However, students are often referred to us directly by their parents or by a community organisation without education specialists. Therefore, we engage many students about which we know comparatively little – sometimes just their year group!
In these cases, newer tutors can understandably find the idea of a first lesson daunting. How do I know what to teach them if I don’t know what they need? How can I plan a lesson for a student I know nothing about?
Here is the advice we’d give to new tutors for a one-hour first session.
Focus on your main objective (15 minutes)
The purpose of first lesson is not necessarily to make progress right away. Your objective is to get to know your student and figure out what help they need. What can you do to work out your students likes, dislikes and attitude to learning?
Try moving away from your subject for the first 15 minutes. Talk to your student about their life – what sports they play, what TV shows they watch, what their favourite food is! Find the thing that gets them chatty and note it down – understanding their passions will be a great asset for you going forward!
Find out what subjects they like at school. Often, I’ll get students to place some of their favourite and least favourite subjects on a scale of “best” to “worst.” It’s great to know where your subject sits and ask them about why they do/don’t like it as much as the others.
Let your student tell you about their strengths and weaknesses (10 minutes)
After getting to know my student for 15 minutes, I might get them to tell me about the subject at hand. For me, that’s usually maths. I’ll ask what they’ve been doing recently, whether they find it hard, easy, or somewhere in the middle. I’ll ask if there’s anything they can remember “not getting” in the last few weeks.
Be mindful that the student won’t always have a completely accurate picture of their own ability. But select a few things they’ve said they want help with and build learning those skills into the next few lessons. This empowers the student and introduces them to the idea that you can help overcome any barrier!
Tell the student “I can help with that, no problem!” and make sure you follow up. If there’s time, do a quick explainer there and then for a quick win. This is the place where all of your subject problems can be solved.
Never forget to warm up! (5 minutes)
Once you’ve chatted with your student, you’ll have a good idea how they feel about your subject and what makes them tick. Now it’s time to move on to some introductory subject work. But! Before you go any further, make sure to do a quick warm up.
For maths, this might be some mental arithmetic, using basic functions. It should be a bit challenging but well within the student’s capability. For English, this could be playing some word games, thinking of synonyms or antonyms, listing adjectives relating to a picture, etc.
Importantly, these exercises require frequent, rapid-fire verbal responses from the student and praise from the tutor. The aim is to build confidence and get the student used to answering subject-specific questions with you.
Use a ‘ramped’ resource (20 minutes)
In the second half of the session, you’ll be ready to start doing some work together. Introduce a resource that starts easily and gets harder. An age-appropriate exam paper would be my go to (as this ‘ramping’ of difficulty is built in) but many other resources would do. You simply want to get them started talking through some different types of tasks and see where they get stuck.
For an unknown student, I will always have 2 or 3 generic subject papers of different difficulties on hand to produce at this stage of the session. Based on what I’ve learned about the student from the first 20-25 minutes (confidence level, articulacy, self-perceived strengths and weaknesses) I will pull out the one I think will do the job.
Ideally, you will help them to overcome a few small hurdles before the end of the first lesson. You want to give them that “it’s working!” buzz as they settle into the teaching and learning.
Recap and make notes (10 minutes)
Leave time at the end of the session to talk over what you’ve done. Maybe do a few ‘recap’ questions on a skill they’ve learned that session. Talk through what they’ve said they want help with, what you’ll do next week and what objectives you have for working together.
As soon as the session ends, make sure you’ve made thorough notes about all of this. You should have a clear picture of what you covered, how they did and what they’ll need in the next 2 sessions. Write a quick plan for next time which you will understand when you come back to prep it properly.
Overall, I don’t think it’s necessary for a tutor to know everything about a student before their first session. More information is always useful, but take time to form your own professional judgements and meet the student on an open and honest basis.
In some cases it’s great to have details. Such as English tutors needing to know which texts the student is familiar with. But it shouldn’t be too stressful as a tutor if that information isn’t available before a first session.
You want your student to leave the first session with the feeling that they...
- Like their tutor
- Enjoyed the session
- Trust that their tutor is knowledgeable enough to help them get better
You don’t need a lesson plan fine-tuned to your student’s specific strengths and weaknesses to achieve these outcomes. You need to understand that your role as a tutor is to put the learner at the centre of your work. And you need to take a genuine interest in their passions and their life. Happy tutoring!
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