teaching methods haven't changed or have those methods not changed because students fail to show any motivation to learn?

It's time to shake things up!

Try these techniques to put your tutees into the driver's seat...

Students should complete worksheets before roleplaying
Students working independently is the 'study' portion of the ESA teaching strategy Photo on Visualhunt

Assessment Through Games

If you happen to teach English as a second language, you should be familiar with the ESA technique: engage, study, activate.

The engagement part happens when you greet your students. You might ask how they're doing or how they spent their weekend, what their thoughts are about a specific current event or something that relates to the lesson you're about to give. The 'study' phase is when you introduce new material and students make their first forays into it.

'Activate' means using the language skills they just learned. Discussion and role-playing are common ways to activate a lesson; you may also play word games... or any other type of game. The ESA model is not limited to learning English; you can use it to teach anything from the sciences to history.

Playing games tests your students' comprehension of your subject material and, more importantly, allows them to use what they've just learned - an educational aspect so often neglected in current teaching practices.

The idea is catching on, though. These days, there is a wealth of online games for everything from children’s mathematics to science for older learners.

The Pause Procedure

Initially, this technique was developed to encourage college and university lecturers to pause their lecture after about 15 minutes of speaking so that students can get their minds around everything already said. These two- to three-minute pauses allowed to students buy into new material rather than forging ahead, with no real grasp on what their reader already revealed.

Classroom learning has never been a student-led venture but that tide is turning, in part because teachers-turned-tutors usually allow their student’s voice to be heard more than their own.

If you've not yet adopted the pause technique in your tutoring sessions, try incorporating pauses to ensure your student has understood what you just explained. This will ensure s/he does not tune out or lose interest.

During that speaking pause, ask them to summarise the idea you just presented and find out if they have any questions. If you are conducting a group tutorial, ask students to explain to each other what they have just learned. Alternatively, during pauses, ask students to take a short test or complete a problem using the skills you have just explained.


One of the most obvious deficiencies of standardised teaching is the lack of opportunity for students to think. Fundamentally, curricula are designed based on the faulty premise that a child has no knowledge base of their own; they are empty vessels waiting for teachers to fill them. This idea persists throughout a child's academic career, even when s/he is old enough to figure things out.

Luckily, this idea is on its way out, too. Today, cooperative learning - the more official name for the think-pair-share model, is gaining ground. If you are tutoring a small group, this technique can work especially well.

It begins by providing information to your students. You might ask them to read a short text, listen to a short lecture or video. You should then ask one question, instruct students to reflect on it and write their answer down. They would then discuss their response with the student they're paired with. Finally, you ask each pair to provide the single answer. And then, the whole group may engage in the discussion/debate.

Alternatively, you can bypass the individual reflection, pair your students off straight away and let them formulate their answer together. 

Pairing is a great way to help a reluctant student excel in their studies...

Fast-Paced Drills

If you are tutoring your student in a subject that involves a significant degree of memory work (such as Biology), drill your students frequently on particular points to ensure they retain important facts and information.

Verb conjugation, multiplication tables, the periodic table of elements... all of these and more play well in any lightning round drill you might play.

Introducing Technology into Learning Sessions

We are so lucky to live when a world of knowledge can be ours with just a few keystrokes and most of it is free for the taking. Even better: we're not just treated to the written word; there are images and video and charts and graphs and...

Present at the very dawn of the education revolution, the best tutors incorporate these ideas into their sessions.

Encourage students to go beyond what they have to know
With all of the information available online, why should students limit themselves only to what their assigned to learn? Photo on VisualHunt.com

Analysing Sources of Information

One aspect of critical thinking is analysing the sources of information you are consulting in order to come to a valid conclusion.

Tutors should research background information of the subject being studied, including the people involved (historiographers, philosophers, scientists, authors, etc.). Presenting additional context increases the student’s chances of making an intellectual and emotional connection with the subject matter.

Why keep all of the excitement for yourself?

You might ask your pupil to discover fun, interesting facts for themselves - an excellent way to whet their appetite for discovery and hone their critical thinking skills. You may, for instance, wrap up your session by tasking them to discover five facts about the topic at hand. Be sure they know that you expect them to present their findings at the start of your next lesson together.

This is just one of the best ways to tutor University students...

Multi-Media Tools

We are now decades into the Information Age; even the personal computer has been around for over 20 years. Still, we've come a long way from Darpanet and MS-DOS; today's devices can do wondrous things. Put them to work for you!

For starters, fill your lessons with video clips, songs or works of literature related to the topic at hand. If you are teaching mathematics, show your student interesting videos on Mayan mathematics or the Montessori method, which shows how easy it can be to grasp a basic knowledge of mathematics when a hands-on approach is taken to learning.

The internet is not just a digital storehouse of accumulated information; educational platforms, learning apps and even game-based education have proven wildly successful in teaching students of all ages. Most important, though, in this COVID era, are the applications that make online tutoring today's vogue.

You might video chat with your students and use interactive whiteboards for a bit of collaborative learning. File-sharing apps allow you to send large documents back and forth; you may even set up a website and upload tutorial videos on the subjects you teach. Don't forget to record podcasts - or, at the least, make use of them in your lessons.

Get jobs for ex teachers here.

Change Your Setting

Keeping boredom at bay is a long-term tutor's prime concern. If you provide extended academic support - you have been working with the same students throughout the school year, you may have already considered changing things up a bit. For instance, instead of always holding lessons at your home, arrange a few sessions in a different location.

If you tutor in history, biology or art, you might have lessons at the museum or, if the weather is particularly fine, nothing says you can't tutor in the park. Being outdoors can significantly mitigate stress, thereby promoting a relaxed, fruitful learning environment.

More pragmatically, in these coronavirus times, you may need to limit your face to face lessons, opting instead to meet your students in the virtual world.

Learn more about structuring your lessons in our companion article...

Characteristics to Develop

You probably don't need anyone to tell you whether your personality and mannerisms are well-suited to tutoring; your students' feedback will tell you everything you need to know in that regard.

Bluntly speaking, if your tutees don't come back, it should be clear that things didn't click between you.

To ensure your best reception and keep those learners coming back, incorporate these characteristics into your pedagogy.

Do you now wonder about how you will be received? Find out how to ensure that the first lesson goes really well...

Introduce Humour 

Studies have shown that the use of humour can have a positive effect on students, greatly increasing their level of engagement and interest. Encourage students to bring comics, funny quotes or jokes to class and dedicate a few minutes to having a good laugh.

Don't stop there! You can inject humour into just about everything:

  • Why do people fall in love? Chemical bonding! (science)
  • Why was six afraid of seven? Because seven eight nine! (math)
  • What type of cheese is made backwards? Edam! (reading, spelling)
  • Which letter of the alphabet has the most water? C! (reading, English)
  • Where does Friday come before Thursday? In the dictionary! (critical thinking skills building)

These are simplistic examples, of course; easy riddles that fit nicely into those aforementioned lesson pauses. Depending on which level your students are and whether they too are of a not-so-serious nature, you may find other ways to inject humour into every session.

Encourage Creativity

It is said that we are our most creative selves before we start school, a place where creativity gets stomped out of us.

Too late, we're learning how essential creativity is to the human - and the learning experience. You can be at the forefront of the creative wave by encouraging your students' creative impulses.

Naturally, they won't be allowed to hand in painted or drawn school assignments (unless art is the assignment in question) but nothing says you should restrict your students to written answers if they could better draw or Lego-build their conclusions.

Of course, their school teacher will demand traditional assignment responses that you can help cultivate but, while you're at it, why not let a child draw, paint or even sing out their answers?

If your students are older, you might encourage them to create a website or blog covering the themes covered in tutorial sessions.

Being responsible for a blog involves constantly updating one’s knowledge base, publishing new findings and even being prepared to respond to readers' comments. It is also a great way to connect with other students or intellectuals in one’s chosen field.

Requesting Feedback

The consequences of your chosen tutoring strategies are likely to be far-reaching so make sure that you request feedback from your student regularly.

You may have go-to tactics that do not work particularly well with a student because of their preferred learning style or because of time constraints. The ultimate aim is to make the most of your student’s limited time and resources, so their views on the structure and content of your class should always be of primary importance.

Besides, imagine how shocked they will be when you ask them for their input...

Besides these three traits, let's not forget also the importance of teaching values. Making these characteristics the foundation of your teaching paves the way for you to inject positive values in each learning session.

Tutors help students cultivate a love of learning
A tutor's mission is to foster a lifelong love of learning Photo on Visual Hunt

The Bottom Line

Keep it Real

By that, we don't mean being honest at all times; that's a given. Keeping it real relates to the many students for whom set subjects such as calculus, physics or even literature have little connection to their lives. Yet, the same subjects they find so boring are a source of great passion for thinkers and scholars the world over.

One of the most valuable lessons a tutor can share with their students is a passion for learning.

Do chemistry experiments that will make learning about molecular structure a source of fascination, if that's your subject. Share your passion for interesting historical figures like Caligula or Augustus. Read them poems by Whitman and Blake – the kind of poems that speak straight to the heart in the language we all understand.

Keeping it real means demonstrating that, even though that student isn't remotely interested in why a thing is what it is and does what it does, that very thing has relevance to the student, his community and the greater world.

Foster Independence

With this sub-header, you might think that we advocate for a parental strategy of making your pupils grow up. Again, that is a misdirection. As useful as you are to your tutees, your ultimate aim is training them to be independent learners.

The buzzword in every school, college and university these days is critical thinking; encouraging students to investigate subjects in a deeper, more analytical manner.

You may do this by asking questions that don’t just have a ‘yes or no’ answer - what are known as open-ended questions or by pointing out illogical conclusions your students drew and inviting discussion. Set them assignments that go beyond testing their knowledge/comprehension of a subject; encourage them to voice their opinions on the intelligence of historical figures or the talent of a famed writer.

Critical thinking does more than give rise to more responsible, creative and profound thinkers. It also raises students’ self-confidence since, perhaps for the first time in their lives, they can feel like their opinions have merit. This leads to a unique relationship between tutors and students that it fosters a mentoring approach, leading students to feel supported and cared for.

We hope that you have found this blog post useful. If you have any additional teaching strategies that have worked for you, then please feel free to share them with us via the comments.

Note: this article is one among our "Tips for Tutors" series.

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A student by trade, Daniel spends most of his time working on that essay that's due in a couple of days' time. When he's not working, he can be found working on his salsa steps, or in bed.