Photo by Adam Winger

Tutoring hack:
Ask "What do you already know?"

Avoid a common tutoring pitfall by starting with a simple question

TutorBloom Staff · Jan 25, 2021 · 2 min read

Tutors are explainers. We have to be. Learners don't understand something, and our job is to help them to understand it. That generally involves explaining things.

But it's easy to fall into a trap—one that I still fall into, despite knowing better. The trap is to think of tutoring as primarily about explanation. The result is often blank stares, backtracking and repeated explanations. It's frustrating for the tutor and the learner alike.

One day somebody offered me the following:

I appreciate the time you spend explaining this to me. But I have a suggestion that I think will make our sessions even more effective. Let's start by reviewing what I already understand about the topic at hand. Then we can take it from there.

Some feedback takes a little while to digest and appreciate, but not this. This was deep, and I knew it. So I asked him to explain just a bit more. Here are some of the benefits we uncovered.

It shows respect for the learner's time and money

A typical tutoring session is about an hour long, which isn't much time. And tutoring isn't cheap. So it doesn't make sense to spend time covering something that the learner already knows, or perhaps wants to defer for a later session. Asking what the learner already understands is a way of respecting a learner's time and money, and of communicating that respect.

You get to learn the learner's "language"

In an earlier post, I mentioned the so-called expert blindspot, which is where an expert in a subject area finds it tough to anticipate the challenges a non-expert will have. One area where this is particularly true is the language that the learner uses when discussing the problem domain. Understanding the learner's fluency with that language will will help you provide explanations that the learner can use.

Effective tutors meet learners where they are, and provide appropriate guidance. Here, this means speaking the learner's language and guiding him or her toward proficiency with the domain language.

You discover the learner's conceptual gaps

This one is closely related to learning the learner's language. The learner will generally understand parts of the domain but also have some conceptual gaps. While a tutor could just explain everything and hope to cover any relevant gaps, we've already indicated that this isn't the best way to respect the learner's time and money. Very often, if you ask the learner to explain something, or perhaps to work through a problem while you watch, the learner will do something that exposes the gap. Sometimes it will be surprising!

It broadens your understanding of common mistakes

This element of being surprised by what the learner says or does—it's just the expert blindspot all over again. As such, it presents an opportunity not only for the learner, but for the tutor. A tutor must know not only the problem domain, but how beginners speak and think about it.

Asking learners to explain their current knowledge is the best way to learn how others understand the domain.

It builds partnership and rapport

A naive model of the tutor-learner relationship is that the learner has some deficit, and your job is to repair that. A better model is to think of it as a joint discovery—a partnership. For sure there are some things the learner doesn't understand, or else they wouldn't have asked for the session. But the real goal is to establish a productive partnership in which you and your learner collaborate to discover and address the challenge areas.

There you have it. I hope this simple tutoring hack will help you take your tutoring to the next level. If you'd like to learn another useful tutoring hack, see our post Tutoring hack: Make irrelevant problems relevant.