Bridging Cultural Gaps

One aspect of tutoring that can either be a great tool or a major hindrance is Bridging Cultural Gaps, a common problem that many tutors and students encounter during tutoring sessions. Correcting this problem is important because it allows the tutor and student to learn from each other while accomplishing the task of the tutorial. "Avoiding Obstacles" and "Building Bridges," are two ways that a tutor can close cultural gaps. The following suggestions are based on the videorecording: University of California at Los Angeles. The Tutor's Guide, Part 3, "Bridging Cultural Gaps." Lincoln: Great Plains National, 1986.

The Problem: Avoiding Obstacles

Student Dependence:  This obstacle occurs when the student is very insecure about his/her abilities and relies on the tutor for everything.  Dependence is a very common problem among international students who are studying in a country with a different language, but it is a Normal and Temporary problem.  However, this problem can be very frustrating and discouraging for the student.  The following is an example of how to reduce Student Dependence.

  • Stephen is a student from Sierra Leone and has been receiving help with his writing from a tutor named Shelly.  Stephen has been working with Shelly for several weeks when Shelly realizes that Stephen is still requiring the same amount of her assistance.   She knows that in order for Stephen to improve and become self-dependent she must begin a new stategy.  She decides that over the next five tutorials she will begin requiring Stephen to do more work outside of their sessions.  By doing this, she forces Stephen to use the skills that she has taught him.  This enables Stephen to overcome his fear of failing and he thus become less dependent on her assistance.  As a result of her strategy, Stephen is now writing papers on his own and only needs assistance about once a month.

    Tutor Bias:  This obstacle occurs because some tutors may not be aware of the customs and practices of other cultures.  By not being aware, they might say say or do something that offends the student which can hurt the success of the tutorial.   This problem is not as easily corrected as the first problem because it deals specifically with the tutor's actions which he/she may not realize.  As a tutor, you must be unbiased at all times because something that you might say, imply, or do can become a major obstacle in the tutoring process.  The only way that this problem can be fixed is if the tutor realizes his/her inappropriate actions and changes his/her ways.   The reader will be able to see an example of Tutor Bias in the following example.

  • During a tutoring session between an American Indian student, Fred, and a tutor, Austin, regarding a Sociology paper on the development of North America, Fred becomes very withdrawn and quiet after a comment made by Austin.  Austin said, "The Europeans just wanted to help the savage natives."  Austin does not realize or know why this particular comment is very upsetting to Fred.  In this particular statement, Austin has used the phrase "savage natives."  Fred is an American Indian and to hear his ancestors referred to in this way is very upsetting.  Austin, not knowing this, classifies the tutorial as a failure and thinks nothing of it.  In reality, Austin is the one responsible for the failed tutorial and Not Fred.   Austin later learns that what he had said about the American Indians had upset Fred a great deal and Austin had no intention of doing this.  From this experience, Austin has been forced to open his eyes and see cultural differences.  Austin now knows that he will be more aware of what he says.  A simple solution to this problem would be to use the phrase indigenous peoples instead of savage natives.  The latter carries a negative connotation along with it.

    Imposition of Your Values:  This problem occurs when a tutor, instead of allowing the student to think for him/herself, imposing his/her opinion on the work of the student. This creates problems and causes the student to lose confidence in his/her work.   If this occurs, the objective of the tutorial is not being met.  The tutor must force him/herself to reserve opinion related comments about the work of their particular student. This does not mean that the tutor has to agree with the student; however, the tutor must learn to respect these differences of opinion and accomplish the job at hand, which is improving the writing skills of the student. The following example demonstrates how the opposing ideas of a tutor can be detrimental to the tutorial process.

  • Chris is a tutor for political science and he is working with Baldwin who is receiving help on her political science paper. She is dealing with the constitutionality of abortion and its effects on a society.  She has written a good paper and is hoping to receive help with the stucture of the paper.  However, Chris, who disagrees with Baldwin's argument, feels that in order to improve this paper, Baldwin must change her thesis and start all over.  Baldwin becomes very upset with the views of Chris and leaves the tutorial before her hour is up.  She has not received the help she needed and she also tells all of her friends what a terrible place the writing center is.  Because Chris did not help Baldwin with the problem of structure in her paper, the tutorial process failed.  It is important that tutors do not impose their own personal values upon the students whom they help because of the terrible consequences for the tutorial process.

The Solution:  Building Bridges

Appreciate the Student's Values:   The tutor must learn to respect the values of his/her students although the tutor might not always agree with the student's values. The tutor must concentrate on the problems within the paper and not focus on the opinion of the paper. This appreciation by the tutor will enable a successful tutorial to occur.

Promote Tolerance:  As the tutor, you must promote the acceptance of opinions in an academic setting.  This cannot happen if the tutor refuses to respect the opinion of his/her student,  Here the tutor's actions, in themselves, do not promote tolerance.  The tutor does not have to agree with the student's opinion; however, the tutor must convey to the student the validity of All opinions in an academic setting.  By doing this, the tutor will be able to assist the student with the problems of his/her paper and thus promote tolerance within the academic setting.

Foster Independence: The tutor must learn ways to reduce student dependency upon the tutor and instead, foster the independence of the student. The reader can see from the first example above one way in which a tutor can foster independence through forcing the student to do more work on his/her own. However, the tutor must be prepared to try other methods to solve the problem of student dependency if the first method fails. These methods include gaining the trust of the student; engaging the student in activities that will promote positive reinforcement; and continually reassuring the student.  Importantly, reassurance alone is not enough, but when it is combined with these other methods, it can help foster the independence of the student.  Above all, the tutor must be patient and understand the complexity of the situation in order to help the student succeed.

Tutor Bilingually (if capable):   This method occurs when the tutor can speak two languages, thus relieving the anxiety of the student through communicatation in his/her first language.  Through bilingual tutoring, the tutor and student are still able to achieve the goal of the tutorial. Bilingualism is not required of a good tutor; however, if a tutor has this skill it can be used very effectively in the tutorial process.

Act as a Role Model:  The tutor should be a role model, a source of inspiration and accomplishment, for a student who is struggling in a particular area.  The tutor can inspire by motivating a student to reach a particular goal.  Likewise, the tutor can show the student that success is possible and that the student, through hard work, can also achieve his/her goals. The tutor can make a positive difference in the student's life.

The tutor should understand that the student is also a human being with feelings. If these feelings become hurt or offended, the success of the tutorial is in jeopardy. Do not see students as stereotypes but accept them for who they are.

Created by Andrew Miller