How to Make the Most Out of Tutoring During University

Zachary Bower
Nobody ever said university was easy. Sometimes students who never had any trouble before find themselves struggling to avoid failing. Others may do fine in the early years but run into trouble as coursework becomes more difficult. Maybe you have trouble in one particular class, or maybe you just want to get ahead before the first semester starts.

There are many reasons to consider tutoring, but once the decision is made, what can you do to make the most out of your experience? While it is ultimately the tutor’s job to help, keeping the following points in mind will allow you to make more efficient use of your time.

1. Do not be afraid to ask for help

Students can often feel self-conscious about seeking out tutoring. There may be a sense that they should be able to do the work themselves, and that having to seek out a tutor is an embarrassing admission of failure. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the students who are doing the best are most likely already taking advantage of tutoring. 

Remember that you are there to learn challenging material, so sometimes just listening to the lecture will not be enough. With so much information to remember in such a short amount of time, is it really that surprising if some things get lost? Unfortunately, later lessons often depend on earlier material, so small gaps in knowledge can widen into chasms as the course marches on.

On the other hand, you do not necessarily need to wait until you have a problem with a class in order to seek out tutoring. You may consider using tutoring proactively, to stay ahead of the material before you are even graded on it. How much extra work you want to do out of class is a question you have to ask yourself. Only you can know how much time you have available for tutoring.

2. Identify your goals

It helps to know what you want to accomplish going in. If there are just one or two things you are confused about, that is going to require an entirely different approach than if you feel completely lost. The first question the tutor will ask is what you need help with, so that is the first question you should ask yourself. Are you looking for regular tutoring sessions, or is this just a one-time thing? Is there a specific type of assignment you have trouble with, like essays or research projects? 

Answering these questions will help give you a greater understanding of your goals, which you can use when working with the tutor to develop your plan. For instance, if you expect to require regular sessions, you should let the tutor know how regularly you would like to meet and if that can be arranged. Alternately, if a lack of availability in your schedule is your problem, you can ask your tutors if they can make accommodations, such as answering questions over E-mail.

Making these decisions ahead of time allows you to get the help you need faster, spending less time with the tutor trying to pinpoint where you need help and get on the same page. It can also help you determine the type of tutoring you need.

3. Find the right tutor

Depending on the university, professors may host certain “office hours” where you can come in to receive assistance. This is especially common in the United States, where nearly every university requires its professors to hold office hours. Where available, these are an excellent resource because they are provided for free by the university, and you can receive help directly from the professors themselves, who naturally have the best understanding of their own lesson material. This makes it much less likely for the tutor to misunderstand your professors’ intentions in asking their questions, since the tutor and instructor are the same person in this case.

However, for various reasons, you might find that office hours are not ideal for your situation. Office hours may be limited at your university, and even made worse by scheduling conflicts. They can sometimes be overcrowded, so you cannot get as much one-on-one help. You may even have trouble understanding your professors’ explanations in the first place and need a fresh perspective. If so, you may not even have to pay for the convenience; Sometimes, libraries or clubs will offer volunteer tutoring, which you can discover if you ask around.

If all else fails, though, you can turn to for-profit tutoring. There may be a local group that caters specifically to the university’s students, or you can even find tutoring online. Of course, as with any product, the adage “Buyer Beware” is in effect. You want to make sure the service is not putting profits ahead of education. In addition to the usual metrics, such as satisfaction ratings and reviews, you can ask what qualifications tutors have. Do not be afraid to “shop around” and compare your options. 

Whichever option you choose, the remaining points should serve you well.

4. Come with specific questions

Questions like “can you help me with poetry?” and “How does evolution work?” are very broad. Consider instead identifying how much you understand on your own and identifying the specific areas in which you lack understanding. More specific questions might be “how do I tell what the speaker of the poem is talking about?” or “what causes species to change, is it mutation, natural selection, or something else?” 

Questions like those give the tutor much more specific information on what you are having trouble understanding. The tutor can then respond accordingly, narrowing in on those subjects. As such, it helps to have a list of questions prepared before you even walk into the tutoring session. You can then go over these during the course of the session, giving it more structure and limiting the time you spend trying to figure out what to go over. 

5. Come with work to do

An alternate approach is to simply come into the session, work on an assignment, and ask questions as they come to you. For example, if you need to write an essay, you may choose to write the paper with a tutor present. In this case, the job of the tutor is more to be available when you need to ask a clarifying question. This is especially useful if there is something about the physical work that you find difficult, such as if you are easily distracted or if you find the instructions confusing. Tutors can help you stay on task or answer something you do not know how to do for as long as they are present.

6. Ask for a review

If your problem is not so much with getting the work done itself, but rather getting the most points that the assignment allows, you might consider finishing the project yourself and then asking for a review. The tutors may not do some things because they can be considered cheating, but they can help with most things without violating academic integrity. This works especially well for essays. Tutors can fix and explain grammatical or spelling mistakes, comment on where your claims do not make sense or lack proper citations, and help you fix these problems. 

For extra assurance, you can ask your reviewer to look for specific concerns you have, such as your transitions, if your writing is appropriately professional, if it adequately explains the issue to someone who is unfamiliar, and more. It may be helpful to focus on specific areas requested by the assignment’s instructions themselves. Many assignments will come with a set of instructions, often called a rubric, that specifies exactly how the instructor is grading the material. It is very common for rubrics to be divided into categories or criteria, with each category describing what the instructor is looking for when assigning a grade. This will ensure that you maximize your points by drawing your reviewer’s attention to the areas of greatest concern.

7. Get help with research

Tutors will not do research for you directly, because that would be an academic integrity violation, but they can help point you in the right direction. A tutor may be able to provide you with research resources that you do not know about or suggest key words that can improve the efficiency of your searches. They may also have experience conducting academic searches and can make suggestions to help you speed up the process. It never hurts to ask if there is anything they can think to look for that you have not. With some help guiding you through a few searches, you can be much more confident that you know what to do in the future. 

8. Take and review notes

A common mistake is to assume that, once a question is answered, it never needs asked again. It is strongly recommended to take notes that you can review later. After all, repeating information is the key to memorizing it, and if you are asking about something in a tutoring session, then it is likely information you are trying to reinforce. Reviewing what you covered between sessions adds this extra reinforcement. It can also lead you to spot other things you do not understand and further questions you can ask at the next session. Just a few minutes’ worth of work outside of tutoring sessions can greatly enhance how useful they are to you.

9. Above all, check what you have learned

With so much concern about assignments, points, and test questions, it can be easy to forget that the main purpose of the class is to teach. Therefore, the main purpose of tutoring is to help make sure you learned the material. Memorizing information is important, but you also want to ask yourself if you understand how to answer the questions, why certain answers are correct, and what that means in relation to other material. 

One way that tutors can help with this is if you request that they quiz you on certain “concept questions.” For instance, it is relatively easy to remember that “the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell,” but being asked how the mitochondria powers the cell is a much better test of whether or not you truly understand the information. These questions will often be harder than what is on the test, but answering them will not only make sure you are prepared for anything that exams might throw at you, it also makes it much more likely that you truly understand the material beyond just what the test is asking for.

graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 2016 and works as a freelance writer and E-tutor, mainly for biology, psychology, chemistry, English, and American history. He's currently tutoring on Varsity Tutors.

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