1 Tutoring Philosophy

Throughout this book, our suggestions are based on a shared approach to teaching and learning. We have a specific framework and philosophy guiding our work as tutors, and many individual tutoring centers, writing centers, and learning labs will have their own internal philosophies as well. These departmental beliefs will shape the foundation of our tutorial work, and like any scholarly field, there’s also a vast body of educational theory from which we can take direction. While there are bound to be philosophical disagreements across tutorial programs, we hope that our philosophy embodies the best common ground possible. Moreover, the ideas explored in the chapters that follow lean heavily on internationally recognized standards put forth by the College Reading & Learning Association.

Safe, non-judgmental sessions

Our tutoring philosophy begins with the creation of a safe space. We want students to feel welcomed and accepted when they study. Students shouldn’t feel judged. It is especially important that we not talk down to anybody or criticize a lack of knowledge. We recognize that there are multiple types of intelligence,1 and it’s important to see all students as complex people who are smart and capable.

Alongside this idea, we also recognize the need for a tutor to grow, develop, and continually learn. We understand our own areas for improvement and continually ask questions. We model vulnerability and know that it is okay to not always have the answers. As tutors, we don’t need to be experts; rather we need to know how to study and grow. We help people learn how to learn, and a large part of that process involves the freedom to try, stumble, and try again.

Growth mindset

This idea of growth is crucial for our tutorial philosophy. Research by Carol Dweck, and others in this area finds that people learn better if they view intelligence as something that can grow over time (more on this in our Learning Theories section.) As mentioned earlier, we believe that all students are capable of learning. In some cases, accommodations are needed to remove unique barriers, but literally every student can learn with the right educational approach!

This concept further underscores our philosophy on safe, inclusive spaces, where all students are equipped to do their best work. We want to give students agency. We want them to see tutoring as a collaborative process, where the student is actively engaged and working toward their goals. Students must feel empowered to move forward, but also safe enough to stumble mistakes without judgement. When students view learning as a safe space to take risks, fail, and try again, they are more likely to stay motivated and push through setbacks.2

Resourceful learning

We believe that tutors encourage resourceful learning, by supporting students in using available tools and resources—including textbooks, student notes, collaborative work groups, instructor office hours, and more. We want learners to familiarize themselves with the variety of resources at their disposal, and empower them to tap into those resources whenever they need them.

Some will suggest that independent learning is the ultimate goal, but we disagree. The term “independent” implies that students grow to a point of never (or rarely) needing help, asking questions, or seeking collaborators. Independence is about solo pursuits. Independence is highly prized in many higher education models, but when we look outside of academia, we see that ongoing growth and a willingness to seek assistance is crucial to success in academics as well as in the professional world—whether you’re a novice or an expert.

For example, some of the best writers still seek outside editors and beta readers, because they know that even experts need critique and feedback. They know their work can always improve, whether it’s a writer’s first five-paragraph essay or their tenth bestselling novel. The legendary writer Margaret Atwood recommends a writer should “ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business.”3 Moreover, celebrated novelist, Neil Gaiman, recommends to “show [your writing] to friends whose opinion you respect.”4 Even these authors with long and accomplished careers know that feedback from others is vital. Knowing when to ask for help is important, and independence does not need to be the end-goal for a learner.

Ethics of Tutoring

Paired with our philosophy of supportive, collaborative, growth-oriented interactions, we also must keep academic honesty and ethics in-mind. Students only grow when they are empowered to make their own choices, take risks, and even mess up. We are not in the business of “correcting” a student’s paper or “solving” a math problem for them. When we take over and do the work for a student, we rob them of a true learning process. A correct answer might help them ace their homework, but how does that help the student learn anything for the future? How will they fare on the exam? What about the next class, when the concept is built upon with additional layers, becoming even more difficult?

We need to focus on a student’s long-term success. Moreover, doing the work for a student is academically dishonest, and it leads to an inauthentic assessment and grading of the student’s work. The student needs to retain full control and ownership of their assignments. As we dive into future chapters, we’ll explore more nuanced ways that we can relinquish control of the work and ensure the student is making their own choices.

Ultimately, our goal is to encourage academic honesty and promote resourceful learning. We do this through proper tutoring techniques to encourage the student’s growth and development. Many students don’t “cheat” because they want to break the rules. Instead, they might be struggling with an overwhelming workload, they might be new to college, or they may not even understand the instructor’s expectations.5 For a student who is out of time and overwhelmed, academic dishonesty is a last-resort decision made out of desperation. We play an important role in ensuring that students feel like they have the support they need to learn, easing that frustration and desperation so they can achieve success on their own merits.

Creating a Welcoming and Safe Space

At the beginning of this chapter, we mentioned that our tutoring philosophy begins with a safe space. Since this is  a core tenet of our tutoring framework, it deserves a deeper look. What do we mean by safe space? How do we contribute to a safe and supportive learning environment?

At its most basic, a safe space is a place where people can congregate without fear of prejudice, harassment, violence, or stigmatization. A functional safe space requires a strong community that is able to speak out against instances of oppression. This principle should extend beyond the center, empowering us to recognize discrimination across campus and advocate for others. A true safe space is physically accessible, but it’s also philosophically accessible–the people who inhabit the space must be actively anti-racist and anti-sexist. Tutees must not only feel like they belong but also know that their personal dignity and inalienable human rights will be defended.

Something to Try

A big part of our philosophy is inclusion and access.

The next time you’re in the tutoring session, think about your physical tutoring space–whether it’s a center, coffee shop, library, or even a park bench. Try to notice the ways this space may promote or limit access for the students with whom you work?

We want all students to succeed, and we can assist in their success by helping to remove barriers. In doing so, we create an environment where students can feel safe to try, fail, learn, and grow.

Is there any way you can modify the space to ensure equal access for learners with disabilities?


While most of us can probably recognize blatant bigotry, microaggressions are harder to identify. Microaggressions are words and actions that implicitly exclude others or minimize their experiences. Because they are implicit, many microaggressions go unnoticed by the dominant social group. Consider these examples and explore some reasons why these microaggressions are harmful:


Table 1.1: Sample microaggressions and how they may be harmful to others
Microaggression Scenario Explanation
A tutor asks an Asian American student “Where are you from?” She replies “I’m from Detroit, Michigan.” The tutor adds “No, where are you really from? China?” This interaction wrongly implies that Asian Americans do not belong in the United States. It also minimizes and marginalizes this student’s personal identity as somebody who is a proud Detroit resident. The tutor may not have meant to offend. But remember, intent does not undo the damage or make these comments less hurtful.
A tutor approaches an African American student and says “Your afro is so interesting. What does it feel like?” The tutor then touches the student’s hair. This interaction creates a sense of otherness, relegating black hair to a curiosity and oddity. Moreover, this tutor has no right to touch this student’s hair. That student is in control of their own body, including their hair, and they have not given their consent to have their body touched in any way.
A tutor notices that a student uses “they” and “them” as a singular pronoun throughout a writing assignment. They point it out and say “This is wrong. You need to change it to ‘he’ or ‘she.’” They/them can be used as a singular pronoun. The tutor’s comment could alienate a nonbinary or genderqueer student who uses these pronouns. A better approach might be to ask the student if they meant the sentence to be singular or plural, and then respect their answer either way.

Empathy vs. Sympathy

As part of our efforts to welcome students, we need to be mindful of veering from empathy toward sympathy. Let’s imagine a student who is struggling with their writing assignment. The student says they are completely lost, they have no idea what the instructor is talking about in class, and they got an “F” on their last paper. The student is visibly upset. We want to welcome this student into our tutorial space, and we want them to feel safe and supported. So what’s the best response?

In this scenario, it might be tempting to feel sorry for the student. For the student, however, this can feel patronizing. Overt sympathy makes it seem like the student is beneath the tutor, and we’re looking down on them with pity. Nobody likes that feeling.

Instead, let’s respond with empathy. We can acknowledge what the student is going through and listen to their concerns. We don’t need to fuel the negative emotions or pile-on with our own complaints, but instead we can affirm the student’s experience. This can be as simple as saying “It sounds like you’re going through a tough time.” If you had similar struggles, you can establish rapport and build more empathy by sharing your own anecdote of a time you felt overwhelmed. But whatever you do, don’t minimize the student’s experience or act like it’s not a big deal!

We want to signal that we hear their struggle—we may not know exactly what the student  is going through, and we shouldn’t pretend to fully understand—but we can listen. Later in this book, we’ll dive into good listening and cover more ways to show empathy and create a welcoming space with active listening skills.

Quickwrite Reflection

Take a moment to reflect on the tutoring philosophy presented here:

  • Are there parts that resonate most with you?
  • Are there parts you disagree with?
  • If you work for a college or university center, does this philosophy align with the center’s mission?

Based on your experience as a tutor and reading in the field of education, what changes or additions would you make to your personal tutorial philosophy? As we said, philosophies vary–we think we’ve found a good one here– but it’s good to spend time considering how your own approach fits into the mix.


  1. Gardner, H. (2008). Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice. Basic Books. pp. 5-6. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/268745102_Multiple_intelligence_New_horizons.
  2. Ng, B. (2018). The Neuroscience of Growth Mindset and Intrinsic Motivation. Brain Sciences, 8(2), 20. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci8020020
  3. Atwood, M. (2010, Feb. 9). Ten rules for writing fiction. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one
  4. Gaiman, N. (2010, Feb. 9). Ten rules for writing fiction. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one
  5. U of SC (n.d.). Academic Integrity. University of of South Carolina. https://sc.edu/about/offices_and_divisions/provost/academicpriorities/keepteaching/academic_integrity/index.php

Additional Resources:

Coleman, K. (2016). The Difference Safe Spaces Make: The Obstacles and Rewards of Fostering Support for the LGBT Community at HBCUs. SAGE Open, 6(2). https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/epub/10.1177/2158244016647423

Di Tommaso, K. (2012). Developmental Students: The Challenge of Peer Relationships. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 36(12), 941-954, DOI: 10.1080/10668920903299304

Ribera, A., Miller, A., & Dumford, A. (2017). Sense of Peer Belonging and Institutional Acceptance in the First Year: The Role of High-Impact Practices. Journal of College Student Development, 58(4), 545-563. DOI:10.1353/csd.2017.0042

Rodriguez, S., Jordan, A., Doran, E., & Sáenz, V. (2019). Latino men & community college environments: Understanding how belonging, validation, and resources shape experience. Journal of Applied Research in the Community College, 26(1), 1-13. Retrieved October 21, 2019, from https://chemeketa.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/2269905956?accountid=136425

Strayhorn, T. (2012). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. New York, NY: Routledge. DOI:10.4324/9781315297293


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