How I approach tutoring sessions

This blog post started out as a reply to an email from a parent wanting to know more about my tutoring sessions. I assure you that I do not always respond to emails with lengthy essays (prospective parents, do not be alarmed). However, I am passionate about what I do, so it is usually difficult for me to keep a lid on that passion. Ask me about Maths or dogs and you had better make a cup of tea, grab that extra rusk and sit tight for an enthusiastic and lengthy reply.

Below is my response to this particular parent whose son is in Grade 8. But if you are another parent reading this blog post, thinking that perhaps your child could need a mentor, this blog post is for you. I hope it helps to clarify some of the questions you may have about my tutoring sessions.

Thank you for contacting me. I get really excited when I hear from a Grade 8 parent. Grade 8 is such an important year, since it lays the foundation for the abstract concepts taught in high school, and the experiences that a student has in this grade can often make or break how they feel about themselves, their ability and the content in relation to Maths.

Here is a bit about how I approach tutoring sessions with my students. It is just a general approach, and as I get to know my students I tailor make the sessions to their needs, strengths and weaknesses. I like to see my students every week from as early in the year as possible. It creates a sense of accountability on their part, allows me to guide them consistently, and stops problems from snowballing. In the first session we set goals for the term, which relate to marks as well as any confidence or emotional aspects they struggle with in relation to Maths. I introduce them to the basics of how to revise, summarise and practise Maths every day (see my blog post, as well as how to decode questions and work through past papers (using a different coloured pen strategy). I also chat to them about what they love about Maths, about what scares them, and the importance of having a positive attitude, which I believe is integral to doing Maths (see Our 6 Pillars of Maths Excellence

I chat to them about my expectations and emphasise that I do not reteach current sections or do their homework for them. This is often where tutors can have an adverse effect on Maths achievement. Kids know that they are seeing their tutor, so they don’t pay attention or ask questions in class. The tutor then reteaches them the work and guides them through homework and assignments. This is when you land up with the case of the kid getting high marks for homework and assignments and low marks in tests and exams, because they do not know how to tackle problems unaided. Tutoring, when done this way, provides a false sense of security and is a waste of time and the parent’s money. I tell my students that when they are in class they must pretend that that is the only place they will ever be able to gain the knowledge and clarity they need in order to understand the current topic. They must therefore pay 100% attention 100% of the time and ask specific questions. In reality they do of course have many other ways to gain the information. There are thousands of very good videos on YouTube, they can look things up in resource books, and then of course they can bring questions to their trusted tutor and mentor. However, that mindset changes how they act, interact and react in class. They do not get on the wrong side of the teacher (a bad experience with a teacher can taint a student’s view of Maths), they stay focused and understand more, and tutoring sessions can be more productive, focused and effective because they are not spent reteaching work.

Then, in the first session, and in sessions thereafter, I start with any questions from the week. If students have the 100% mindset in class, as described above, the questions are usually specific and thought through. Thereafter, we work through past paper questions, focusing specifically on identifying different types of questions (knowledge, routine, complex and problem-solving), decoding questions, managing anxiety, working within time constraints and test and exam techniques. By working through past paper questions right from the beginning of the year, I also get an idea of gaps in the students’ knowledge and misconceptions, and where past concepts may need to be re-explained and clarified. I then address those. With my students I challenge them to ask and answer “Why?” so that they do not only learn procedures, but develop conceptual understanding. My ultimate aim is to mentor them so that they love Maths, feel confident and have the tools to work through even unfamiliar problems.

Sessions with me are challenging, but most of my students enjoy them. I build a bond with my students. They share their fears and frustrations, I tell them about my stories of growing up as a very non-mathematical, but undercover mathematician, and we laugh, a lot! Maths should be fun.

Yours in Maths,

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