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Developing Work-Ethic / Responsibility in Students

Discussion in 'Private tutors' started by Ian1983, Oct 15, 2018.

  1. Ian1983

    Ian1983 Occasional commenter

    Hi all. I've read a number of posts and threads on here regarding difficult and lazy students, with some tutors regularly having to ditch students because of effort / attitude problems. While I accept that in extreme cases, this is unavoidable (I have had to drop a couple of students myself over the years), I find that in the vast majority of cases, there's a lot you can do to get students working hard and taking responsibility for their own work.

    This, for me, is probably my biggest strength as a tutor and, without meaning to sound like I'm bragging, I can almost always get a student working hard and displaying a positive attitude within a month of starting with them. So, as promised in the 'Difficult Students' thread, here are a few thoughts on what I find works really well.

    How can students be lazy?

    There's a few main ways that I find:
    • Unwilling to do homework / forget to do it
      Giving up very quickly – 'Dunno' / 'No idea' within a second or 2 of being given a question
    • Sloppy in their work e.g. sloppy diagrams, little / no working out
    • Not taking responsibility - blaming their teacher, their friend etc
    I'll try and address all of these throughout this post

    First contact

    This is really important. I was going to type a load of spiel myself but to save a bit of time, I'll do a copy and paste from another poster (Adamcreem, assume you don't mind, but let me know if so):

    I always speak in detail to the parent on the phone before the first session.
    I find out the child's name, school, what they might want to focus on. I explain my fees (£50 an hour), my cancellation policy, and how at the end of the first session I will expect to spend 15 minutes talking with the parent, who obviously needs to be present. My USP is being a Head of Maths, so I will be explaining the way the school is thinking as well as the Maths that needs teaching. I check about parking (on the drive, on the road, or other) and any access to locked gates. I then follow up this call with an email, attaching my CV with full contact details, and a reminder of everything discussed.

    Everything about this contact displays that you're a professional and that you've got high expectations, which are really important. The only things I would add to the above are:
    • I ask that the students finds / brings home a copy of their most recent class test / mock exam
    • I ask that the student ensures they have ready their login details for any maths revision website (Hegarty Maths, Mymaths etc) that they use at school
    • I list the equipment the student needs to ensure they have for the lessons.
    The above 3 things serve 2 purposes. Firstly, they'll all be useful as part of the lessons. Secondly, they're placing the onus on the student to do a few things – i.e. setting the tone for them taking responsibility, which will be important later on.


    I always set homework. 2 reasons: Firstly to re-enforce what we've learnt. Secondly, because it gets the student working outside of the lesson.

    However, when I introduce the concept of homework midway through the 1st lesson, I'll always present it as a choice. I won't say 'I'm going to set you homework', I'll say to the student 'Are you happy for me to set you a task each week to do inbetween the lessons?'

    There's an important difference between the 2. Many teenagers hate being told 'you have to do this' and, although they may well still do the homework, it's reluctantly, they're doing it simply because they've been told they have to. Through the 2nd question, however, they've chosen to do homework. It's a conscious choice on their part and leads to it being completed much more willingly. They're essentially choosing to work hard and this is setting the tone for a greater level of personal responsibility.

    But what if they say 'no, I don't want to do homework'?

    Firstly, this is very rare, they almost always say yes. If they do say no, however, I don't push it but then I will discuss it with the student and parent in the post-lesson feedback. I'll say 'with all my other GCSE / A-Level students, I set them short homework tasks to re-enforce what we've covered in the lesson. However, (insert name) has told me that he doesn't want to do any work inbetween our sessions'. Note that this sort of phrase is effectively saying 'your son is very lazy'. But I'm demonstrating that (by showing that he's not willing to put in the same level of effort of any of my other students) rather than presenting it as my personal opinion, and thus avoid the awkward parent perception of 'that tutor's just got it in for my son'.

    Finally, on the setting of homework, the instructions should be crystal clear. All my students have a practise book and a neat book. All homework tasks get written on the homework sheet that is stuck on the inside cover of the neat book. Leave no ambiguity over what's been set - don't allow them to wriggle out of homework by 'I didn't know you'd set me any' etc etc

    Post-Lesson Feedback

    Very important. I make it clear that I need 3 or 4 minutes with both student and parent at the end of every session and I allow time for this in my lesson scheduling. Student should always be part of this discussion, again this is part of them developing a level of responsibility, rather than allowing them to run off to play computer games or play fight with their brother, while I speak with their parent. I'll always be pleasant and friendly (it's really important to be on good terms with everyone) but at the same time, don't ignore issues. If homework's not been done, say so. If maximum effort's not been applied, say so and explain how. Look for positives you can give in the feedback – if you give positive feedback, it makes both pupils and parents more receptive to the less positive.

    Teacher Criticism

    'My teacher never teaches me anything' / 'Mr Smith's a useless teacher' etc etc

    I'll never back up or agree with any teacher critcicism, regardless of my own opinions. By doing so, I'd be giving the student a ready-made excuse for when they find maths hard, which is exactly the opposite of them building up their levels of personal responsibility. Instead of 'I'm going to work hard to understand this' it becomes 'I'm going to blame Mr Smith'.

    Even if they frame their teacher criticism as praise of me (e.g. 'you explain this so much clearer than Mr Smith'), I won't agree with them. I'll just remind them that I've got a much easier job than Mr Smith, as he has to teach 20 or 30 kids at once and I only have to teach one.

    Modelling what you're looking for

    As a maths tutor, a big thing I'm looking for is the general approach to answering questions – the marking information onto diagrams, the showing of working out, the explaining of working out, the clear layout on the page etc etc. I find it's much more effective to model what I'm looking for rather than just saying 'you need to show working out'.

    Also very effective is having some photocopied model answers written by other students. You can discuss them and say 'have a look at this one. What can you see that's really great about how their layout for this answer?'

    Positive Re-enforcement of Standards

    Praise is terrific for re-enforcing standards as well as for building up confidence. Suppose I've been discussing with a student the need to, for example, mark information onto diagrams. Later in the lesson they do exactly that when answering a question – pick up on it. 'That's really good because all the angles and the lengths are clearly marked onto the diagram'. Phrases such as 'I really like that because..............' are terrific for re-enforcing the standards you're looking for.

    Finally, look for opportunities to really make a student proud of their work. 'That's a terrific answer because.................. . Do you mind if I photocopy that to use as a great example to use with other students?' will make almost any student proud as punch, but yet again, you're re-enforcing the positive standards you expect.

    The 'I dunno' / 'No idea' after 1 second

    This is a habit to get students out of very quickly. No harm in being a little bit blunt - 'neither would I after looking at the question for 0.01 seconds. You need to read it thoroughly and consider the information much more carefully'. Encourage them to look for key information, mark information onto diagrams, note down what topic the question could be testing them on and the reasons they think that – anything that makes them slow down and put a lot more effort into the question. Another favourite phrase of mine is 'Even if we can't answer the full question, can we get something down on the page that might earn us 1 or 2 marks?' If they do, use the positive re-enforcement: 'what I really liked there was that you took your time and considered the question really carefully'.

    One other thing I'd say on this point is to make sure you're given students time to think. 'Take a minute to consider the question and think of a possible first step' is a much more effective phrase than 'what do we need to do here?' which pressurises them for a very quick answer.


    I hope people find the above really useful and hopefully promote a few useful discussions. I'm not saying that everything above is perfect, it's simply what I find works well for me. But this is a terrific skillset to master – once you start to positively influence a students' work ethic and levels of personal responsibility, you're having a much greater impact on their education and their progress than you are if you simply teach the subject.
  2. gainly

    gainly Star commenter

    Thanks for such a detailed account Ian. I don't think I'll adopt all your ideas but some may certainly be useful especially on the subject of homework. I don't always set homework, depending whether I think it is required, but it can be tricky especially if the parents say they want "lots of homework" and the pupil is not keen on doing it.

    I agree with your point about teacher criticism. Sometimes pupils tell me things the teacher has said which are clearly wrong. Usually I assume it is equally likely the pupil misheard or misunderstood and try to put them right but without criticising the teacher.

    I wonder are you always able to discuss things with the parents. With many of my A level students I rarely see the parents The most extreme case was when a boy contacted me directly for A level tuition; I taught him, then his sister and then a cousin. I never had any contact with a parent or any adult over a period of six years, presumably they must have been supplying the money for lessons. Luckily in most such cases the students are sufficiently mature and motivated that this isn't a problem.
  3. Ian1983

    Ian1983 Occasional commenter

    I don't think I'll adopt all your ideas but some may certainly be useful

    Absolutely fine - not everything that works for me will work for someone else and vice versa. The idea is just that tutors can read this and pick out the strategies they think could work for them.

    it can be tricky especially if the parents say they want "lots of homework" and the pupil is not keen on doing it.

    This is exactly the situation I try to avoid by using my choice strategy re homework. I often extend the choice element to deciding what the homework should be: e.g. 'we've worked on adding fractions and Pythagoras today. Which of these topics do you think you'd benefit most from a homework on?' It's pretty well-known that if you give a kid ownership of a project or a task, they'll take much more pride in the quality of it.

    I wonder are you always able to discuss things with the parents

    Not always. I do A-Level daytime lessons (6th formers at my local comp can go home in their free periods) and I do Skype lessons again while the parents aren't there. There's no harm in using email to give lesson feedback if it's not possible in person.
    With some 6th formers, there's no necessity for such regular feedback, as the maturity and work-ethic is already there. Obviously until you've had a few lessons with someone though, you don't really know that so I'd always try to ensure there's a means of giving feedback for the 1st few lessons.
  4. gainly

    gainly Star commenter

    Thank you that's a good idea.
  5. Areach

    Areach New commenter

    Thank you Ian for the above post. I like your approach of setting the homework presenting it as a choice to them.

    "when I introduce the concept of homework midway through the 1st lesson, I'll always present it as a choice. I won't say 'I'm going to set you homework', I'll say to the student 'Are you happy for me to set you a task each week to do in between the lessons?"
  6. Ian1983

    Ian1983 Occasional commenter

    No problem, pleased you're finding it useful.

    The choice thing with homework is very very important - it changes their mindset away from the sullen 'I'm doing this just because I've been told I have to' and towards the 'I'm doing this because I've chosen to do it, as I recognise I need to work on xyz' - in other words a level of maturity.

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