On Quora.com, I was asked what to do when a tutoring student has continued to have difficulty, has failed the exam being tutored for, and still wants more tutoring. You can read my full answer on Quora, but I will also post it in two parts here on my Pen and Paper Mama tutoring and learning blog. This post focuses on possible reasons students fail tests, even with tutoring, and what a tutor should do next. The next post will help you, as a tutor, to analyze your tutoring and hopefully be more successful in the future.
Why, after the tutoring you have already done, did your student still fail the test? Here are some possible issues and some ideas on how to overcome them:
1. Inadequate studying and/or lack of energy:
How heavy is your student’s schedule? Does he work, participate in sports and hobbies, take several difficult subjects, or have family or other responsibilities that interfere with study time? If he has a very busy or distracting schedule, can you help him set up goals, priorities, and a practical schedule?
2. Study skills:
Does your student lack adequate knowledge of study skills? A couple of tutoring sessions focused on specific study skills such as organization, research, notetaking, and summarizing can make a big difference in test preparation and success. (Check out my website series on organization, time management, priority setting, and other study skills and techniques for more details. )
3. Lack of suitable space for studying:
Is your student’s homework space too loud or occupied by too many other people? Does he try to watch TV, listen to music, or constantly check his smartphone while studying? Is there too much chaos in his environment? Can you help him find a quiet study corner such as at the library, or set up a quiet corner at home? Can you encourage him to turn off electronic distractions such as TV, radio, his smartphone, and internet connections on his computer?
4. Difficult classroom environment:
What is your student’s classroom environment like (and for that matter, his tutoring environment)? Can he focus on his learning? Does the classroom teacher have time to help individual students? If the environment is not ideal, could he meet individually or in small groups with the teacher or an EA (educational assistant) or a peer tutor at school during breaks before, between, or after classes?
5. Anxiety issues:
Exam anxiety can cause even the most academically prepared student to fail an exam. Take some tutoring time to discuss methods to overcome anxiety, such as a good night’s sleep before the exam, no last-minute binge study, a healthy breakfast and/or lunch that includes “brain foods,” relaxation techniques such as meditation or yoga, calming music (without lyrics), and no “screen time” within 1 to 2 hours before bedtime or in the 1/2 hour to hour before the test. Time spent on relaxation techniques can be valuable in making that academic knowledge stick.
6. The test covered material he was not prepared for:
Did your student receive an outline from the teacher on the material that would be included in the test? If he has a textbook on which the test is at least partly based, and/or handouts from the teacher, has your student been trained in study methods using these materials (for example: use of methods like SQ3R and KWL, note-taking, use of headings, and creating and answering questions from the text)? Did the test cover material only from class time, or was your student expected to do extra outside reading, research, and study which he may not have done, or at least had not done sufficiently? These are issues you can discuss with him before carrying on with the actual subject tutoring. If your student lacks these skills, teaching them to him can be as important as the time spent on the actual course content.
7. Tutoring time preparation:
Did your student bring his everyday classwork with him to the tutoring lessons so you could see what he was covering in class? Did your student check with the teacher regularly to ensure he was covering the correct material? If you, as the tutor, had any questions about the test, did you also contact the teacher?
8. Test questions that all or most students did not expect:
Do a bit of investigation to find out if other students had similar difficulties with the test. What kinds of materials were in the test that weren’t covered in the class? Perhaps a group of students can to together to the teacher and respectfully discuss that (and, if necessary, go to the school counsellor or administration if this is a serious, ongoing issue). Also, when helping your student prepare for the next test, together think carefully about the unexpected material in the previous test and then think of what kind of “unexpected” questions might be asked on the upcoming test.
9. Inadequate presentation of the material by the teacher:
Sometimes a teacher knows the subject matter very well, but is lacking in some area of teaching skills, may have a heavy accent the student doesn’t understand, may be culturally unaware of his students’ situation, or may not be adequately trained to deal with special needs. Can you meet with the teacher in a non-confrontational way and make suggestions on how he or she might deal with your student’s specific issues?
10. Your student is not engaged in his learning:
Does your student pay attention in class, attend regularly, and do homework on time? Discuss this first with the student, and then with the teacher and parents if needed. If the student is not engaged in his learning, why might that be? A lack of interest in the subject? Distractions in the classroom or in other parts of his life? Possible learning differences? Try to help the student figure out his issues and help him to come up with solutions.
11. Difficulty with specific kinds of test questions:
While your student may have studied the test material itself, did he have difficulty with particular question formats, such as multiple choice, true/false, sentence/ paragraph/ essay answers, questions which require memorized skills such as formulas and math facts, questions which require creation and/or use of graphs and charts, and so on? If possible, have your student bring you his test; in fact, he can bring a variety of quizzes and tests from various subjects and leave them with you. Then you can analyze what question formats he needs help with, and really focus on guiding his development of those skills. Many times, “practice tests” are available from the teacher, or online based on the specific subject and location, which you can use in tutoring sessions to help him prepare for test-taking.
12. Special needs:
Is it possible your student has learning differences such as dyslexia, autism, FASD, ADHD or other special needs? Has your student been tested and/or diagnosed? Has he had ongoing learning issues over the years? If so, during school tests he may be able to have adaptations such as having a scribe read the questions to him and/or write down his dictated answers, be allowed extended test time, do practical examples rather than giving theoretical answers, or take the test in a quiet office area. Such adjustments can make his test-taking more successful.
13. Medical issues:
Poor eyesight, hearing problems, chronic pain, and medications (prescribed or self-medicated) can interfere with learning and testing. Often these kinds of issues are undiagnosed, but a good medical checkup with follow-up treatment can make a big difference.
14. Mental health issues:
In the one-to-one relationship between a tutor and student, you may notice symptoms that others may not have picked up on, or the student may more easily confide in you. While you cannot diagnose and treat the student yourself except in providing basic support and encouragement, you can refer the student to professionals who are in a position to help: the school counsellor/psychologist, social workers, medical specialists–and of course, his parents.
15. ESL, cultural differences, PTSD, discrimination:
In today’s world, as people move from place to place, not only may a student face challenges with learning a second language and adapting to cultural differences, he may also be a refugee from a war-torn nation, be facing religious or racial discrimination, and be trying to work through personal issues such as gender and sexual issues. A student may also be facing various kinds of abuse outside of (or even within) the learning environment. These are not easily solved problems, but if you suspect they are issues your student may be facing, you can discuss them with him on a basic level, then refer him to appropriate professional help and/or community or school programs that may be relevant.
16. Personal attitudes to learning:
Why did your student come to you for tutoring? Was it his idea, or was he being pressured by parents or teachers? If he came under pressure, was he feeling resentful or perhaps just didn’t care and so didn’t study after the tutoring sessions in order to pass his exam? If he still feels this way, is it worthwhile to continue tutoring? Can you discuss his feelings with him and help him change his attitude? If not, can you meet with parents and teachers and search together for solutions?
17. Parental attitudes toward learning:
By the way, it is wise to discuss with the parents their goals in having their child tutored, and find out if they have any strong feelings about your position as a tutor. If they insist that you “stick to academics” and not get involved in “personal issues,” you may need to decide if you are comfortable with that. You should be honest with them about your tutoring approaches and goals, so that if they are not comfortable with your methods they can find another tutor whom they feel they can work with better.
18. Learning styles:
Different students learn in different ways. Some students excel in theoretical reading and writing, while others are more “hands-on” and practical. Some students have strong skills in areas such as music, drawing or other arts, oral expression (listening and speaking), and so on. Perhaps your student has difficulty with the format of the testing (and even the classroom presentation) of the teacher. Can you experiment with different ways of presenting the material to the student? If you find a way that really seems to work, why not share your insights with the teacher, who may be willing to use some of those methods during classes and in testing.