9 Manage Difficult Tutoring Situations

Rose (1976) and West (1990) identify behaviours that make learning difficult. These situations are ones that may come up in any tutoring session. Which of these have you experienced in your tutoring sessions? Consider your potential response.

What might happen in the Tutoring Session? What strategies can you use?

Low frustration tolerance


Freezing up/blocking



Typical learner responses: “It’s beyond me.” “Their (prof) speaking a foreign language.” “I’m stuck.”

  • Determine what the learner does know:
  • Through questions and discussions, show the learner that they are not an empty vessel but already ‘partially filled’.
  • Start by using simple units; then build to more complex ones.
  • Offer continual positive reinforcement of successfully completed steps.
  • Use a variety of approaches (examples, diagrams, analogies, computer software).
Confusion (blocking variation)


Helpless feeling about the class


Typical learner responses: “I just don’t know what to do.” “I don’t know what the professor wants.” “I studied for three hours and got a C!” “I’m not sure where we’re going.”

  • Above approaches may work.
  • Structure and order the tutoring sessions.
  • Provide beginning, middle and end.
  • Offer study tips for notating, listening, time management, brainstorming paper ideas.
  • Suggest regular lecture/class attendance.
  • Try to give tutee an overview.
Miracle seeking

Global interest concern but little specificity

Enthusiasm regarding being with tutor but fairly passive in actual tutoring process

High (often inappropriate) level of expectation

Evasion or inability to stay ‘on task’


Typical learner responses: “Will you do this for me?” “How do you remember all these terms?”

  • Downplay your role (e.g. “I’ve had more practice or more courses, that’s all”).
  • Focus repeatedly on the task at hand.
  • Involve learner continually with questions, problems, models.
  • Stress active participation in the learning process (e.g. have learner engage the text: star major concepts, ‘highlight’ only key terms, write marginal notes, question claims).
Over enthusiasm (miracle-seeking variation)

High expectations of demands on self: talks about limited time, long-range goals instead of immediate tasks

Global interest/enthusiasm often found in older learners


Typical learner responses: ” Look, I’m thirty years old: I don’t have the free time these college kids have.”

  • Explain counter-productivity of over eagerness.
  • Be empathic but assure learner they have time.
  • Suggest ways they can carve out this time with time-management tips (e.g. commuters, or parents, may tape key-terms, review notes etc. to play back in transit or between classes at lunch).
  • Utilize strategies under miracle seeking.

There seems to be no motivation or interest.

Typical learner responses: “I’m not good at this. I don’t know what to do. I have a question, but I forgot what it was. I just want to pass the course”

  • Use confidence building exercises
  • Make it fun. Personalize
  • Rhymes and songs
  • Figure out what their goals are and connect them to content
  • Assess what they can do now – baseline.

Expresses sullenness/hostility/ passivity/boredom

Disinterested in class/work/tutor or defensive posture towards class/work/ tutor/lecturer

Easily triggered anger


Typical learner responses: “I don’t see why I have to do this over.” “They don’t go over this stuff but expect us to know it.”

 “I won’t use this course in life.” (on the job, in my major)

  • Allow learners five minutes to ventilate frustration.
  • Spend time building a relationship.
  • Be pragmatic, yet understanding: “I know these requirements are difficult, but they’re required so let’s make the best of it.”
  • Help them connect the content to their outside life.
  • Establish your credibility/indicate past successes in similar situations (as opposed to ‘downplaying role’ under miracle seeking).
  • If the question arises, assure learner their complaints about a class are confidential.
  • Avoid fuelling their anger, etc. (e.g., “Prof Blank doesn’t give criteria for his grading system; that’s really unfair.”).
Passivity (often a variant of resisting)

Non-involvement/inattention/low self-esteem


Little discussion initiated/few questions

Intimidated or overwhelmed


Typical learner responses: “My prof said I HAVE to come here.” “History’s (or any other discipline) boring.” “Who cares about stats (or any other course) anyway?”

  • Be comfortable with silence
  • Ask them to explain in their own world what you have just explained (at each step)
  • Give a small similar question to see if they get it.
  • Empathize with tutee (“You’re not crazy about asking questions in class, are you?” or “You really don’t want to be here, do you?”)
  • Attempt to establish rapport and energize learner by connecting the subjects to their interests.
  • Show relevancy of subjects to life, other disciplines
  • Use as many mobilizing techniques as you can:
  • Open-ended questions
  • Real or current problems
  • Mini-tasks to be completed by the next session (homework).
  • Reinforce all completed activities and successes.
Fragmentation (another variant of resisting)

Inability to concentrate or adhere to task, easily distracted

Overwhelmed by academic/athletic/social demands

Uncertain about having college-level skills, declaring a major, etc.


Typical learner responses: “My high school did not prepare me for this.” “I’ve been away from school for so long.” “I’m lost in Dr. Blank’s class.”

  • Provide lecture/class calendar and other time-management tips.
  • Suggest structure in their schedule such as making appointments to get to the library.
  • Give subject-specific study tips on note-taking, listening, reading text, expectations, etc.
  • Give and review with them any appropriate study tips.
  • Advice regular lecture/class attendance (where they are having trouble).
  • Notify of current workshops, such as time, stress management.
  • Make necessary referrals

Responding in Difficulty Activity

Discuss (in pairs) the responses that Rose and West provide. Which of these have you used before?

What responses could you use to improve your tutoring? Do you have any other responses or situations that you suggest using?







In pairs, practice one scenario using a behaviour listed on the handout.

What difficulties did you experience? How might you do it differently next time?






What surprised you most in this practice session?






Continue your Tutor Training

This concludes the Fundamentals section of the KPU Level Two Tutor Training program.

You will continue your Integration and content training under the guidance of your Learning Centre Coordinator, Learning Strategists, and faculty mentors.

Good Luck in your continuing Tutoring activities.


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Level Two Peer Tutoring Fundamentals and Integration Workbook Copyright © 2019 by Kwantlen Polytechnic University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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