INTRODUCTION:  As a Learning Support Specialist at a four-year liberal arts college, I plan tutor training, including monthly meetings where we share information and discuss concerns. In a recent semester, attendance at tutoring sessions was low.  Some tutors were frustrated, and I heard comments such as “I feel like I’m wasting my time,” “I made a flyer, but nobody comes,” and “The only time I have students is right before a test.” I was definitely hearing ‘Victim’ voices.  

I wanted to help the tutors stop complaining and refocus their attention on the aspects of tutoring about which they have choice and influence. I wanted them to speak about tutoring from their ‘Creator’ voices (to use On Course terminology). So I had them participate in an activity that I adapted from a strategy that was originally intended for use in a business setting. The appealing factor of the activity is how the structure allows the instructor to guide students towards important lessons without lecturing.

This strategy has many possible applications across the curriculum. By tweaking the writing prompt, educators in any discipline could use this strategy to stimulate students’ deeper understanding of academic content.   For example, students might discuss the best way to organize an essay, the cause of an historical event, the best way to solve a math problem, or the most effective strategies for being successful in college, to name just a few. The Sources section (below) provides a link to the original version prepared for business trainings, so obviously this strategy could also be used in a business class.

I allotted 20 minutes for this activity, which is a minimum. Varying the writing prompt, number of participants, and depth of discussion could double or triple the time needed. 


  • To challenge tutors to apply critical thinking to deepen their wisdom about the tutoring process, thus increasing their confidence as tutors
  • To encourage ‘Creator’ responses to disappointments in the tutoring experience, thus increasing personal responsibility.


  • Blank 3×5 cards (3 per student)
  • Pencils/pens
  • Six 3×5 cards prepared beforehand. Handwrite these cards just like a response to the writing prompt in the directions (step #2) below. Prepare three pairs of contradictory statements regarding the topic you want to address. These cards serve to insure discussion of critical issues, helping you draw out the objectives of the lesson. Here are the cards I created:


  • Have the student work a problem first to identify where s/he is making errors.
  • Work an example problem before asking a student to work one.


  • Know the material, but let students guide the session.
  • Go to each session with a plan because many students don’t know what to ask.


  • Assess a student’s level of understanding with a quiz before you jump in with help or instruction.
  • Do not quiz – this puts students on the defensive and/or embarrasses them.


1. Distribute three blank cards to each student.

2. Announce, “Please record on the cards any words of wisdom or advice that you have to offer next semester’s tutors. One bit of advice per card. You may create 1-3 cards.” (5 min).

3. Gather cards, shuffle with your prepared cards, and randomly distribute all to students.

4. Ask, “Will someone please read one card aloud?”

5. Then ask, “Does anyone have a card with comments expressing a similar view?” If so, have these read aloud.

6. Ask, “Does anyone have a card with comments expressing a contradictory view?”  If so, have these read aloud.  If no contradictory card is read, ask, “Does anyone disagree with the comments we’ve heard? What is your view?”

7. When you discover divergent views, ask students to take sides on the issue and justify their position. Ask questions such as, “Which point of view works better for the subject that you tutor? Why? Who else agrees with this idea? Who feels that the other point view is appropriate for their subject area?  What conclusions can we draw from these differences?”

8. Repeat steps 4–7 until all cards have been read. Afterwards, ask, “What is the most important thing you’ve learned or relearned from this activity?”  Draw out and emphasize any key points that you want made about the topics explored.


I did this activity with three different groups of tutors, totaling about half of all of the tutors. As I hoped, the prepared cards went unnoticed as ‘plants.’

Discussion began rather mechanically: reading of the card, similar information shared, and maybe one or two other brief comments. When a card was read and a contradictory card was shared, however, students became more engaged as they tried to decide which point of view worked for them and why.

For example, the card pair ‘Know the material, but let students guide the session’ and ‘Go to each session with a plan because many students don’t know what to ask’ generated conversation that went something like this:

Math tutor: “Having a plan is important. If you don’t use the syllabus to plan some problem sets, the tutoring hour is partially wasted thinking up examples.”

Chemistry tutor: “Yes, I try to plan examples for each topic covered that week. Some students are so lost they don’t even know how to identify the concept that they are struggling with.”

History tutor: “That doesn’t work for history. Students have very different background knowledge coming into college. Some need a tutor to fill in information missing from their pre-college courses before they can grasp the content of their current course.”

Political Science tutor: “Same for political science. My sessions are more like conversations – guided by student questions. I have to let their concerns lead us to the topics which need further explanation in their minds.”

Spanish tutor: “For me, the decision is based on how many students attend. With just one or two students, I can go with the flow. When I have several students – like just before a test – I have to have a study guide and stick to it in order to be sure that all students have a chance to review the important material for the test.”

Through these mini-debates, tutors articulated their own wisdom and discovered the validity of a situational approach to the tutoring methods that each question raised.


As tutors articulated their own insights and defended their situational points of view, they were forced to think critically about the nature of their own discipline as compared to others. Drawing from experience to defend a stance served to deepen understanding of their assignments.  The respectful listening that the tutors enjoyed in the forum validated each individual’s wisdom.  In thinking of what to teach the next generation of tutors, they taught themselves.  Some of their insights included…


  • Be flexible with your schedule and when you can help people.
  • Don’t get discouraged with low attendance. Try to change times if possible.
  • Schedule your sessions so that they are convenient for you – it’s irritating to have to wait around and no one shows up. It might be a good idea to avoid late sessions.


  • Visit the class you will be tutoring.
  • Try to announce during the class your tutoring session.
  • Advertise your session well / around campus.
  • Have the professor announce the tutoring session each week.


  • Keep in personal contact with professors (not just email).
  • Study the material along with the class syllabus.
  • Be prepared; know the material.


  • Be patient!
  • Treat them like a friend that you’re helping to understand the subject.
  • Be friendly but be professional.
  • Be friendly to professor and students.

As a facilitator, I was reminded that discussion is most engaging when comments can be offered peer-to-peer without having to be directed to/channeled through a leader.  This requires a facilitator who can step off the ‘stage’ and let the discussion be the focal point for all.

The structure of this exercise facilitates this stepping aside in two ways: (1) built-in opposing points of view set up the debating with minimal prompting and (2) anonymous sharing eliminates risk of embarrassment when an idea/method is being critiqued.

With these two elements addressed, the facilitator is free to listen attentively and sensitively to the participants. I felt more like a facilitator than a leader/lecturer because the structure of the activity worked so well to accomplish my purposes.

SOURCE: Adaptation of “Leadership Advice from Your Role Model” found at

–Jan Taylor, Tutor Coordinator, Maryville College, TN

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