This is How You Become an Awesome Student

tutoringI’ve been a full time student for about fifteen years now–elementary, middle, high school, college. It wasn’t until I began teaching, though, that I really understood how to be a good student. My best students haven’t necessarily been the ones who scored highest, knew the most, or learned most quickly; they were the ones who studied, practiced, and listened in ways that maximized our communication and made the most of our tutoring hours together. A few of their best habits:

  • Admitting spacing out. We all zone out from time to time–not necessarily because we want to, because we’re tired, or because classes aren’t interesting. Sometimes there’s a distracting noise nearby. Sometimes we’re having trouble understanding part of the lesson. Sometimes we’re just preoccupied with non-academic things. One of my students had just accepted a prom invitation about twenty minutes before we were scheduled to work–through no fault of hers, for about the first twenty minutes of our class she had a lot of trouble focusing on misplaced modifiers. As a teacher and a student, I fully recognize that sometimes, classwork is hard to focus on. As a tutor, I have ways to help students work through it: we can take breaks, slow down, approach material in a new way, or temporarily switch over to more interesting classwork. However, I can only help if I’m aware there’s a problem. I promise I won’t be offended if you politely mention that you’re having trouble focusing. You’ll be saving both of us a lot of time and repetition.
  • Avoiding spacing out. It’s great if you let me know when you space out, but it’s even better if you avoid spacing out in the first place. Before class starts, make sure you’re in a quiet, non-distracting environment. Use the restroom or grab snacks/water before we start, to avoid interrupting the lesson later. If we’re working through an online classroom, do your best to find a place with strong wifi. Get a good night’s sleep, and eat reasonably healthily (meaning: don’t scarf five donuts thirty minutes before the lesson. Food comas are real.) Try to schedule our practice hours on a day and time you know you won’t be exhausted or distracted–for instance, don’t schedule a class at 7am, or right before your tennis championship game. These may all seem like minor details, but they can have a huge effect on the quality of our limited tutoring time. I can usually help you pay attention if you’re distracted, but my job will be next to impossible if you’re trying to learn while your parents are throwing a loud dinner party, or while you’re running off of two hours of sleep.
  • Immediately before class, quickly review material we’ve gone over in previous lessons. Don’t redo every one of our past practice questions or try to memorize our old outlines–you don’t want to tire yourself out before we’ve even started–but double-check that you remember what happened in our most recent lesson, and that you understand all the major concepts we’ve discussed before. That way, we can start our lesson by jumping right in to the core of that day’s material, instead of spending time repeating things we’ve already gone over.
  • Tell me when I’m not making sense, or when you don’t agree with a strategy/approach. I’d much rather explain something several times, or in several different ways, than move through a lesson thinking you understand concepts that you actually don’t. My goal isn’t to cover all of our planned material, or even to finish the lesson on time, but to improve your understanding of the ideas we’re covering. Don’t be afraid to speak up, and don’t think that doing so constitutes blaming me for not teaching well enough, or admitting that you’re not smart enough to “get it”. Tutoring is a dynamic and interactive communication process, and it’s perfectly fine (even expected) that it might take a few tries to figure out what strategies of communication and explanation work best for us. By speaking up about things you don’t understand or don’t agree with, you’re helping that process happen more efficiently.
  • Understand the type of relationship you and your tutor want to build. Different students and tutors work best in different ways. I, for instance, am usually only a few years older than my students, so I’m most comfortable working in a fairly informal and friendly setting, and I find it a bit strange when students call me “Ms. Tran”. In order to improve communication and rapport, I like to get to know the students I’m working with; as long as we stay on task and use our time efficiently, I’m more than happy to crack a joke or to take thirty seconds to chat about the adorable puppy who jumped on your lap during our math review. Other tutors and students prefer a more formal environment, or get frustrated when they’re not running through material quickly. Instead of coming into a lesson with a firmly set idea of what the tutoring setting should feel like, try adapting the way you learn best, and to the way your tutor teaches best. If you just don’t get along with your tutor to the point that you’re not learning as well as you could be, consider finding another. Remember that the goal of individual tutoring is to facilitate your understanding of the material, and be aware that the way you interact with your tutor can plays an important role in achieving that.

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Courtney Tran is a student at UC Berkeley, studying Political Economy and Rhetoric. In high school, she was named a National Merit Finalist and National AP Scholar, and she represented her district two years in a row in Public Forum Debate at the National Forensics League National Tournament.