Four Tips for Effective Science Tutoring - Feb '18

by Simon de Pinna, MTA

Over the last 10 years, the balance of my professional life has tilted from mostly classroom teaching with a little private tutoring ‘on the side’ to exclusively tutoring 1-to-1. I’ve recently been reflecting on which of my classroom strategies I still use and what new ones I’ve added to support my students.

1. Make good use of past papers
When I taught GCSE and A-level sciences, as opposed to tutoring in them, I rarely made much use of past papers until the last term or so of Years 11 and 13, as the exams approached. But as a tutor, I frequently use past papers (or specimen papers for the new courses), downloaded from the exam board websites. And I’ve compiled files of questions on specific topics so that I can set topic papers as required for revision, or to support content the student is studying currently in school.

Command words
Over and above the value of becoming accustomed to the ‘look and feel’ of the exam paper itself, an early activity is to identify the command words used in science exam papers, eg ‘Describe’, ‘Explain’, ‘Compare’, Evaluate’, and discuss their meanings. (In fact, there’s usually an Appendix to the course specification that lists and defines them.) I’ve now collated a number of questions for GCSE Biology, Chemistry and Physics across all boards that exemplify each command word and students can refer to the document at any time if they are unsure what’s expected of them.

Mark schemes
These have a vital role in showing students how examiners ‘think’ and what they’re looking for in a script that will earn marks. Students are often surprised by how superficial they are and that a few concise sentences will gain full marks. In fact, I often give students the mark schemes as well as the question papers and ask them to use the scheme as a basis for writing their own answers in ‘proper’ sentences; it’s essentially a process of learning how to write like an examiner…only with better grammar!

Chief Examiner’s reports
When I’m going through a student’s answers and we’re referring to the mark scheme, I sometimes also show them the examiner’s report to demonstrate the common types of error that students make; the traps that candidates so often fall into through misreading the question or failing to convert their answer into the correct unit. I am constantly telling them to read the question TWICE before answering! And, for that matter, read their answer TWICE as well before moving on to the next question. It only takes a few seconds, but can reveal nonsense written in haste!

2. Use online video in innovative ways
Since the arrival of the Internet and the various online video channels, it has become an invaluable source of content for every topic in school science. I regularly update my lists of GCSE and A-level videos that address different topics in the specifications, with a marked preference for brevity…rarely more than 5 minutes in length. So, whenever I set questions to be answered between tutorials, I will include links to appropriate videos that will support that student.

Current favourite GCSE sciences channels include ‘FuseSchool’, Shaun Donnelly’s ‘Freesciencelessons’ site and Tyler DeWitt’s ‘Chemistry’ channel. For A-level Biology, Paul Andersen’s ‘Bozeman Science’ channel is excellent as are Hank Green’s ‘CrashCourse’ videos (if the student can cope with the speed of his speech!).

The student commentary
One of my new ‘tutor’ strategies with video is to ask the student to watch a video before the tutorial in which we will cover that topic, and then get them to supply the commentary, with the sound muted. It’s a great test of understanding and students generally enjoy doing it. It really keeps them on their toes as they need to think quickly before the video moves on.

The online laboratory
Another valuable use of online video is being able to show videos of experiments that the student should do as part of their course. There are numerous online videos of practicals required by each exam board and I now have a good list of links that not only describe the procedures but also include sets of results that the student can analyse: fantastic for practice in graph drawing and statistical analysis, if appropriate.

3. Flashcards are not just for learning a language
As a teacher, I rarely used flashcards at GCSE level and above because individual students in a class of more than twenty would not have the opportunity to define more than two or three words in a lesson. But, as a tutor, especially with students in Years 11 and 13, I frequently run my PowerPoint slide shows of key words followed by their definitions for a few minutes at the start of a session to get students into a ‘thinking’ frame of mind. I can set the time between showing the word on the screen and revealing the definition, or I can reverse the slides to show the definition and ask for the key word.

4. Create a website that students can access
It was important to me that I create a website that promotes my tutoring business and I launched www.sciencesuccess.co.uk in mid-2017. A valuable feature of the site is the ‘Student Login’, which allows me to upload documents to a password-protected page for each student. They can read and download slide shows, summary sheets, past papers, mark schemes and video lists as well as being able to upload documents they want me to see. Incidentally, my web designer also added a Testimonials page and I send him a few sentences to upload that have been written by ‘satisfied’ students and parents, as I request them. Fingers crossed, no-one has refused…so far!

So, good luck with your science tutoring business and please share your own tutoring strategies here!

Simon de Pinna

Simon is a full-time GCSE sciences and A-level biology tutor working in SW London


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