Tutoring Difficult Students

It's a beautiful spring day. The temperature is about 78 degrees and you're stuck sitting in your 1:10 Sociology class. The lacrosse team is warming up on Shellenberger for the biggest game of the season. You hear the music playing while it drowns out your professor. In just ten minutes you can be there, watching that game. Oh wait! You just remembered something! Your Writing Center Appointment is at 3:00!!! You don't want to be rude and cancel, so you go anyway.

You get there and the tutor is really nice. You feel so bad about not paying attention, but the lacrosse team is now warming up to your favorite song! Your eyes are wandering,your feet are tapping and your attention span is decreasing by the second. What do you do now?

We've all had a student like this come in for help one time or another. Here are some suggestions for how we as tutors can grab the student's attention and get him or her interested in being at the appointment. There are four types of stereotypical "difficult students." These four types are known as The disengaged, The unfocused, The blamer and The "yes but"-er. The disengaged student often looks around the room and has no eye contact with the tutor. The unfocused student often bounces around from topic to topic. The blamer, well, he or she is just that. Nothing is the student's fault. He or she never does anything wrong. "It was not my fault that you were not in your office when I called at the last minute." (We all know someone like this, don't we?) And last but not least, the "yes but"-er: this student is often the most helpless.

Advice for tutors: Tutors can regain the student's focus during the tutorial if they assume that they have a "difficult student."

  • Be clear about your role-Tell the student exactly what you can and cannot do for him or her.
  • Ask, "What do you want me to do?"-If you ask, the student will tell.
  • Focus on behavior, not attitude-Many times we look at attitude over behavior. Some students may appear to have the worst attitude when in fact they could have a learning disability. We should never criticize until we know the facts. We can change behavior!
  • Give a lot of positive feedback-No one likes criticism. Positive feedback will keep the student interested in what you are saying. Just put yourself in the position of the tutee.
  • Be a broken record-Keep repeating yourself until you know the student has heard and understands you. Sooner or later the student will hear you.
  • Remember that it's not your fault-You are not the one who waited until the day before your paper was due to make an appointment.
  • Non-hostile statements are the best-"I'm sorry that you feel that way."
  • Clarify the problem. Ask the student, "How can I help you?"- If you let the student know you are there to help, most times the student will start to open up and pay closer attention to you and your ideas.
  • If all else fails, put together performance contracts as a last resort. Involve the Director of the Writing Center, the student's professor, or even Heidi Koring in Academic Advising.

While the students are in control of their own actions, we as tutors can try to regain their interest in their appointment. Don't give up. Sometimes it won't be easy. If we keep a positive attitude, it will filter out to the student!

"The bottom line is that I am responsible for my own well-being, my own happiness. The choices and decisions I make regarding my life directly influence the quality of my days."
Kathleen Anderson


Created by Ellen E. Starling, in consultation with Heidi Koring, Director, Academic Advising and Learning, Lynchburg College.