Tutors wait! Why study skills should make up part (maybe most) of every session

(This is actually a modified version of an article I posted a while back - Parents wait! Why a study skills tutor is what your child REALLY needs. But I think tutors should consider this idea of study skills even more than parents should.)

After a dozen years as a classroom teacher and private tutor, I know the routine well. Like clockwork, October and March bring new report cards and parents start to get nervous. “An F in chemistry? I’m afraid I can’t help you there; let’s find you a good chemistry tutor.” This is the kind of dialog I imagine taking place in many households around this time. And chemistry is just an example – insert subject here and the reaction is the same.

But that low letter grade on a report card can indicate many things – maybe the teacher is bonkers; maybe one major assignment was weighted too heavily; maybe the student can’t see the board and is afraid to say anything; maybe that particular class is a source of social anxiety; etc.... And let’s be honest – in most high school classrooms, students are essentially graded on their ability to keep track of, complete, and submit paperwork (i.e. homework), instead of their mastery of the material. (Not a good state of affairs, but it’s a topic for another day!)

No, in my experience the actual subject itself is rarely the problem. I’m convinced that most struggling students need help with something far more fundamental: They don’t know how to read. Okay, of course they can read. But they don’t know how to read. Most students can read just fine and at the appropriate level; but they don’t know how to read for comprehension, how to separate details from main ideas, how to skim effectively, how to decipher subtleties and shades of meaning. There are ways to teach these things, and a skillful tutor can make a big difference for the student. If your student's difficult subject is a science, history, or English, concrete reading strategies may be what he needs most.

Obviously, reading is fundamental, but there are other base issues a tutor may need to address. Many students just need help learning to manage their time, especially if they are busy with extracurricular activities. If that's the case, break out a calendar template and start planning and prioritizing.
Some students need a mindset recalibration, an understanding that they are struggling not because they are stupid, but because they do not yet understand what it takes to succeed in that class. If that's the case, read Mindset by Carol Dweck and pass the message along.

Sometimes the class in question requires a specific skill set. Some classes are heavy on memorization and regurgitation – that’s fine, but there are particular skills needed for this, and they can be taught. This is common for sciences, history, languages, even mathematics. Mnemonic devices, chunking, and scheduled regular reviews are important strategies you can introduce. Or maybe your visual learner is being bombarded with auditory notes in class, and needs strategies for translating that information into visual form. Show her how to content map, or practice 2-column note-taking together.

In short, every child is unique, as is every class and every teacher. That means a child’s academic performance is a complicated thing. So simply focusing on the subject matter is too simplistic a solution; in fact it’s rarely a solution at all. You may be assuming students have skills they really don't have.
So I say take some time and assess in your students the myriad skills required for academic success, then address the deficiencies. And there’s great news: your student will not just be improving his chemistry grade; he’ll also walk away with skills he’ll use for the rest of his life.

The SOAR workbook is a good place to start for overall learning skills:


Hi Patrick .. I totally agree with you here.  As a relatively new tutor.  a career begun in my semi-retirement, I had helped students and peers all my life as a nerdy student myself.  But when I was helping my own children, who had special issues, including learning delay, their fine teachers taught me different modalities as well as valuable executive functioning skills with which nearly every student can benefit. I incorporate these skills and your when, how and where study rules at the start of my tutoring and instantly there’s improvement! 


Patrick R.

M.A. in Education / Study Skills Coach / German Instructor

2750+ hours
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