The 12 Steps of the Tutoring Cycle

Effective tutoring, while a particular session has a definite beginning and end, is best thought of as a cycle.  One session melds into the next through twelve distinct phases described here (MacDonald 2000). 

1.  Greeting and Climate Setting

In this phase, greet the student and either move together to the work station or indicate to the student where to take his or her seat.  Seating arrangement is very important in the effectiveness of instruction.  In one-on-one situations, both people should be on one side of the table and the work should be equally available to both individuals.  In a small group setting, try to achieve as much of a circular seating arrangement as possible to facilitate equal access to discussion and work materials.

Regardless of the subject area you tutor, do not immediately arm yourself with a pen when you sit down with a student to work on an assignment.  This may give the student the impression that you are willing to jump in and “save him” at any moment.  If you are tutoring writing, this may indicate to the student that you plan to proofread his paper and little else.  Instead, indicate to the student that you would like for him or her to be in charge of making notes on his or her own paper. 

During this time, set a positive tone for the meeting.  Smile and maybe make small talk for a moment to ease the student into the mindset of work.  Particularly in walk-in settings, this phase is commonly associated with fear and anxiety for the student.  If the tutee first learns to recognize you as an ally and a friend, you both will have a much easier time.

2.  Identify the Task

If you are in an ongoing mentoring relationship with the student, you probably will already have identified the day’s task at a prior meeting or in correspondence since the most recent meeting.  Creating long- and short-term calendars together with your mentee helps you both to prepare effectively for each meeting. 

During open hours, take this time to allow the student to explain his or her assignment to you.  This is a crucial step!  Ask to see an assignment sheet or syllabus to supplement the student’s request, even if he asks only for a quick proofread.  You cannot effectively help the student unless you understand the student’s assignment.  If you still feel confused after looking at the syllabus and talking with the student, ask to see discussion and lecture notes and try to get a better idea of the tone and demands of the class.

Because your time is at a premium, make sure the student understands that you are not a miracle worker but will try your best to provide quality assistance.  If the student’s requests are too ambitious for the time you have available, trim them down to a manageable level and work from there.

3.  Break the Task into Parts

Depending on the material at hand, you and the tutee will have to do this in different ways.  Remember your goals: you are trying to help the student become empowered and gain independence. Ask the student to take control of the session as much as possible by letting them take the lead in breaking the task into parts. What do they see as concerns, and how would they like to proceed. If they are in the dark about what to do, you can provide some guidance. However you and the student choose to organize your session, make sure you and the student are clear on the plan. If you are helping with a paper, for example, you might suggest that you will take a moment to read it, then ask the student questions about their concerns, listen and collaborate with him or her to come up with some clarifying ideas, then answer any additional questions.  If you are a tutor in a more technical field such as mathematics or science, allow your session’s organization to follow the organization of the problem or concept at hand, since it likely has steps itself.


4.  Identify the Thought Process

Together with your tutee, discuss the specific kinds of work you will have to do to solve the problems you’ve been presented with.  This brief discussion is one tool to teach the student how to learn and solve problems for him or herself.  For example, will the student (and you) need to analyze?  Organize?  Recall items from memory?  Edit?  Prove?  Explain?  Using discipline-specific terms will help to steer you and the student in the right direction as you address the task at hand, as well as help to familiarize the student with the language, concepts, and discourse of the academic field you are working with.  Once you have identified a set of thought processes appropriate for the task, remember them, perhaps have the student write them out, and refer to them later in the meeting to keep the student focused and to re-teach that process.

5.  Set an Agenda

Once you have divided the task into sections and discussed the specific kind of mental work you and your student will do during the session, order those tasks in a logical fashion.  Again, you might ask the student to write down the agenda for the session to keep you both on task. 

6.  Address the Task

This step of the cycle should consume more time than any other step—perhaps more time than all the other steps combined—because it involves tackling a problem head-on with a student and being prepared for all that accompanies this process.

Direct experience in the subject area you are tutoring often will be sufficient to prepare you for the bulk of this step, and this may be where you feel most comfortable.  Take this time to engage the student in meaningful dialogue either about the questions he or she has brought to the meeting or about issues you notice as you begin to assess the student’s work. 

As you first assess the work before you, look for positive aspects that you can comment on. It is important that you begin and end the session with positive statements that help put the student at ease, draw them into the session, and help make the process of having their work critiqued a little easier to swallow. It may be difficult, but it is important for the student’s confidence that you begin and end a session with a genuinely encouraging statement.  Even if you notice many mechanical errors in a paper, for example, the paper may be very well organized, have a stunning opening paragraph, an excellent angle, or it may even just be complete!  If all you can say is, “Wow!  It looks like you’ve spent a lot of time getting through this and have a very substantial product.  Let’s take a look at a couple points,” that is better than jumping into the many negatives that may jump out at you first.

Effective tutoring involves an exchange of information; at times, the tutor should explain concepts to the student but should remain quiet at others to allow the student to explain his understanding.  Both should ask questions and utilize books and other resources.  As you spend more time gaining experience as a tutor, the rhythm of question and answer during mentoring sessions will become second nature to you, but never forget to ask yourself if you are helping to fulfill the primary goal of tutoring:  to encourage independent thought in the student.

7.  Tutee Summary of Content

Once you have finished the task or tasks that that you and the student have identified (or, in many cases, finished as much as you can during your shift), take time to allow the student to summarize for you exactly what you did and what he or she learned.  If you have finished discussing a paper, for example, the student can go through his or her notes and review the steps he will take to improve the paper on his own. Pay close attention during this step and ask open-ended questions if he or she has left out information or still seems confused about any important points.  Never interrupt, especially to correct or to give negative comments.  Challenge your student to recall the business of the meeting and to teach you what he or she has just learned. 

8.  Tutee Summary of Underlying Process

Successful completion of this step will indicate to you that your student has, in fact, internalized (at least temporarily) the basic processes involved in solving the problems or answering the questions at hand.  Allow him or her to explain not only the technical tools he or she has learned during the session, but also the principles at work behind those technical aspects.  Perhaps refer back to the thought processes you predicted that you would need to solve the problem.  Ask the student if he or she has successfully utilized those processes.  If not, think about what other tools you can use to explain how to apply the processes to the specific task.

9.  Confirmation

Take time to wind down from the work of the session and summarize what you have done and ask if the student has any more questions.  Use this time to complete any bookkeeping you have to do for the Learning Center, including any online or paper forms.

10.  What’s Next?

Have the tutee explain to you what his or her next steps will be after he or she leaves the meeting.  Will he or she report back to you later that evening?  If you were working on a paper, for example, should he or she e-mail you the next draft or make an appointment with the professor? 

In other disciplines, does the student understand the assignments immediately ahead?  Should you schedule another meeting ahead of time or wait to see if the student requests help?

Particularly in one-on-one assigned mentoring relationships, this step is crucial for the student to feel as though you value your time together and are planning on seeing him or her again.  This often defines a successful meeting for anxious students, and they can get their minds off whatever frustrations or disagreements they may have felt during the meeting.  Discuss the next assignment on the semester calendar or syllabus and determine which aspect of that assignment should be covered at the next meeting.

11.  Arrange and Plan Next Session

Once you have identified roughly which assignment you will discuss, next allow the student to see you write down in your personal calendar the date, time, and location of your next meeting.  This will give them the cue (and time) to do the same, and suggest that they make a note of the meeting if you realize they have not.  Set a tentative goal for the student to complete by the next meeting.  Should they have an outline of a paper?  A topic for a paper?  A certain number of questions for you to discuss in preparation for an exam?  A selection of text read and prepared for discussion? Depending on the subject and the assignment, make a realistic goal for the student to reach in the time between the current meeting and the next.

12.  Close and Goodbye

Let the student know the meeting has gone well if it has, and, if you have not reached your goals for that meeting, explain why.  Also explain what the student can do to be more prepared next time.  For one-on-one mentees, remind the student that you will be in touch with their advisor and referring faculty member to let them know how the meeting went. 

Try to end on a positive note, even if the meeting has been difficult.  Walk the student out or smile and tell the student you will see him or her soon if the person is a one-on-one mentee.  Remind her that she is welcome to e-mail or call with other questions or to request an earlier meeting (with plenty of notice, of course) before the next planned session.  If the student has come in during open hours, invite the student to come back anytime, remind them of the center’s hours of operation, and take a moment to mention other services we offer that might be helpful to the student. Finish up any paperwork, and, if a session summary is not automatically sent to the appropriate faculty members electronically upon its completion, e-mail them shortly after the meeting.

Finally, Don’t Forget to Reflect on Your Own Role in the Session

Either at the end of the session or as soon as possible during the day, be sure to take the time to reflect on your own work as a tutor. What effective techniques did you use in this session? Where might you have been more effective? How might you work in the future to improve your own tutoring practice? Both the on-line and paper forms for tutoring sessions contain an area where you can record your thoughts, track your progress, identify your concerns, and reflect on your experience. Engaging in this process and filling out forms or an on-line journal is part of your growth and development as a tutor and an expectation of the job. Don’t forget this important aspect of your work.


MacDonald, R. B. (2000). The master tutor: A guidebook for more effective tutoring (2nd ed.).
Williamsville, NY: Cambridge Stratford, Limited