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March 23, 2017 Tips & Resources

5 Ways to Keep Students Engaged

Starting a tutoring session for the first time can be nerve-wracking for both the student and the tutor. Neither knows exactly what to anticipate, but both go in with a set of expectations, concerns or even fears.

This might lead the student and the adult to experience the release of cortisol, or stress hormone. Research shows that heightened levels of cortisol may actually inhibit the brain’s ability to remember information, making it physically difficult to learn.

That’s why it’s key to immediately start creating a positive relationship built on trust and mutual respect, said Ryan McCarthy, Executive Director of CALEAD. Earlier this month, Ryan worked with our Program Director Camille Stone to train San Francisco Education Fund volunteers on how to engage their students.

“I believe it’s on us as educators to create that [positive] socio-emotional space,” Ryan said.

Find out how to capture students’ interest during your tutoring sessions and keep them engaged:

1. Start with an icebreaker.

Tutors are there to help students learn something new, and that usually means going over challenging content. Put the student at ease first by playing a game or asking them about their day.

Icebreaker activities provide a fun way for students and tutors to get to know one another. Here are a few examples:

  • Two truths and a lie
  • Draw a picture of how your day is going or your favorite hobby
  • Ask the student for a fun fact, and offer a fun fact about yourself

A host of activities are available here.

2. Create agreements.

Build a foundation with students by creating a few pacts – basic dos and don’ts for how each session should go.  

“Agreements are different from rules because they’re co-created, so you can get buy-in from the students and, also importantly, you’re empowering the students,” Ryan said. “Because we don’t want a generation of followers, you want a generation of leaders.”

Start by asking students what they might need and how you can support them. That could begin like this: “Hey, I’m Mr. Ryan. Here are some things I want to do, but before we start I wanted to set some agreements for how we should treat each other. Are there any agreements we should make?”

If a student has never been asked a question like this before, they might respond by requesting something that sounds silly, like having pizza during every session.

“But that is still a really rich conversation, because you can say, ‘Well, pizza is really expensive. I don’t have $200 bucks to spend on pizza every day, so I don’t think that’s going to work,’” Ryan said. However, you can let the pupil know that if they’re hungry, you can bring a snack to your sessions. This way, you show you are listening and offering to meet their needs.

Or, a student might not have an answer. In that case, model a few examples of agreements you might make. Be specific. For example, rather than saying “Let’s be respectful,” you could say, “I think it’s important not to interrupt someone while they’re speaking. Do you agree we should wait until we’re finished with what we’re saying before chiming in?”

Another example might be, “When you get stuck, can you agree to tell me? My part of the agreement can be that I will always be here to try and help you if you get stuck.”

By demonstrating that you want to work with the student, rather than stating they need to follow a set of rules or face a set of consequences, you help students feel safe and supported. You also make them an equal player in their own learning.

3.  Don’t give answers, but encourage questions. 

When students are struggling, it’s tempting to alleviate their frustration by offering the answer to a problem. However, it’s not only the job of tutors to help students answer the question at hand, but to encourage them to discover the tools they have to answer any question for themselves.

“You’re guiding the student through the process of inquiry,” Ryan said. Inquiry-based learning, in which students are encouraged to ask questions to get to an answer, rather than memorize a set of facts, can pique their curiosity and spark engagement.

“Students learn more when we give them the opportunity to puzzle, reason and make mistakes,” Camille said. “When babies are learning to walk, we let them explore and fall and get up again. We can apply that same sort of supportive guidance to academic content – give students time to think, ask questions and foster a love of learning.”

4. Give students a voice.

Empower students to take a more active role in tutoring sessions by providing them opportunities to make choices. For example, if you’re a reading tutor, give a few options of books at their reading level and ask them to select which one to read. Or, if you’re working on math, ask students which problem or concept they’d like to tackle first.

“Students need to have a sense of their own agency in learning,” Camille said. “As tutors we are a support to them and can build a partnership by fostering their voice in the process. Students generally have very little control in their own lives, so giving them thoughtful control can garner high levels of engagement.”

5. Practice conflict resolution. 

Providing positive reinforcement and asking questions about how the student is feeling rather than outlining strict rules and consequences can make for more supportive tutoring relationships, Ryan emphasized. If students act out or become upset, Ryan suggests a step-by-step approach:

  1. Look – See what you can observe directly, and do not assume you know or understand the experience of the youth.
  2. Feel – Let the student know how you felt when the conflict occurred, e.g. “When you said this or did this it made me feel sad.” Calmly ask the student to discuss how they are feeling.
  3. Offer – Again, listen to what the student may need. What is it they are struggling with? How can you offer to meet their needs? For example, you could say, “Do you think we could go over this math problem and then take a 5-minute break and play a game?”
  4. Ask – Make requests, not demands. “Can we avoid interrupting each other?”

Avoiding assumptions is critical. Don’t assume children are giving you hard time on purpose or that they don’t want to learn what you’re teaching them.

“It’s really important that we remember we’re trying to help other people get their needs met too, and that’s going to create the most conducive environment to make a request,” Ryan said. “Never assume that you know why someone is doing something, and never assume that you know what someone is thinking or feeling. We find that happens especially when there is a cultural gap.”


In short, putting the student in the driver’s seat of their learning can encourage their interest in the content you’re covering and inspire their natural curiosity. This process starts with building positive relationships, listening to the student’s needs and generally creating a safe and supportive environment for students to learn.

Have you learned any other tips for engaging students? Let us know in the comments.

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