5 Communication Skills
A successful tutoring session is built on a variety of factors. Our own understanding of the material, our knowledge of supplemental resources, and our ability to break down large concepts, all contribute to our ability to assist a student. More important than these, however, is our ability to communicate. The more effectively we communicate, the more thoroughly we can understand a student’s barriers to understanding. The more effectively we communicate, the faster we understand the student’s situation, ascertain their needs, and set the student at ease.
Communication in a tutoring session is only partially about exchange of information. Effective tutoring is predicated on the development of relationships with students. Learning not only about their academic goals and challenges, but also about the student as an individual, builds rapport. Developing trusting and supportive relationships with students helps them to feel comfortable sharing their struggles with their assignments.
Though not all students may hesitate to ask for help, many find it challenging in the beginning to seek tutoring assistance. For many students, working with a tutor and sharing their struggles can make them feel vulnerable. The more we can do as tutors to normalize the experience of seeking assistance the more effectively students can begin to make progress.
Why communication skills are important
It’s easy to understand how our communication skills help us to teach information and concepts to others, but how can we use them to become more approachable and effective tutors? If we take time to identify the different components of effective communication, we’re sure to discover ways in which we can more intentionally build relationships with students. Examining our communication can also help us to build awareness of areas where we can improve- and we always can improve.
Self-Awareness and Emotional intelligence
It is helpful to reflect on our own communication preferences before we begin to focus on improving our communication with others. We can then carry this awareness of how we express ourselves and our ideas, how we talk about our challenges, and what kinds of things make us comfortable into our tutoring sessions.
Keeping in mind our own communication tendencies and habits can help us to adapt when we encounter others whose communication style is different from our own. Approaching your interactions with an appreciation for differences and an aim to understand can help to prevent miscommunication.1 It can help us to interpret nuances and alert us to adjustments in our own communication we may need to make.
What are your communication habits? Pay attention to how you speak, the the tone you adopt, and words you find yourself frequently using. Do you notice any verbal or nonverbal habits you hadn’t noticed before?
Take few minutes to reflect and ask yourself:
- How might my communication habits impact the way others perceive me? Is this the way I want to be perceived?
- What adjustments might I make to my communication habits when I work with students as a tutor?
Think about the last time you had to admit something that embarrassed you. Perhaps you aren’t easily embarrassed, but at some point or another, we all have to share information we’d prefer to keep to ourselves. An embarrassing mistake. An oversight. A failure. It’s not easy to do, and we don’t confide in just anyone. Generally, we only share these things with people we trust, and with those who we believe won’t judge us for our mistakes.
The more we can do as tutors to be aware of the feelings that students may bring to a tutoring session, the better our session outcomes will be. Helping students feel seen as unique individuals can make them feel more comfortable sharing their needs. Take time to learn a student’s name, make a bit of small talk about their interests, their plans for the day, their lives outside of the tutoring session. Don’t pry into a student’s personal life, but do try to get to know them. Give them opportunities to share things about themselves with you. Developing a positive rapport with a student can go a long way in encouraging them to return to tutoring.
Additionally, anything we can do to normalize and destigmatize the experience of seeking tutoring assistance helps students to more easily access the service, and increases the likelihood they will return for support when they need it.
Supporting Student’s Motivation
Effective and supportive communication with students can also help to build a student’s motivation. Encouraging exchanges and small victories in a tutoring session can empower a student to keep improving- and to continue to use tutoring support when needed.2 There are many ways we can make a tutoring session both supportive and productive. The following section provides some tools to get started.
The Communication Toolkit
A good place to begin building our skills in creating positive student interaction is with the messages we send without even using words: our body language.
Nonverbal communication sets the tone for our in-person interactions. It includes all of the unspoken signals that we send with our body language, and often we send these signals without even thinking.3 We can use this communication to create more positive exchanges if we remember to consider the signals we’re sending.
The way we hold our bodies can communicate to others that we are listening and care about what is being said. Our posture can help others to feel comfortable sharing with us- or it can do the opposite. Maintaining “open” body language can put students at ease, and communicate that we’re happy to help.
- Face the student when they’re speaking.
- Nod to show that you’ve heard and understand.
- Leaning forward slightly shows that you’re listening and interested.
We must try to avoid sending signals that we’re inattentive and unapproachable. Even if we’re very happy to listen and eager to help, sending the wrong signals can make a student feel otherwise. Crossed arms, while a common habit, can make us appear closed off, negative, or judgmental. Even if your reasons are innocuous or legitimate, looking at your watch or phone can make a student feel like you’re not fully engaged in the session, or that you would rather be somewhere else.
Just as our body language may send the wrong signals if we’re not mindful, our facial expressions can do the same. Our welcoming body language will do no good if our facial expressions don’t match. Keep in mind how your face rests, and be sure that you are sending attentive and non-judgmental messages with your face as well as the rest of your body.
A smile is easy enough when welcoming a student to a tutoring session. Be aware of what expressions you make when students share information. For example, we may sometimes be surprised or confused during a session, and while our reactions are normal, we want to keep our reactions from making students feel judged. It may take some practice, but awareness is the first step!
Maintaining eye contact when a student is speaking to us helps them to feel like we’re invested in what they have to say. Making eye contact when we speak to students helps them to feel seen and understood. Try to become comfortable with giving good eye contact during tutoring sessions.
Does this mean you’ll constantly be staring at a student? Of course not.
It’s important to give eye contact when listening and speaking to someone, but too much can make a student begin to feel nervous. It’s a fine line, and may take some practice and adjustment. If you feel a student is uncomfortable being “stared at,” it’s okay to occasionally focus your attention on the assignment as you speak, or look elsewhere when the student is struggling to work out a problem. With experience, you’ll be able to find that balance between helping a student to feel seen, and keeping them from feeling examined.
A Note on Personal Presentation
In addition to our body language and facial expressions, there are other factors that contribute to our being perceived as professional and friendly. The way we present ourselves, our general cleanliness, and personal hygiene can contribute to our successful interactions with students. As much as possible, try your best to present a professional, friendly and comfortable demeanor. Be aware of the dress code at your institution or in your tutoring center.
- Think back to a time you felt someone was closely listening to you. How did it make you feel? Can you identify any of the practices this person was using from the Communication Toolkit?
- Now think of a time you did not feel listened to. How did this make you feel? What about this person’s words and actions might have made you feel that way?
Active listening & paraphrasing
We can make students feel at ease with our excellent nonverbal communication, but if we’re not actively listening to what they have to say, we can’t have a productive tutoring session.
Some may think that hearing what a student says is the same thing as listening to what a student says. However, these two activities are quite different. “Hearing” is a passive act, while truly “listening” is an active process. Unlike hearing, listening is a skill that improves through our own efforts and practice. That’s why we like to call it “active listening.”4
Good communication and understanding are only made possible through active listening. Tutors can better understand a student’s needs, and students can better receive assistance when we make a habit of using active listening strategies.
There are five key components to practicing effective active listening5:
It sounds obvious, but we’ll never be able to understand a student’s need if we let our minds wander. Give the student your undivided attention and acknowledge their message. Avoid multitasking and refrain from side conversations.
Show That You Are Listening
Our positive and attentive body language can help us out with this one. Nod and use short verbal comments to both reassure the student that you’re hearing them, and to encourage them to continue.
Paraphrase to Check Your Understanding
If we remain still and passive, students may feel like we’re not truly hearing them. Providing feedback shows them that we’re actively engaged with what they’re telling us.
Paraphrasing involves the restatement of the information we’ve heard, in our own words. It’s an important practice to help us to check that we’ve correctly understood what the student has shared. Frequent paraphrasing can provide opportunities to clarify any misunderstandings early on.6
Paraphrasing becomes easier as we get more experience summarizing information in our own words. Some useful paraphrasing statements include:
“If I’m hearing you correctly, …”
“It appears that you …”
“It sounds like you’re saying …”
“What I’m hearing you say, is …”
Asking related and relevant questions is an excellent way to encourage a student to continue speaking. Socratic questioning, or the use of open-ended questions, is an important tool in active listening. Open-ended questions are those that cannot be answered with a simple “yes,” or “no.” They can encourage students to expand and reflect on their thoughts, and guide them in working through problems. Sometimes a simple answer of “yes,” or “no,” is all that we require to understand the student’s need, but most of the time we find our solutions by using open-ended questions.
Some examples of open-ended questions include:
“What have you tried so far…?”
“Can you explain what you mean by that …?”
“What other possibilities have you thought of …?”
“How else could this be explained …?”
Furthermore, it’s important that our responses don’t invalidate a student’s thoughts and opinions. We may not always agree with what they say, and we may even want to correct any incorrect information we hear, but it’s important that we do so in a respectful manner. In this way, students can better hear what we have to say and don’t feel the need to defend their statements.7 Socratic questioning is a great method of helping students to arrive at a correct answer without having to correct them ourselves.
In addition to Socratic questioning, other things we can do to respond appropriately include:
- Avoid interrupting the student unnecessarily. Refrain from pre-empting a student’s response, or finishing their sentences.
- Don’t forget to use pauses. Give students time to think and respond. Don’t fill uncomfortable silence- may be what’s needed to get the student to share or come up with their own solution.
Refrain from Judgment
Remember that it’s common for students to at first feel vulnerable or a little embarrassed about seeking help from a tutor. When a student is already nervous about being judged for struggling with schoolwork, it’s our duty to do our best to create a safe and accepting space for them, free of judgment. Avoid making assumptions about any student’s motivations, effort, or situation.
Tutoring is not an emotion-free zone. We all can get frustrated or upset by schoolwork, grades, and the pressures of being a student. We can be excited when we finally master a difficult concept and discouraged when we don’t do as well on an exam as we’d hoped. So how can tutors best navigate this emotion-filled territory? With reflective and empathetic listening.
It is important that we not ignore a student’s emotional state, but rather recognize and be accepting of a student’s feelings. We may have to set aside our personal views and values to better understand a student’s perspective. We may even have to try not to take a student’s emotional response personally. While these things are often not easy, approaching these interactions with a compassionate and understanding attitude can help both ourselves and the student to have a productive session. We can sabotage our session and walk away with regrets if we allow ourselves to be reactionary and judgmental.8,9,10
So what to say when a student brings their feelings to a session? Well, first and foremost, we must respect the student’s privacy and keep our interactions professional. Don’t pry. Don’t probe for details. Instead, respond in a way that tells the student you see and acknowledge their feelings in the moment. Sometimes just being acknowledged is what a student needs to get through the moment and move on with their day. In the long term, respectfully acknowledging a student’s emotions contributes to a good working relationship and strong rapport with the student, while reinforcing respectful boundaries.
Encouragement and Praise
Praising a student throughout a session can be a great way of providing positive feedback and encouragement. Receiving praise can motivate students to continue and can even help them to form better opinions of themselves and their abilities as a learner. It is important, however, that tutors are mindful about the kind of encouragement they provide. Perhaps you’ve experienced a situation in which you were receiving praise, and while the words we heard were positive, you questioned the sincerity behind them. Encouragement is not effective if we feel it’s baseless.
A useful way to ensure that we are providing useful and effective encouragement to students is to use what is called specific praise. Just as it sounds, specific praise is encouragement that is based on specific observation. General, or nonspecific praise, is not grounded in observation of a student’s performance, and is less likely to be received as sincere, particularly if a student is having difficulty seeing their own progress. Specific praise, being linked to concrete aspects of a student’s performance, provides built-in evidence of the student’s praiseworthy behavior. It helps the student to feel that these positive comments are warranted and earned. It demonstrates that the tutor is paying attention and responding to their behavior in a meaningful way.
When providing specific praise, we may make observations about a student’s learning preferences, tendencies, or strengths. We can use these observations as a means to empower students to recognize their learning styles, and work with these strengths in mind. How often have we learned something about ourselves based on the observations and compliments of others? When a tutor is using observation to provide specific praise, students have the opportunity to learn more about themselves and how they work.
Specific praise is also known as “process praise,” and this raises another important aspect of meaningful encouragement. When tutors are process-oriented, rather than outcome-oriented, students can accept praise, even when they haven’t mastered a skill. It can be difficult to stay motivated when we haven’t yet reached our goal. Process-praise highlights the positive aspects of our progress, and can help students to stay motivated and maintain a growth-mindset on their way to mastery. By using process-praise we can make our encouragement not only sincere and specific, but also a useful tool for improvement, drawing attention to the things students are doing well.
We should be mindful to keep our comments positive when providing this specific, process-oriented feedback. Critical feedback can be constructive, but can also be discouraging if we place too much emphasis on what may be missing from a student’s attempt. Does this mean we can never indicate to a student areas where they might improve? Of course, not. But framing these critiques in a tactful, positive, and specific way can provide students with informative feedback that can be well-received and easily acted upon. Helping the student to focus on their improvement and on the aspects of a challenge they have mastered, contributes to a strong motivational scaffolding upon which they can continue to work toward improvement.11
Something to Try
In your next session with a student, be conscious of your communication. Afterward, make some notes about what you’d like to improve upon.
- Do you want to be more deliberate with your nonverbal communication (eye contact, facial expression, body language).
- Can you work to make your paraphrasing and open-ended questions more helpful to the session?
It can be tough to focus on all these aspects of our communication at once. If you’re having trouble, try and focus on just one at a time, and notice what you’re doing. Plan how to improve on this aspect in your next session, and focus on making it a new communication habit.
- Petrovici and Dorescu. (2013). The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Building Interpersonal Communication Skills. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. 116 (2014), 1405-1410. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.01.406.
- Mackiewicz and Thompson. (2014). Instruction, Cognitive Scaffolding, and Motivational Scaffolding in Writing Center Tutoring. Composition Studies. 42(1), 54-78. https://www.jstor.org/stable/compstud.42.1.0054?seq=1. Accessed 26 Apr. 2021.
- Sutiyatno. (2018). The Effect of Teacher’s Verbal Communication and Non-verbal Communication on Students’ English Achievement. Journal of Language Teaching and Research. 9 (2), 430-437. https://www.academypublication.com/ojs/index.php/jltr/article/view/jltr0902430437/0. Accessed 26 Apr. 2021.
- Weger, Bell, Minei, and Robinson. (2014). The Relative Effectiveness of Active Listening in Initial Interactions. International Journal of Listening. 28(1), 13-31. https://doi.org/10.1080/10904018.2013.813234.
- The University of Adelaide. (2014). Active Listening: Writing Centre Learning Guide. Writing Resources: Learning Guides. University of Adelaide Writing Center. https://www.adelaide.edu.au/writingcentre/sites/default/files/docs/learningguide-activelistening.pdf.
- Weger, Castle, and Emmet. (2010). Active Listening in Peer Interviews: The Influence of Message Paraphrasing on Perceptions of Listening Skill. The International. Journal of Listening. 24 (1) 34-49. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10904010903466311.
- Bodie, et. al. (2015). The Role of ‘Active Listening’ in Informal Helping Conversations: Impact on Perceptions of Listener Helpfulness, Sensitivity, and Supportiveness and Discloser Emotional Improvement. Western Journal of Communication. 79(2), 151–173. https://doi.org/10.1080/10570314.2014.943429.
- Lape. (2008). Training Tutors in Emotional Intelligence: Toward a Pedagogy of Empathy. The Writing Lab Newsletter. 33(2), 1-6. https://wlnjournal.org/archives/v33/33.2.pdf.
- Kervin, Claire E., and Heather E. Barrett. “Emotional Management over Time Management: Using Mindfulness to Address Student Procrastination.” WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, vol. 42, no. 9-10, 2018, p. 10+. https://go.gale.com/ps/anonymous?id=GALE%7CA538859614&sid=googleScholar&v=2.1&it=r&linkaccess=abs&issn=&p=AONE&sw=w. Accessed 26 Apr. 2021.
- McBride, Edwards, Kutner, and Thoms. (2018). Responding to the Whole Person: Using Empathic Listening and Responding in the Writing Center. The Peer Review. 2(2). http://thepeerreview-iwca.org/issues/issue-2/responding-to-the-whole-person-using-empathic-listening-and-responding-in-the-writing-center/. Accessed 26 Apr. 2021.
- Bullock and Wikeley. (2004). Whose Learning?. Open University Press.
Bambaeeroo, Fatemeh, and Nasrin Shokrpour. “The impact of the teachers’ non-verbal communication on success in teaching.” Journal of advances in medical education & professionalism vol. 5,2 (2017): 51-59. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5346168/. Accessed 26 Apr. 2021.
Illinois State University. (2013). Communication Skills. Physics Teacher Education Program: 310 Content Case Studies. http://www.phy.ilstu.edu/pte/310content/case_studies/resources/Communication_Skills.pdf. Accessed 26 Apr. 2021.
Louw, Todd, and Jimakorn. (2011). Active Listening in Qualitative Research Interviews. Proceedings of the International Conference: Doing Research in Applied Linguistics. 71-82. http://arts.kmutt.ac.th/dral/PDF%20proceedings%20on%20Web/71-82_Active_Listening_in_Qualitative_Research_Interviews.pdf. Accessed 26 Apr. 2021.
Macpherson. (2016). Level One Tutor Foundation Training Workbook. KORA Faculty Scholarship: Paper 62. Kwantlen Polytechnic University. http://kora.kpu.ca/facultypub/62. Accessed 26 Apr. 2021.