by Amy Sexton, Writing Center Tutor, Kaplan University Writing Center
Tutoring and learning can be frustrating. Tutoring and learning online often is even more frustrating. Tutors and learners in an online environment usually do not have the benefit of non-verbal cues like facial expressions and body language. Technology, as wonderful as it is, often acts up at the worst time, leaving the tutor and student focused on troubleshooting a connectivity issue or browser problem while the original intent of the tutorial session or paper review falls to the wayside. Perhaps, most importantly, tutoring often occurs when students need additional support outside of the classroom. Sometimes busy students will attempt the class work on their own, seeking tutoring only after they have exhausted all other means, and, often for good reason, are frustrated and stressed. How can tutors best help students when they are feeling overwhelmed, stressed out, and crunched for time?
While there are perhaps hundreds of different ways to answer this question, remembering two key points has helped me throughout my career in academic support. The points are actually based on the mantras within The Four Agreements: A Toltec Wisdom Book by Don Miguel Ruiz (1997), but I have found them to have especially practical implications in online tutoring and academic support. They are easy to implement, and practiced regularly, even make the work more enjoyable, while also helping to create positive learning outcomes for students. These mantras are “Don’t take anything personally.” (Ruiz, 1997, p. 47) and “Don’t make assumptions.” (Ruiz, 1997, p. 68).
As previously mentioned, students often seek tutoring services when they need help the most. and, sometimes, at the very last minute. Tutors should strive to not take students’ frustrations about the learning or writing process or lack of good timing personally, but instead to empathize with them and help them see how frustration can actually become a very productive part of learning and that proper planning can prevent future stress. Miscommunication and misconceptions often occur in the online learning environment, and sometimes issues arise as a result. Tutors who expect to encounter such issues and decide to not personalize them will find it much easier to help students work through them.
The other mantra is to not make assumptions. Assumptions can be made very easily in tutoring and learning, especially online. Tutors may assume that the student who is not responding or actively participating in a live tutorial session is unresponsive, but what if he or she simply does not know how to respond? Tutors may assume that the graduate student should be able to use formatting and citation guidelines, but what if the student has been outside of academia for decades? In either case, the tutors’ assumptions would have been untrue, and, worst, would have negatively influenced their expectations of their students.
By not taking anything personally, tutors may find that they enjoy their work more. They do not internalize negativity and are better able to think positively about challenging situations. By avoiding assumptions, they may find that they are better equipped to meet students where they are and offer them the best possible tutorial services. All of these are excellent outcomes for learners and tutors alike!
Ruiz, D.M. (1997). The four agreements: A Toltec wisdom book. San Rafael, CA: Amber-Allen.