How to build relationships that engage students in online math tutoring

As an online math tutor and a teacher who’s worked in both traditional and virtual classrooms, here’s how I do my best to instill a love of math in my students.
Johnelle Dufour
Johnelle Dufour
Johnelle Dufour is a tutor with Remind Tutoring and a secondary mathematics teacher at Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy. She can be reached at [email protected].

Just as in a traditional classroom, engagement in online math tutoring is the gateway between students and understanding—or even enjoying—the content they’re trying to learn. The moment a student becomes invested in learning the material, everything gets easier.

Students turn to tutoring based on a range of experiences. Some are forced into it and come with a negative attitude from the beginning and are thus already shut off to the idea. Others come for enrichment, to dive deeper than they can go in the classroom.

If they’re spending time with a tutor, whether it’s because they are struggling or because they want more challenge, they may already have a hard time engaging in class, if they ever had been. As a teacher who’s worked in both traditional and virtual classrooms and as an online math tutor, here’s how I engage my students and do my best to instill a love of math.

What does online math tutoring engagement look like?

As many teachers found out during remote learning, checking for student engagement in a virtual setting is different than in a classroom. We have a small window through which to see students, and even that disappears if they turn their cameras off.

To see if students are engaged, I keep an eye on their background to make sure they aren’t running around the house or riding somewhere in a car. I also pay attention to their eyes. If they’re glancing up and down or side to side, they may be taking notes. Or they might be distracted by something on a second screen. As they respond to you during the session, it should be pretty easy to tell whether darting eyes are a sign of studious note-taking or distraction.

Sometimes I use third-party websites with review games, and I like the ones that show me exactly what students are doing. If you can actively monitor them, it’s clear if they’re engaged, even if you can’t see their face.

Just as in a traditional classroom, the best way to tell if a student is engaged is whether they are asking you questions. Unfortunately, it’s also the most difficult sign of engagement to come by. I find that this is often a matter of training, so I encourage them to ask questions often, especially with new students.

Challenges and advantages of online tutoring

There are both challenges and advantages to online tutoring when it comes to engaging and exciting students. When I was in school, I was a shy kid who was afraid to share answers in class. If I had been able to share privately with my teacher, it would have made me more confident and maybe even more likely to be correct because I wouldn’t have been distracted by the social pressure of my peers around me. The more intimate setting of tutoring helps many students feel safe enough to give answers more frequently, get them right or wrong, and learn from those successes and failures.

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One challenge of online tutoring is that it’s easy for students to hide behind their computers. Their camera is the only window in, and it doesn’t show you what they can see or interact with. They could have the TV on behind the computer, a browser window open or any number of other distractions. They can even turn the camera off and leave you feeling like you’re talking to yourself with a black screen for company.

I find that the best way to discourage hiding behind the computer is to encourage them to connect with me through it instead. It feels a little more like being an actor than a math teacher sometimes, but especially in the first few sessions, I act extra excited to be there and look for any opportunities I can find to relate to them. I ask them what their hobbies or interests are and tell them about myself to show that I’m a human being and not some kind of math tutoring artificial intelligence.

A more practical challenge in online tutoring is that sometimes students are not comfortable with the technology and may not want to use the tools. The platform I tutor with, Remind Tutoring, has intuitive tools that students pick up quickly, but just getting students new to tutoring to use them the first time can be difficult.

Here, being animated and excited is also helpful. If I’m fun and enthusiastic, my students are less likely to worry about looking silly if they don’t know how to do something. I also work to be as accommodating as I can by letting them show their work in any way they’re comfortable with or showing them how to use the tools, even if it means using a document camera to show them what I’m doing.

One of the hardest challenges of engaging tutoring students online is getting through to those who just don’t want to be there. When a student just gives one-word answers or says, “I don’t know” in response to everything, finding your opening can be a bit harder than when you’re together in person because you’re not in each other’s space, picking up on facial expressions and body language in the same way. It can be harder to pick up on a student’s confusion or frustration, and it can take longer for them to see me as a supportive presence who’s not going to judge them and only wants to help.

Building relationships over time

If a student doesn’t want to be in tutoring, the only solution I’ve found is to build a relationship with them over time. It can take some patience, but it’s worth it, and building those relationships helps all students, not just those who would rather not see a tutor.

Students gain more confidence the longer they work with the same person. I just received an email from the parent of a student I’ve been tutoring for about two years thanking me for helping her to find her confidence as we move from Geometry to Algebra 2. Her little sister is about to start middle school and I’ll be tutoring her as well, so sometimes tutoring means we build a relationship with the whole family.

I’m able to create and send progress reports and summaries of sessions to students’ families every week and to track against the goals we have collectively set. This helps families be more engaged with their student’s learning and progress, and families of younger students in particular seem to appreciate the communication.

When I first start with a student, I receive a lot of notes and emails from their families thanking me for the feedback. It drops off with time, but that usually just means that the student is taking more responsibility for their tutoring and doesn’t need their family checking in on them as regularly. Once students are in the swing of things and everything is going well, families tend to keep an eye on summaries and progress reports more as a means of making sure everything is still on track.

Summaries in particular are also helpful in keeping students engaged. If their parents are involved, the student is going to receive praise that encourages them to keep working but they are also directly helpful to students. It’s a good teaching strategy to follow lessons up with a review of what you covered, and it helps students feel a sense of accomplishment to see what they did.

Since our summaries are all modeled on a growth mindset, they include a student’s strengths and the areas where they’ve made progress—growths, as they’re called in the platform—and a look ahead to where we’ll try to help them grow next. Even if they had a bad day at school or a challenging tutoring session, they get a positive reminder of all the progress their hard work is creating to help them build confidence. It’s a nice bow on top of the end of the session for both students and their families.

Online tutoring may have its own challenges and advantages, but in the end, it’s not that much different than any other kind of teaching. It’s important to show up organized and prepared because most students are not going to tell a tutor what they want to learn. Tutors need to be open and vulnerable to students because we are asking them to do the same by engaging in learning, which requires risking failure, tackling difficult challenges and admitting we don’t already know everything.

And as tutors, we need to be aware of how much we can take on. Building relationships with students takes a lot more time, energy and mental space than simply explaining math concepts to someone in a video chat.

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