What is the best way to tutor online?
The key to great tutoring online boils down to good use of student feedback, good pedagogic practice and a flexible approach that puts the student at the centre of the teaching and learning process. In other words, great online tutoring is tutoring that is student centred and focused on student needs. In the teaching game we refer to this as delivering a great student experience.
These days, even in universities, teaching is all about the student and rightly so. Gone are the days when a lecturer, no doubt adept at her or his subject, droned on for an hour in front of students sleeping in a lecture theatre or distracting themselves with their electronic gadgets. This old fashioned form of teaching, known as instructive teaching, is fast going the way of the dinosaur and could never have been applied to online tutoring in any case. The next stage in the evolution of teaching and learning was the constructivist phase, which was better suited to seminar and workshop environments that could at least take student feedback into account.
The most recent innovation, and that best suited to the online format, is co-constructive teaching where we really start to pass the baton of ownership of the whole teaching and learning process to the students themselves.
Great online tutoring, in short, is co-constructive teaching because it is student rather than tutor centred and adapts to the student’s needs. This could and should, where possible, extend to making the student an active participant in the whole teaching and learning process by helping to shape the learning outcomes of an assignment and even a course.
To some extent, for example, this will depend on the age of the student and level of the course involved but all of the advances in pedagogic research made over the last few years might make us wonder whose bright idea it was to have a “national curriculum” in the first place? Even in the 1970s, educationalists were talking about the “tyranny of the curriculum” and how it disenfranchised various students.
Let me give a practical example. I currently teach a very popular and successful course composed of ten units in creative writing. Now, some of my students want to be dramatists and some want to be novelists; some have problems with basic English (not to mention lack of self confidence), while others have degrees and professional careers in other areas and disciplines, with novels half written before they even start a course.
One size does not fit all! Once again, our teaching approach, use of materials and even learning outcomes have to be adapted to that magic phrase: student needs!
The final point involves soft skills. An engaging personality, friendly and helpful attitude, and a dynamic and motivational approach to the subject material is vital here. Exude enthusiasm and first concentrate on what a student is doing right before saying what they are doing wrong. With this advice, online tutoring should be highly effective for all students, as the next frontier in personalised learning.
Roger Cottrell, PhD, is a tutor with Threshold Education and lecturer in English Literature and film.