Some practical tips to improve your tutoring

With semester 1 approaching fast, we’re getting ready for classes to start back up. Let’s talk about what it takes to make a great tutor. Tutoring plays a pivotal role in the success of university students (Malik, 2000). It is the tutor’s role to provide support to students and facilitate their progress throughout their degree.

So, what can you do to improve your tutoring in a realistic and practical way?

Whiteboards are your friend

You know what I remember about being an undergrad? Power point slides. Hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of them. You know what isn’t fun? Staring at a power point all day, every day.

Now, I want you to have a look at the two pictures below:

Image 1

drawing a circle

Image 2








Which picture are you drawn to more?

If you’re like me (meaning you have the attention span of a three-year-old on Christmas morning), then image 2 grabs your attention, while image 1 sort of… well it just sits there. For me as a student, then as a tutor, these two images explain the difference between using a power-point filled with static texts and images, and drawing on a whiteboard.

The whiteboard is powerful because it can let you illustrate processes, and link ideas dynamically – in accordance with student ideas and malleable to changes in topic. Show your students your thought process, and physically draw the links between ideas. As an example, I’ve drawn two examples below. Both image 3 and image 4 link the same concepts, but image 3 does not diagrammatically represent the relationship between these concepts as memorably as image 4.

Image 3

Image 4








Finally, when using the white-board, make sure you WRITE BIG, and make sure not to use abbreviations (some students might forget what they stand for). Finally, make sure you use a nice black marker. Lighter colours like green or orange may be difficult for students to read (speaking as a student who frequently forgets to wear her glasses).

Nalini: Write BIG and use NICE DARK PENS. If the pens are wearing out, GET NEW PENS. Also, be prepared to make electronic diagrams available — even if it means planning your whiteboard diagrams earlier and scanning them in. Speaking as someone who is vision impaired, and has missed out on A LOT of content due to lack of disability access.

Get to know your students by name

Make a conscious and decided effort to remember faces and names. Yes, I know it’s hard, but I also know it’s worth the effort and the students will appreciate it.

Bueller? not the greatest example of tutoring

Now, as someone who is terrible with both names and faces, I’ve managed to find a way of making this excruciating exercise manageable through trial and error. Even when I’m faced with a large cohort. In my time as an under-grad I witnessed two methods for roll-taking: calling students’ names banally from the from of the classroom (Bueller-style); or having students write their name on a piece of paper and hand it to you at the end of class.

Nalini: I’ve also had lecturers or tutors play name-memory games with the whole class to help us all learn each other’s names. And another trick — one that’s especially good for us Vision-Impaired People — is get people in the habit of stating their name before they make a contribution in class. There’s nothing quite as inclusive as helping VIPs identify people so we can engage with them later, remembering who they are.

I give you a third, magical option. Have students break up into smaller-groups to discuss a topic. Then, as they’re discussing, wander from group to group. While you do this, listen to what they’re saying to one another, and interject if applicable. While you’re doing this, ask each student their name in this smaller setting. This way you get an indication of their tutorial participation and preparedness (even for those who are shy in larger group settings), as well as a more direct and personalised introduction to help you remember them.

Please don’t leave awkward pauses

In under-grad there was always that one class where a question would be asked, and the entire classroom would respond in silence. Crickets chirped. A pin falls. The earth rotates. And the tutor just stood there, waiting… waiting. And sometimes a poor student would take pity and raise their hand begrudgingly to end the torture. I was that student in the past, and I beseech all tutors: do not exacerbate long pauses.

Instead, if you ask a question and get that dreaded resounding silence, make light of the pause. Then move on quickly by offering up the answer. In response to the lack-of-response, perhaps offer something witty and joking. A couple of my favourites are: “What an astute response!” or “My gosh, quieten down! I can’t hear myself think!”

While yes, you can eventually draw out a response by leaving the silence to continue, what you are doing in this situation is alienating those few potential contributors. You don’t want a good student to feel obligated to answer. Rather, they should feel comfortable to discuss their ideas with classmates. In this discursive situation, they can help you facilitate others’ learning.

Bart Simpson's teacher attempts tutoring

Make your expectations known from the start; meet their expectations to the end

Be open, frank, and informative from the very first week about the sort of quality you expect from students. What level of writing — do you have examples? — and what sources of reference are acceptable to this specific class? Students are often studying two to three other units at the same time as yours. Many are also working weekend jobs. They have busy schedules, and from the first week the one thing they want to know is: How much effort do I have to put into this class?

Nalini: And tell them that class starts on time then start on time. One of my pet peeves is showing up on time and waiting for tardy classmates. It punishes everyone who’s there on time and encourages everyone to arrive when they expect the tardy group members to arrive, which will probably be later and later.

You need to let them know what to expect from the get go. This way students can decisively and confidently proceed with assessment and class activities.

Nalini: And, when the tardy group members arrive, do NOT repeat the material they missed. They missed it, they can take responsibility for that and catch up later. Are you sensing a theme here?

Finally, I recommend letting students know what they can expect from you. If they send you an email, what turn-over can they expect? If they send you a draft, will you give feedback? Teaching is a two-way street.


Malik, (2000). Students, tutors and relationships: the ingredients of a successful student support scheme. Medical Education34(8), 635-641.

Kristyn Jackson Article by Kristyn Jackson.

Kristyn is passionate about research and teaching. Her research interests lie in transformative services marketing and service-dominant logic. She tutors in consumer behaviour and services marketing. An APA scholarship student, she is a University Medallist (for her Honours thesis into non-profit marketing) and received Dean’s Excellence Awards for each semester of under-graduate study.

On the weekend she enjoys hiking, running and tea drinking (at once). She has a bias for ‘slow’ fashion (as opposed to ‘fast’ fashion that is neither ecologically nor financially sustainable), and all things environmentally friendly and ethical. Follow Kristyn on ResearchGate or read her posts on PhD Peeps!


  1. Great article! On awkward pauses, i will wait just long enough to realise that the student of whom I asked the question is having difficulty, and then say ” X may need some help. Who can help?” or sometimes “Can you assist, Ms Y?”

    Also on tutorial questions which may generate awkward pauses, I go to some trouble to make sure students understand what the question is really asking them. This usually involves asking questions about the question they are supposed to have prepared. I will ask a question, let everyone think about it for a few seconds, and then nominate someone to answer. I try to match the difficulty of the question to the ability of the student who I nominate to answer, so that even weak students have the experience of being able to answer some questions correctly.

    1. Thanks for your suggestions! Everyone has different styles, which may work at different times.

      I wonder if there are other ways of encouraging student input?

      When I had a presentation last year, I gave chocolates (Koko Black Easter Eggs) for every question because I believe in bribery and corruption! (Aka REWARDS!!!)

      – Nalini

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