2 The Tutor’s Role and Responsibilities

What Is a Tutor?

We’ve all been in classes at some point in our lives. We’ve seen instruction. Chances are, we’ve seen it more often than we’ve seen tutoring. At first glance, tutoring looks like a microcosmic version of classroom instruction. However, typical academic tutoring is very different from classroom instruction. One of the best ways to describe how tutoring is unique, is to compare and contrast it with teaching.

Venn Diagram comparing the role of a tutor, to the role of a teacher, showing that, while they are not the same, play important roles in supporting lifelong learning, encourage deeper knowledge of the content, and help to identify student needs.
Figure 1.1: Tutors and Teachers occupy different roles, but both play an important part in supporting students in their learning.

Teachers are responsible for developing curriculum, delivering lessons, and assessing student performance. Teachers build individual connections with their students, much like a tutor does, but their work is also concerned with the macro-level. They chart a clear course for a group of learners through lecture, activities, and carefully curating readings. In short, teachers are the architects of the learning experience.

As tutors, we don’t build courses from scratch. Instead, we guide students through the architect’s creation. We help the student navigate their studies, but we are not charting the course for them. We believe in resourceful learning that utilizes a variety of supports, supporting the instructor’s goals for the classroom, and contextualizing learning for long-term success.

Students typically acquire course content in two primary ways: through class-time and reading. Depending on the instructor’s teaching style and the student’s needs, video, audio, field experiences, and similar multimodal experiences may also be included. Still, we can see that these content acquisition methods include instructor interaction and use of informational materials. These curated experiences drive students’ education. Students are getting most of the things they need this way, but they may not have the right schemas for understanding. They also may not know how to reflect or think critically, moving from lower-order thinking to higher-order thinking (more on that in our Learning Theory chapter). This is when tutors step in to help students put all those pieces together.

Ultimately, it’s the tutor’s goal to support classroom instruction in a safe space that allows students to grapple with all that they’re learning. We’re an attentive ear, a peer who understands what they’re going through, and a guide on the side. Of course, we must remain professional and mindful of work/life balance. We don’t take on the full responsibility for a student’s work—that remains with the student. We also do not act as therapists—that’s best left to professionals. However, we play an important role in helping students move through their studies with an ally, providing academic assistance and supporting long-term growth.

Quickwrite Reflection

Take a moment to reflect on what your experiences have been like with tutors in the past.

  • Have you used tutoring services before? If yes, did these tutors live up to their responsibilities?
  • If you’ve never used tutoring services before, why do you think you haven’t used them in the past? Did you have certain preconceptions or ideas about the tutor’s role that made it sound unappealing?

As you read this chapter, think about how your perception of the role of a tutor might change.

Behaviors and Characteristics of Successful Tutors

There aren’t any shortcuts to instant tutorial success, and honing those tutorial skills takes work. This book provides a robust look at all the skills and tools you can use as a tutor.  Let’s have a look at some of these successful tutorial behaviors to get started.

Tutors don’t need to be experts

First and foremost, successful tutors don’t need to be experts.1  Sure, we need to have a working knowledge of the topic, but we don’t need to be experts—that’s the instructor’s job. As mentioned earlier, the teacher is responsible for becoming an expert in the subject at-hand and sharing that expertise with students. This actually takes some of the pressure off of tutors—we don’t need to know it all! Instead, we should know how to be good students. We should model resourceful learning, and ask a lot of questions. It’s okay to admit you’re stumped by an assignment—this level of vulnerability and honesty demonstrates that knowing the right questions to ask is more important to learning than knowing the right answer.2 Sure, when it comes to midterms and finals, students really want the right answer, but the learning process that gets us to these answers is all about questions.

Tutors coach students through problem-solving strategies

Successful tutors coach students through problem-solving strategies.2 We don’t solve problems for the student, but instead we guide them through the process of critical thinking. This distinction is important: always remember, the student needs to find their own solutions. While we act as a guide and coach, there are ways to support the student’s process. If we solve a student’s problem for them, they won’t really learn the process for themselves.

Once more, we’re best able to assist a student by asking good questions. We can ask them to articulate their thinking aloud to help them better understand their process. We can ask tough questions that help students realize the strengths in their approach, and the ways they can improve. We don’t want to tell students bluntly that they are “right” or “wrong.” Our goal should be to collaboratively lead the student toward those conclusions with reflective questions. How to coach students through the problem-solving process is covered in more detail in the Modeling Problem Solving chapter.

Tutors model critical thinking

Successful tutors model critical thinking. Students are presented with lots of information from their instructors and textbooks. They might have classroom opportunities to construct knowledge or interact with concepts, but there is still a lot of processing and thinking that occurs outside the class. Let’s imagine that an instructor presents three different topics during a weekly lecture. Afterward, the student could be asked to:

  • Write a paper that combines and synthesizes those topics in new ways.
  • Research a fourth topic independently and develop an original interpretation of how it fits with the first three.
  • Apply these three things to a real-life situation or hands-on lab.

Students are regularly asked to demonstrate and utilize their knowledge in new ways, and critical thinking is the keystone to that learning process.3 Tutors can model this behavior by asking critical questions and articulating their own thought processes while working through a problem. Strategies for using critical thinking in tutoring sessions are detailed in the Modeling Critical Thinking chapter.

Tutors provide unique student supports

Successful tutors provide a unique, supportive experience for students. They tailor learning to meet individual student needs. Many instructors provide individualized feedback and mentorship for their students, but even the most supportive instructors cannot spend endless hours with each individual student—the sheer size of some lecture classrooms make it virtually impossible to coach each student one-on-one. In order to meet the broad needs of a large class, lectures must inherently sacrifice some individualization.4


This is where tutors can provide a powerful, one-on-one connection to the student and their learning processes. We’re in a unique position to get to know students and listen to their concerns. Moreover, many Tutoring Centers focus on peer tutoring, which provides its own benefits for rapport building. While some students want to seek an authority, like an instructor, others might feel more comfortable speaking to a peer who is closer to their experience.4 Peer tutors know what the student is going through, and they have a unique connection to the student experience.

Something to Try

In your next session, pay attention to your half of the tutorial conversation. Specifically, look for questions.

  • Do you ask a lot of questions?
  • Do these questions help the student think critically, solve problems, and use their resources to learn?
  • How are you guiding and prompting the student to move forward with your questions?

If you find that you do not ask a lot of questions, this is something to work on! The best tutors don’t give mini-lectures and re-teach the whole class–instead, they try to tap into the student’s own learning processes through lots of questions.


  1. Gillespie, P., & Lerner, N. (2008). The Longman guide to peer tutoring (Second edition). New York: Pearson Longman.
  2. Ryan, L., & Zimmerelli, Lisa. (2016). The Bedford guide for writing tutors (Sixth edition). Bedford/St. Martin’s.
  3. McGuire, S. Y., & McGuire, Stephanie. (2015). Teach students how to learn: strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation (First edition.). Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  4. Chin, T., J. Estrada, & J. Rabow. (2011), Tutoring Matters: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about How to Tutor (Second edition). Temple University Press.


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Tutor Handbook Copyright © 2021 by Penny Feltner and gapinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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