3 Structuring a Session


It’s time to get started with a session. Where to begin? How do we structure the session to ensure a good tutorial experience? There are five core phases to most tutoring sessions. Within each phase, you’ll be practicing different skillsets that will become sharper in upcoming chapters—for now, think of this as an at-a-glance tutoring structure to help you dive in.

Welcoming the Student

In the previous chapter, we emphasized the importance of a safe, welcoming space for students. We can set the right tone with a smile, introduce ourselves by name, and ask the student’s name.1

To further create a positive experience, we can learn from the customer care industry. Think about the last time someone in the service industry gave you a good experience. What did that feel like? How can we replicate that positive interaction in tutoring?

Within the customer care field, the acronym CHERISH—consideration, help, expectations, respect, individualization, support, honesty—is a good mnemonic to help facilitate a positive experience.2 These core ideas can also apply to tutoring:

  • Consideration—Show consideration for the student’s needs and their mood. They might be excited about the revisions they completed last session, or they might be bummed out about a low test score. Whatever the tutee’s mood, demonstrate empathy as you open your session. Consider their feelings.


  • Help—It’s common for a customer care representative to ask “How can I help you today?” This question encourages the customer to articulate their needs rather than jumping ahead based on assumptions. We can use this exact question in tutoring sessions, or we can modify it to “What brought you into the Tutoring Center today?” or “What are you working on today?”


  • Expectations—You may have heard the phrase, “the customer is always right.” Well, that’s not totally true in tutoring. Some students may expect that a single tutoring session will get them an A+. We can’t meet that expectation, but we can help reposition their expectations by listening to their desires and directing the student toward realistic goals (more on this later in the chapter).


  • Respect—Always respect the student’s intelligence and agency. They are smart, capable people, and we should never talk down to somebody because they are struggling with an assignment or are taking a lower level course. Moreover, tutors should respect diversity of thought, encouraging and validating the tutee’s ideas.


  • Individualization—Tutoring is a place where students can get personalized support tailored to their individual needs. They may feel lost in a large class of other students, and this is a unique opportunity to feel heard and seen as an individual. Ask lots of questions to find out what they know, what they want to know, and how you can assist. The student should be the star of the session, with the tutor acting as a coach.


  • Support—Support the student’s learning. Remember, we aren’t going to do the work for them (we explored this in the previous chapter on Tutoring Philosophy), but we can show them resources, ask great questions, and push students in the right direction.


  • Honesty—We should never lie to students. Don’t say an essay is completely perfect or completely flawed, because that’s almost impossible. There are always ways a student can improve, and there are always good ideas to be found in work that needs improvement. Point out specific areas you enjoy and identify areas for growth. If we don’t know how to proceed with an assignment, we should never “fake our way” through it. We admit when we’re lost and encourage the student to use their resources, ask their instructor, consult a library, or ask a different tutor. We want to model good behavior by showing that it’s okay to be open and honest about confusion during the learning process.

Quickwrite Exercise

Think about a class where you learned a lot. Take a moment to record your thoughts on the following questions:

  • How did the teacher build a high-quality learning experience?
  • How did they start each class?
  • In what ways did they engage with students and make sure you learned throughout the class?
  • How did they wrap-up each session and introduce homework?

While this won’t be a one-to-one comparison, think about how you can model some of these practices in a session. How did this teacher help you learn, and how can you adapt that to a one-on-one session with a student?


Discussing Expectations

As tutors, we know how the tutoring process works. We know what our role is, and how we can best assist a student. However, students sometimes come into a tutoring center with misconceptions or unrealistic expectations. For example, a student may rush to a tutoring center hoping a tutor will magically fix all their problems, providing them with a freshly proofread an “A” paper.3


So how do we address misconceptions and establish clear expectations for how tutoring can best serve the student? We don’t want to dissuade an eager student, but we don’t want to move forward with unrealistic expectations. First and foremost, tutors should identify what we can do to help the student, rather than focusing on things we can’t do. We have a lot to offer, so let’s focus on those tutorial strengths and use them to set session expectations. Here are some ways tutors can set clear expectations.

Table 2.1: Examples of how tutors can set clear an appropriate expectations and respond to students. 
When a student says… Instead of saying… Try saying this…
“I want you to proofread my essay.” “We don’t do proofreading.” “Have a seat, and we can look at your paper together to see if we notice any weak spots. Does that sound okay?”
“Can you give me the answers to my math homework?” “No. That would be cheating.” “What I can do is show you some tools and formulas that will help you find your own answers.”
“I just need you to edit my assignment.” “We can’t edit your writing for you. That’s your job.” “Well, let’s read the assignment aloud and listen for any areas that sound like they need improvement.”
“Can you just fix my essay for me? “That’s not what we do here.” “Do you have your assignment sheet or rubric? We can use that as a guide to figure out what your instructor is looking for. Then we can work together to identify what areas of your paper might need the most revision.”

Of course, we must also use our best judgement. Most of the time it’s better to focus on what we can provide, modeling our approach rather than explaining it. It’s a different story when a student is repeatedly reluctant to pick up the pen or open their textbook. There are certain times when it’s necessary to explain our tutorial philosophy more directly, telling a student what our role and purpose is.

Seeking Understanding

When we first sit down with a student, we need to listen. Listening to the student’s concerns helps us to understand what they are working on, what they have already tried, and where they are stuck. If we dive right into the assignment without understanding the student’s needs, the session is already off to a bad start. Listen early and often. Remember, listening is not a passive activity.4 The start of a session should include a lot of talking—because asking questions and dedicating ourselves to a rich conversation ensures better listening. We may not even look at the assignment for the first five minutes. Instead, we might spend that time asking about the student’s goals and gathering background information necessary to diagnose and understand the student’s needs.5 It may seem like these five minutes are trivial, but they make the entire session more worthwhile for the student.

Of course, not every student knows what they need. We also need to understand the assignment to best identify gaps in the student’s work. After building some rapport and listening to the student describe their work, we can transition to gathering additional information. We want to gather as many sources of useful information as possible so we can make informed tutorial choices:

  • Ask to see the rubric or assignment sheet.
  • Ask if they have notes from class.
  • Ask them to open the textbook to the assigned chapter.

Figure out what resources the student has at their disposal—either in their backpacks or on the course’s virtual page. Lean on these resources to develop a clear picture of the assignment. For example, a student might say they need help summarizing an article, but then you read the assignment directions and learn that the student is actually supposed to write an analytical paper! Going straight to class materials is your best strategy for clarifying the basic assignment details. Still, listening to the student’s paraphrased explanation is also important; it can tell us if the student is fully comprehending the task or if they have some gaps in understanding the assignment that need to be addressed. Moreover, asking for the student’s input helps keep them involved, respects their ownership of the work, and invites them into the process of revisiting their directions, rubrics, rough drafts, and other materials.1

Coaching Through the Problem

As aforementioned, we always want to start with understanding. Once we’ve got a clear sense of the assignment and we have the teacher’s instructions in front of us, we can determine where the student is stuck. We can compare the assignment goals to the student’s notes, the student’s description of their process, or the rough draft in front of us. Rather than telling the student how to “fix” their work, we can coach through the problem, giving the student tools to learn and grow within the session.

Coaching through the problem looks differently depending on discipline, but one common tool remains important across subject areas: Socratic questioning. As we coach students, we ask them questions and encourage them to flex their creative muscles. Instead of saying “Your intro needs a better attention grabber,” you might ask “How can you grab the reader’s attention early on? Did your research uncover anything that might work as a hook?”

Questions like these get students to reflect on their prior knowledge and research, and it encourages a verbal  articulation of their thought processes. Whereas a blunt statement from a tutor can be met with silence, a question keeps things moving and gives us an insight into the student’s learning. As we ask these questions, we’re also working to  promote higher levels of thinking (we’ll dive into “levels of thinking” in the chapter on Learning Theory.)

Wrapping Up

Finally, thank the student for coming in to the Tutoring Center or for hiring you as a private tutor. This simple acknowledgement that we appreciate the student’s time and efforts can go a long way. We can also use this opportunity to say how much we enjoyed working with the student, and we can encourage them to make another appointment soon.

As we wrap-up the session, we want to ensure the student has all the tools needed for success. Oftentimes, a twenty-, thirty-, or even sixty-minute session will not be enough to cover every single issue in a student’s work. Even if we had enough time, we wouldn’t want to overwhelm the student with too much feedback! It’s best to focus on a couple actionable things each session, setting students on a path toward learning that propels them into the assignment, lecture, test, or even a future tutoring session.

Therefore, the warp-up process should also include resources and referrals for the student’s ongoing growth. Remember, we want to encourage a growth mindset. Students shouldn’t think that a single tutoring session has taught them everything they need to know. Instead, ask the student what they want to accomplish next, and emphasize what next steps a student can take to continue to improve.5 We might suggest that they could consult a librarian for their research assignment, or maybe we can refer to the instructor’s office hours for some follow-up questions, or we can recommend they reread a specific chapter in their textbook before diving back into the homework.

If you’re tutoring virtually, leverage the digital platform’s ability to embed hyperlinks. Give the student some useful websites where they can learn more about the assignment topic. Promoting these resources will ensure the student has more tools at their disposal as they write, study, and read.

Along with additional resources, we also want to leave students with a plan. Ask the student to summarize what was covered, and help point out patterns that emerge. Even if the session wandered through several components, what was the common theme? What are the most important areas for the student to work on moving forward?

It’s good to set priorities. For example, let’s say we covered weaknesses in a student’s thesis statement, and then we had a good discussion about comma rules. That student’s action-items should be tied to the thesis, because this is a bigger picture issue for any essay. Commas are important, but the student can fix commas endlessly and still receive a failing grade if the essay lacks a central focus or purpose!

A simple verbal reminder could be enough; something like: “So before our next meeting, remember to rewrite that thesis and bring it to our session for review.” It may also help to write this down. Some Tutoring Centers have summary forms or visit reminders for that purpose; use these tools liberally when available.

The recap shouldn’t just be tasks for the future, though. As you send the student on their way, remind them of what they accomplished today. Praise something they did well during the session. This can keep the student motivated and it also helps them see how they are improving and growing. Remember: growth is the key.6 Every student is capable of making progress, and we can remind them of their incremental successes to emphasize that point.

Something to Try

Directly after your next session, jot down your impressions while they are fresh in your mind. Specifically, focus on structure.

  • What did you notice about the session flow?
  • Did the session have a recognizable beginning, middle, and end–or was it more haphazard?

In your next tutoring session, focus on one element that you want to improve from the chapter: welcoming the student, discussing expectations, seeking understanding, coaching through the problem, or wrapping up.

Make an extra effort to incorporate more active awareness and acknowledgement of that element in your work.



  1. Zimmerelli, L. and  Ryan, L. (2016). The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors. Bedford/St. Martin’s.
  2. Gannon-Leary, P. and McCarthy, M. (2010). Customer Care: a training manual for library staff (1st edition). Chandos Publishing.
  3. Hopp, Timothy A. (2012). “Tutoring and the Writing Process.” Handbook for Training Peer Tutors and Mentors. (Agee and Hodges Ed.). CENGAGE Learning. 334-336. 
  4. Wilde, S. M., Cuny, K. M., & Vizzier, A. L. (2006). Peer-to-Peer Tutoring: A Model for Utilizing Empathetic Listening to Build Client Relationships in the Communication Center. International Journal of Listening, 20(1), 70–75. https://doi-org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/10.1080/10904018.2006.10499092
  5. Gillespie, P., & Lerner, N. (2008). The Longman guide to peer tutoring (Second edition). New York: Pearson Longman.
  6. Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L. III, & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Belknap Press of Harvard 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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