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How to be a good math tutor

Excerpted from a pamphlet published by The International Bureau of Education

Tutoring in mathematics should not be just supervised mechanical drill. Tutors must not just do the problem for the tutee, or give them the answer. It is important that the tutee has time to talk and feels able to disclose their misunderstandings.

Listen. Give your tutee time to struggle to explain what their difficulty is. Do not just jump in to fix what you assume their difficulty is.

Read. Your tutee might be having trouble reading a word problem. If so, read it for them and check their understanding.

Question. Ask helpful and intelligent questions which give clues, to stimulate and guide student thinking, and challenge their misconceptions.        

         Examples: ‘what kind of problem is this?’; ‘what are we trying to find out here?’; ‘can you state the problem in different words or a different way?’; ‘what important information do we already have?’; ‘can we break the problem into parts or steps?’; ‘how did you arrive at that?’; ‘does that make sense?’; ‘where was the last place you knew you were right?’; ‘where do you think you might have gone wrong?’; ‘what kind of mistake do you think you might have made?’.

        Do not say ‘that’s wrong!’ Instead, ask another question to give a clue. Ask ‘why?’.

        Try to avoid: closed questions which require only a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer; questions which just rely on memory; questions which contain the answer; the question ‘did you understand that?’. Try to avoid answering your own questions. Avoid indicating the ‘difficulty’ of any step.

Pause for think-aloud. Give your tutee some thinking time, before expecting an answer. Encourage them to tell you what they are thinking all the time. Then you will find out where and how they are going wrong. Remember tutors need time to think, also! If you are not sure, say so. You are not supposed to know everything.

Make it real. Try to make the problem seem real and related to the life of your tutee. Ask the tutee to try to imagine what the problem would look like in real life.

    Encourage tutees to use fingers, counters, cubes, sticks or any other objects to show the reality of the problem. Or have them draw dots, a picture, a list, table, diagram, graph or map. Useful charts include a number line, a multiplication matrix and a place-value chart. With your tutee’s permission, mark their written working out with lines, arrows, colors or numbering to help them. Have the tutee think of what they have learned before or problems they have solved before, relevant to the current problem. Work through a similar but simpler problem. How can this kind of problem be related to people, places, events and experiences in the home/community life of the tutee? Or those of someone they know or have seen on television? Make up a similar problem using the student’s own name. Try to use everyday language.


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