September 2006

Dedicated to providing information for learning assistance professionals.


Relax! Entice! Engage! Training by Example

By Yolanda Debose Columbus, Blinn College

It’s Wednesday morning and students fill the Learning Center (LC).  Midterms are coming and students are cramming.  The three tutors on duty are already swamped.  They are jumping from student to student from subject to subject.  This is life at the LC.  In this madness, it is easy for tutors to resort to giving answers instead of guiding students to the answers.  In training, we tell them about these days, but how do we prepare them? 

Tutoring in a fast-pace, on-demand center can be taxing, and the tutor may be tempted to give answers rather than guide the student to the answers.  Tutor training is crucial to successful tutoring, and behaviorists suggest that if the desired behavior is reinforced, tutors will adapt the desired behavior.  Unfortunately, in the Learning Center (LC) there is a shortage of professional staff and behaviors are not definitive.  Once training is over, professional staff depends on tutors to be self-sufficient and require minimal supervision.  Our tutors are responsible for determining their actions in each tutoring session, and we rely on tutors to inform supervisors of problems.  Tutors are required to reflect on their performance through self-evaluation based on the philosophy and skills presented during training; this should lead to changes in their tutoring.

This environment is typical of many educational institutions.  They trust that their employees have the skills and desire to combine their prior experience and the philosophy of their institution into a high quality product.  In the LC, we designed our training knowing that for the most part tutors would be left to their own devices.  We designed training based on Bandura’s (2005) Social Cognitive Theory (SCT).  SCT bases learning on social modeling and states that personal development depends on the person’s contribution to their own development (Bandura, 2005).  Bandura (2005) argues against defining a culture based on rewards and punishments of performance, which can be detrimental and time consuming.  He suggests that culture develops as a result of observation of the behaviors of others.  The foundation of learning in SCT is observation, illustration, imitation, and motivation.  In the LC, we believe that our philosophy and culture is best conveyed and developed by modeling our culture in training using the principals of SCT. 

The success of our tutoring services depends for the most part on the ability of the tutor to evaluate their own skills and those of the students.  Research suggests that self-evaluations are typically not reliable or valid (Dunning et al, 2003), because humans want to think the best of themselves.  In an effort to maintain this belief, we often gloss over or forget facts that contradict our ideal view.  According to Dunning et al (2003), students who lack the fundamental skills to perform a task are more likely to overestimate their ability.  Thus, new tutors are more likely to struggle with improving their tutoring skills because they are unaware of the problem.  Dunning et al (2003) suggests four strategies to use during training to combat this inability to self-evaluate:

  1. include real world difficulties in training,
  2. provide opportunities for students to test themselves,
  3. allow students to compare themselves to peers, and
  4. allow peers to give feedback.

Combining Dunning et al (2003) and Bandura (2005) recommendations led us to training designed according to the following principles:

  1. Probability of learning increases when ideas are illustrated or experienced, not told.
  2. Self-evaluation is critical to providing quality tutoring and learning.
  3. Concepts are ingrained when learners are actively engaged and motivated.

Using these principles, we attempted to establish the following concepts:

  1. Tutors’ ultimate goal is to help students become independent learners.
  2. Students are the center of the tutoring session.
  3. Tutors guide rather than teach.

We modeled the desired philosophies and actively engaged the participants during training.  We illustrated the principles throughout the training as steps from our seven-step tutor cycle.  The steps are adapted from MacDonald’s (2005) twelve step tutoring cycle.  Our seven steps include:

  1. Set greeting and climate
  2. Identify task
  3. State agenda and expectations
  4. Break task into parts
  5. Address the task
  6. Identify thought processes
  7. Summarize thought processes

By performing these tasks, we hoped to orient tutors to the culture of the LC.  Each tutoring session at the LC is unique.  There are no definitive rules.  Thus, it is important that tutors make decisions according to the values of the LC. 


The 26 participants in our training were tutors and professional staff employed at the learning center at a local community college.  The tutors consisted of 13 tutors.  Eight of these were students at the community college.  Five were students at a local university.  Their tutoring experience at the LC ranged from 0-3 years.  The professional staff consisted of nine degreed individuals (bachelor’s degree or higher).  Their experience in the LC ranged from 0.5 – 5 years.  Six had prior experience teaching K-12.

Training Course

The training course consisted of five topics discussed over a two-day period.  The trainers were professional staff who lectured using Power Point slides and activities.  Each trainer used a combination of generative and supplantive instructional strategies to facilitate independent learning and motivation.   The training consisted of five overlapping topics.  This was done purposely to reinforce ideas.  A detailed discussion of the session on diversity will follow.  The trainer developed the framework for the diversity session during a three-week period as a participant in the Information Technology in Science (ITS) Center at Texas A&M University.

The training began with a two-day classroom based training the week before the Fall semester began.  From the beginning, participants were encouraged to relax and interact.  Participants arrived promptly at 8:00 am to the smell of orange juice and pastries.  After mulling around the LC and getting updates on summer activities, we headed to the training classroom. 

Diversity Training

The fourth presentation was an introduction to semester long diversity training.  The training course titled ‘The Students We Serve’ began with a two-hour classroom introduction.  The rest of the course, including assignments and instruction were communicated online via WebCT.  The face-to-face introductory course concentrated on modeling the tutoring philosophy and steps of a quality tutoring session.  The online course concentrated on providing knowledge and encouraging the tutor to focus on the needs of the student.

For the online portion, participants were divided into groups.  Each group was required to discuss and answer questions about research articles.  The research articles concentrated on various challenges experienced by different groups of students enrolled in college.  For the final project, participants created a presentation that connected the information they gleaned from the articles, the demographics of our students and the services of the Learning Center.
For the face-to-face introduction, the trainer concentrated on creating the appropriate environment.  Research suggests that classroom environment has a direct affect on student outcomes (McRobbie & Fraser, 1993,).  The environment is central to tutors being able to help students and to our staff success in training tutors.  Donovan and Bradford (2005) argue that a classroom environment should be learner, knowledge, assessment, and community centered.  We applied these concepts to tutoring sessions and training: 

  • Learner centered implies considering the students knowledge and background;
  • Knowledge centered revolves around the concepts and principles the student needs to learn;
  • Assessment centered means determining levels of understanding during and after lessons; and
  • Community centered encourages and supports the students’ efforts to grow and learn.

The learner needs are vital to creating the appropriate setting and climate.  The trainer created a relaxed environment that encouraged the learners to share by smiling, joking and beginning with a fun icebreaker.  For the icebreaker, learners where asked to choose a nickname.  The nickname had to rhyme with their first name or begin with the same letter.  This created a sense of community by giving each learner a glimpse of the personality of others and encouraged the learners to participate in the training. 

After the icebreaker, the trainer stated the agenda and expectations for the training session (MacDonald, 2005).  The trainer commented on the importance of understanding and fulfilling the needs of the LC clients.  She also argued that the needs of the students could be determined by examining the demographics of students enrolled at the college.  During this section, the trainer also presented a hook to encourage the tutors to participate.  She stated that with the college’s recent focus on student retention it was possible that documenting the value of the tutoring services could result in pay raises.  Stating the agenda centered the training on concepts and principles that are essential to tutoring at the Learning Center.

Throughout the training, the trainer identified the thought process for each activity and discussion (MacDonald, 2005).  For example, after explaining the agenda, learners where asked to complete two online pre-assessments.  The trainer explained that in order to help participants fulfill the expectations of the course she needed to know more about them.  The participants completed an assessment about tutoring goals for the semester and one about responsibilities of students.  The pre-assessments gave the trainer the opportunity to find out more about the participants and adjust the training accordingly.  This centered the training on the learner.  While identifying the thought processes, the trainer connected the methods and steps in the introductory course to the tutoring session.
The trainer addressed the task during the semester by reviewing demographics of Blinn College students and reading research articles about tutoring (MacDonald, 2005).  During the training session, the participants were introduced to a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) website.  GIS allowed the participants to choose a specified area and examine underlying data such as average age, income level, education level, job status, etc.  To become more familiar with GIS, students were given the opportunity to utilize the resource with very limited instruction.  They were told to choose an area and write down five facts about the area.  This forced the students to use the resource and formulate questions when they needed more help.  After the task, the class discussed potential questions related to education within the various areas.  The trainer made sure she guided the students without giving answers. Guiding the participants is a vital component of all tutoring sessions.

Before moving on to the next lesson, the trainer summarized the content and thought processes (MacDonald, 2005).  She asked for feedback and verbally reflected on how she engaged and guided the participants.  She repeated this process of addressing the task and summarizing the content and thought processes throughout the lesson.


Tutor training was originally supposed to conclude with evaluations at the end of the semester.  LC policies and philosophy hindered the creation of the appropriate evaluation instrumentation during the semester.  During the semester, our first priority is serving our students and faculty.  Any projects not completed before the semester begin take a back seat to customer needs until the semester is ended.  One of the perks of the job is down time.  During down time, most employees enjoy socializing or completing projects not related to the LC.  The cyclical nature and people oriented nature of the job makes this a necessary perk.  Staff must have the opportunity to regroup.  They give 110%.  Adhering to this philosophy limits the time staff spends on ongoing projects. 

During the semester, we did complete an informal evaluation.  The informal evaluation consisted of polling random students and tutors.  Students had high praises for our new tutors.  This could be attributed to our training or the charming nature of our tutors.  New tutors also commented on feeling prepared to tutor.  When able, the professional staff monitored student tutors.  The professional staff reported being impressed with the patience and outside examples tutors used to explain new concepts.


The LC has a small staff of 25 – 30 employees.  Only four of these employees are full time.  We are also open 14 hours a day, 5 days a week, and 4 hours a day on the weekend.  Each day an employee may have a different schedule.  The environment on any given day on any given hour is not consistent.  The personality mix –from employees on duty, to students in the LC - changes.  This increases the significance of hiring employees who are customer service oriented and flexible.  At the LC, you must be able to tutor multiple students in multiple subjects at a moment’s notice.  The flexibility that is required adds a level of complexity for employees and must be addressed during training and hiring.  The structure that is available in classrooms versus the flexibility required in the LC may justify training based on different theory.


Professional development of educators is currently a hot topic.  Experts differ on what method of professional development is best.  Instructional designers learn that instruction should be designed based on the learners, their needs, and the context.  In the past, too little attention has been paid to context.  Applying new knowledge in an environment outside of the classroom is a challenge for students.  This is also a challenge for educators.  To support the transfer of knowledge, training should simulate the environment and actions expected as much as possible.


Bandura, A. (2005). The Evolution of Social Cognitive Theory. In K. G. Smith & H. A. Mitt (Eds.), Great Minds in Management (pp. 9-35). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Donovan, M. S., & Bransford, J. D. (Eds.).  (2005). How Students Learn: History, Mathematics and Science in the Classroom.  Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., & Kruger, J. (2003). Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence. Current Directions in Psychological Science 12(3), 83 -87.

Gagné, E. D., Yekovich, C. W., & Yekovich, F. R. (1993). The cognitive
psychology of school learning (Second edition). New York: Harper Collins
College Publishers.

MacDonald, R. (1994). The Master Tutor:  A Guidebook for More Effective Tutoring.  Philadelphia, PA:  Templeton Foundation Press.

McRobbie, J. C., & Fraser, B. J. (1993). Associations between Student Outcomes and Psychosocial Science Environment. Journal of Educational Research, 87(2), 78 - 85.

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