The Tutor as Counselor

Problem: Can tutors respond adequately to the needs of the students without becoming psychoanalysts?

Solution: Five Steps to imparting your knowledge effectively to the students without becoming emotionally or personally entangled.

Have you ever experienced students becoming angry, frustrated, defensive, unfocused, or unwilling? Every student the tutor encounters possesses his or her own special abilities, emotions, and problems. These qualities often result in problematic issues that become obstacles to academic success.

A tutor, in essence, is one who encourages academic development. A tutor acts as a teacher, one who instructs or supervises additional learning. Your job is to impart knowledge to the student, not to act as a psychologist. As a tutor, you are free to act as a friend, confidante, or mentor, yet these roles often inhibit the transfer of knowledge to the student and retention of that information by the student. There are five steps that offer the tutor the freedom to be a mentor, while effectively completing their job as an instructor.

Step 1: Listening and Observation

The tutor should approach each new situation with the knowledge that students are not one-dimensional. They do not appear, receive your guidance, and return to the next session for more of your blessings. Students think, feel, eat, sleep; they are human. Be aware of what your student is telling you verbally and non-verbally. Listen carefully to your student's statements and tone, and observe his or her behavior. Awareness is the key to solving learning obstacles effectively.

Scene: Joe, a student, enters the classroom for a tutorial. He is evasive and fidgety.

Tutor: "Hello Joe! What are you working on today?"

Joe: "I have to write a stupid paper for my dumb English teacher."

Tutor: "What is the paper topic?"

Joe: "He wants us to write a critical something or other of two poems. I have never written a critical paper. I am not good at English. I can't do it at all."

Tutor: "Don't worry. We'll take it one step at a time!"

Joe: "It's a really bad paper. I just am stupid at English."

*This scene has not been exaggerated; it is a true situation encountered in a tutorial.


  1. Which words indicate Joe's feelings, beliefs, attitudes, or concerns?
  2. Of what might the tutor need to be aware?

Step 2: Empathy

Often students experience frustration and anger as they encounter the difficulties the material presents; this frustration coupled with personal dilemmas can create a variety of learning obstacles for the student. Similarly, tutors have experienced frustration, anxiety, and anger in their personal and professional lives because, despite their brilliance, they are human also. Yet, most tutors do not present their human side during a tutorial, which leaves the student feeling inept, insecure, and fearful of the tutor as a god. Sharing personal experiences and difficulties can dissolve this image, while promoting student confidence, involvement, and trust.

Scene: Brian, a freshman Biology student, is having difficulty writing his lab reports; his teacher is strict scientifically and grammatically. Brian's frustration is manifested in a negative attitude, a lack of eye contact, and a short attention span.


  1. What verbal and non-verbal signs are being communicated by the student?
  2. How might the tutor respond in this situation? What could the tutor do to build Brian's confidence and engage him in the learning process?

*Practice the above scene with a partner. Have one person play the role of Brian (be sure to act the part, but react to the tutor) and another enact the role of the tutor. What difficulties do you find?

Step 3: Body Language

Body language is often a key component indicating confusion, frustration, disagreement, or insecurity. Tutors are responsible for observing and interpreting the students' body language. Fidgeting, twirling hair, tapping fingers, staring into space, and biting fingernails are a few signs that indicate learning disturbances in students. Tutors must also control their own body language; a tutor's body language can distract students, while making them feel insignificant, inept, and boring. A tutor should refrain from using negative non-verbal communication such as bouncing legs, rolling eyes, and smacking gum.

Scene: One student shall enact the role of the student; another shall play the part of the tutor. Observe the body language of both actors.

Tutor: (rolling eyes) "Okay Julie, let's get started. (sighs) What do you have to do today?"

Julie: (avoiding eye contact) "Um, I have, um, to do, um, a paper, um, for my professor, um, on, um, infant mortality, um, rates."

Tutor: (sighing) "Have you written your thesis statement? (grimacing) Do you need to start there, or do you have a rough draft?"

Julie: (biting nails) "Well, um, no I have made an outline, um, but it is stupid."


  1. What do the body language and verbal cues of the student reveal?
  2. Does the body language of the tutor match his/her words? Explain.
  3. What movements should the tutor change? Why?

    *Be aware how powerful an impact body language can have on other people.

Observe your own body language in tutorials. What do you need to change?

Step 4: Confrontation

How many times have you, as a tutor, faced students who were unprepared for a tutorial? Have you ever assigned students extra exercises which were ignored or uncompleted? Often, students will not complete or attempt material that is difficult because they are experiencing personal problems. Despite their dilemmas, "the dog ate my homework" is not an acceptable excuse. There are two types of confrontation in which a tutor might positively enforce assignments or deadlines that promote learning: subtle and tense confrontation. Subtle confrontation uses gentle chiding and encouragement to engage the student in the learning process. Tense confrontation utilizes a stricter and more direct approach. The tutor must remember that the student is never to be accused of dishonesty; the confrontation focuses on the irresponsibility of the student. This method of confrontation forces the student to recognize and take control of his/her discipline.

Scene A: Jaime is a fairly good student, but his assignments do not reflect his potential ability. Often, the assignments are incomplete and sloppy. He does show up regularly for tutoring appointments and appears enthusiastic; Jamie is very non-confrontational and very agreeable. He avoids eye contact and always appears to be in a hurry. Despite his professed agreement, his work does not demonstrate his positive attitude.


  1. Which confrontational method should be applied to this situation? Why?
  2. What should the tutor observe about Jaime's verbal and non-verbal behavior?
  3. How should the tutor encourage Jaime and increase his involvement in assignments?
  4. What signs of body language appear? What do they indicate?

Scene B: Jonathan is an intelligent student, but puts little or no effort into his school work. However, Jonathan is very creative and puts a lot of work into inventing excuses to explain why he has not bothered to begin, much less complete, his assignments. His excuses range from destruction by garbage compactors to tornadoes preventing him from doing his work. As a tutor, you are not required to accept these excuses, but you cannot accuse Jonathan of dishonesty.


  1. Which confrontational method should be used? Why?
  2. What would you say to Jonathan? In other words, how would you confront him?
  3. Which of the first three steps should be utilized and why?

Step 5: Objectivity

Tutors must maintain a respectful distance between themselves and their students. They can act as friends and mentors, but tutors should not let their personal feelings influence their judgment or instruction. This often is the most difficult step to achieve. Despite the desire to remain objective, human interaction makes that virtually impossible. There will be some students that you like or dislike, but as an instructor you must attempt to put aside those feelings during the tutorial.

Scene A: Erica is an intelligent, funny, cute girl that you find very entertaining, but she has trouble completing her assignments on time. She has a joke for every situation, and you find yourself distracted by her stories and humor. She is very evasive about her comprehension and is often fidgety when directly questioned. She changes subjects faster than lightening and has succeeded in preventing you from accomplishing the goals of the tutorial.

  1. For what verbal and non-verbal behavior should the tutor look?
  2. What method would encourage Erica to focus on the tutorial?
  3. What does Erica's body language signify?
  4. What should the tutor do to remain focused and objective?

Scene B: Randy is a very boring and prejudiced student. He often makes stereotypical statements. His main problems lie in grammar and sentence structure, but Randy enjoys speaking for hours on the subjects of his research. He is very opinionated and dislikes anyone who disagrees with him. He has terrible body odor and breath. He constantly needs to be touched and reassured. Randy is a hard person to like.


  1. What do you observe about Randy's behavior?
  2. How should the tutor encourage Randy while maintaining his/her distance?
  3. What specifically should the tutor focus on during the tutorial?

These five steps are an attempt to help the tutor impart his or her knowledge to the student and instruct him or her about weaknesses without getting entangled in personal dilemmas. These steps are neither the only method nor a foolproof method. If you cannot tutor a student effectively or objectively, do not be afraid to refer the student to the necessary service. It can be another tutor, the Director of the Writing Center, Dr. Elza Tiner (544-8270,, or Director of the Learning Center, Dr. Jessica Baldwin (544-8152, Remember: your job, as a tutor, is to teach, not to counsel.

Created by Megan Johnston

Based on videorecording: University of California at Los Angeles. The Tutor's Guide, Part 2, "The Tutor as Counselor." Lincoln: Great Plains National, 1986.