Every tutor or teacher, regardless of what subject they teach and the level they teach it at, faces two important challenges at the start of any tuition programme or educational course: they must set the foundations of a professional relationship with their student(s) and they must establish what their student(s) already know. Getting this right will be crucial; if a tutor can eventually get the student to a position where they like the subject, understand the key ideas and study independently, everyone will be happy (and there’ll be no shortage of future clients!). These should be the key goals of any tuition programme.

Without understanding where students are starting from it is almost impossible to pitch lessons at the right level and unlikely that good progress will be made or that the student will enjoy the process. This is backed up by both educational theory as well as common sense. If we do not know what our students already understand (their ‘schemata’) then we will have little idea of how to add to it and the students may not see the relevance of what we have to say. We also need to ensure, as tutors, that our initial interactions with students foster a respectful, professional relationship. If we can get students to want our help then it will make the whole tuition programme a lot easier and more successful.

How can we find out what a student already knows?

Tutors are rarely lucky enough to get detailed information on what a student does or does not know in advance of the start of a tuition programme. If a student has been using Get My Grades then the tutor will be incredibly lucky as they’ll have a detailed record of everything the student has covered and how well they’ve done, broken down to individual concepts – with the option to look at their actual answers for each concept and their performance over time.

Usually, there will be limited information available if anything at all. Knowing that a student got a grade 4 in biology last term or 42% in their last test on algebra are not a tremendous amount of use unless you can actually see a copy of the test. Even then, the data must be treated with caution; it takes a bit of experience to be able to tell a silly mistake from a misconception or a complete lack of understanding. What is most valuable is understanding why a student didn’t achieve as well as hoped. A forensic examination of a past test is useful but likely not enough alone to establish the student’s starting point.

There are two obvious approaches to finding out what students already know: asking them (a more informal approach) or testing them (more formal). Both strategies have value and it will usually be necessary to use a combination of the two, but getting the balance right is crucial; this is why a hybrid ‘semi-formal’ approach is often very useful.

An Informal Approach

An informal approach can be as simple as having a discussion with the student. All tuition programmes will start this way, even if they rapidly move on to a more formal review of the student’s understanding. At the bare minimum, tutors need to establish a rapport with the students and begin the process of developing a professional relationship, where the student learns to respect and trust the tutor.

Trust and respect for the tutor may not necessarily be automatic if a tutor has come in to teach a subject that a student does not like or care about doing well in. In this case, the informal approach will be especially important – it is a tutor’s opportunity to win the student over. The key advantage of an informal approach is that, when done properly, it will give the student a positive experience and help them enjoy the subject. This should be one of the principal aims of the tuition programme in general.

Some of the tutor’s key objectives here are likely to include:

  • What does the student already like and know about?
  • What does the student like or dislike about the subject in question?
  • What has the student covered or not covered from what is on their course/specification?
  • How well does the student understand what they’ve already covered?

Where the tutor starts here will be down to the individual student and a tutor will have to decide how receptive a given student is likely to be on the spot (although there may already be clues beforehand from the parent or agency). For a young child who is adamant that they ‘hate maths’ and never want to study it, a tutor may well spend the entire initial session on exploring what they do like and gently easing them into talking about maths. For an A Level student who is already fully motivated, it would save time to get cracking with more subject-specific questions and pick up their interests along the way. Older or more mature students may well already have a good idea of what they need help with and have planned part of their own tuition programme already – which is no problem as long as the tutor is wary for signs of misplaced confidence.

A Semi-Formal Approach: Specification Rating

A semi-formal approach to establishing what students do and don’t know about the subject, without making the whole experience onerous or gruelling, is likely to involve going through the specification with the tutor. It may well be necessary to do this point by point – especially for maths, science and humanities subjects, which have a large body of required knowledge (the approach needs to be modified for English and modern foreign languages).

This process need not be incredibly detailed (or it would take forever) but simply rating each topic or point on a 0 to 3 scale will give the tutor enough detail to plan an effective programme. Encourage the student to rate each topic honestly with a 0 if they’ve never covered it and a 3 if they think they are exam ready. At the very least this process gives a reasonable idea of what the student has and has not covered; a good tutor should be able to pick up a great deal more than this. For parents, it gives confidence from the outset that there is some reasonable level of structure to the tuition programme and some basic but meaningful data to discuss at the end of the first tutorial.

The value of students doing this with the tutor (and not simply completing it beforehand) is that this is an opportunity for the tutor to mention important facts about each topic and watch to see if the student has a blank look on their face! We need to be conscious of the fact that students may not know what it means to ‘understand the Bohr model of an atom’ and therefore tutors will need to make passing comments or check important facts as they go through – always being attentive to the student’s response.

Another advantage of carrying out a specification review with the student is that it is flexible. If a student appears to be finding the process disheartening or disengaging there’s less of a feeling to press on regardless than if you’ve sat them down with a test. It also gives the opportunity to show off some engaging and enthusiastic teaching if it is required at this point. This is where the true value of tuition lies. If a student doesn’t have a clue what percentages are for, let alone how to calculate them, then an unashamedly impassioned explanation of why percentages are important to society and how they can be calculated in seconds will help the student to identify something that is important for them, learn it and feel good about themselves. Even if you need to teach them something off the rigid bounds of the specification to engage them, do it; the principal goal of the early stages is to get the student to want to learn. Everything else can come later.

A Formal Approach: Baseline Testing

The formal approach to establishing prior knowledge is to set a baseline test. It sounds surprisingly simple but it is surprising how easy it is to do this badly. Baseline testing always runs the risk of being a disheartening and disengaging experience for students; after all, surely there’s at least a significant amount they don’t know or find difficult otherwise why would they need tuition?

When setting a baseline test, ideally some thought should go into the selection of questions. Sometimes it will be appropriate to set a whole past paper, especially if the student is known or suspected to have covered the majority of their course. However, if a tutor knows roughly what a student has covered, then focus the majority of the questions on these topics. There is not much point in setting a large number of questions on topics a student has never covered; what better way is there to make a student miserable?

When a student is completing a baseline test, it is often a good idea to watch them as they complete it (and explain why in advance so they don’t feel unnerved by the experience). A tutor can make mental notes of where students spent more or less time or what they appeared to find easy or difficult. An attentive tutor could spot where the student has difficulty with a particular method or where they are making silly mistakes because they are rushing. It is a little disingenuous to set a student a test and sit there reading a book, not to mention a wasted opportunity to see the student in action – and identify where they are going to need help.

Often tuition agencies themselves set baseline tests for students. This is helpful (for tutors that are working with agencies) but only if it is joined up with what the tutors are doing themselves. The tutor will need to see a copy of the test in advance of their first tutorial in order for it to be of any use at all, of course!

Setting the Right Trajectory

The tone of a tuition programme, and the likelihood of a successful outcome, will be set in the first five or six lessons. In this time, the tutor must have built the basis of a good working relationship with the student, and have given the student a positive initial experience of studying – even if this requires the sacrifice of making as much progress as might be theoretically possible. Importantly, the tutor must also have acquired a key understanding of the student’s starting point in order to be able to discuss it with the parent (or even the student) and make a preliminary plan.

From a theoretical perspective, we can describe the tutor as establishing the student’s schemata; their knowledge, interests, thoughts and motivations. This will help tutors to adjust the delivery of lessons in a way which makes it enjoyable for the student and therefore maximises the progress achieved.