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I'm a grad student and I do some tutoring on the side for money. It's a sweet gig and I do like helping people learn. However I have had plenty bad experiences tutoring. Usually the really bad things (people wanting me to cheat, not paying, etc.) usually are pretty obvious right away.

However what I have a hard time with are students who simply don't progress at all. Like don't study, come completely unprepared and are just frustrating and awful to deal with. It can take a few weeks to become apparent and honestly by that point I would feel guilty dropping them, especially if they're friendly.

How do I weed out students before it gets to that point? How do I find if a student will actually study, come prepared, etc. It's a waste of my time and their money to have me repeat definitions to them an hour a week, week after week.

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    “It’s a waste of my time...” Not if you’re getting paid by the hour, it isn’t. – G Tony Jacobs Nov 2 '17 at 20:58
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    @GTonyJacobs not true - the fact that OP is getting paid does not inherently make it a worthwhile use of their time. – ESR Nov 2 '17 at 22:37
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    Its just contract work. If you are not getting compensated enough to put up with a difficult client and are financially stable enough to afford it, just drop the client.I'd make that into an answer, but the existing ones aren't that different from it. – Polygnome Nov 2 '17 at 23:23
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    It's easy. Students who actually study, come prepared and are motivated to learn the topic most likely don't need tutoring in addition to education they receive at school. Just ask why student needs tutoring and if the answer is "to catch up with material at classes", then you don't want this student. But be aware that you are severely limiting you work opportunities this way. – Mirek Długosz Nov 3 '17 at 9:07
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    @EdmundReed I did tutoring of undergrad students for a decade. Since I was getting a CS teaching degree, those undergrad students that were too hard to teach soon became my guinea pigs for alternative teaching methods. Some cases I even brought to discuss with faculty on how to make the knowledge get inside their heads without breaking any skull bones. So it is not a matter if it is a worthwhile use of their time, it is a matter if one is making their best to make that time worthwhile. – Mindwin Nov 3 '17 at 13:19
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Run an introductory test

You're looking for students that can manage their time and responsibilities. The only way to test that is by trial. Prepare a short questionnaire that would give you an impression of what the student knows. Send it to the student several days before your first meeting and ask to complete it before the meeting. Depending on how strict you want to be, do or do not remind the student about this test. If the student completes the test before the meeting, he's more likely to turn out a responsible adult. Apart from that, the test provides a starting point for your first meeting.

Note: in my culture, first meetings with tutors are usually unpaid and considered a trial period. It's easy to drop a student after a trial meeting if he didn't do the test and didn't seem hardworking during the meeting. If you already established a payment routine, it's harder to drop a student.

It's a waste of my time and their money to have me repeat definitions to them an hour a week, week after week.

For a lateral approach to the problem, grad students who recently started tutoring sometimes only plan to tutor brilliant students, like themselves. Because of that, new tutors think that the job will be pleasant, thought-provoking and fascinating, so they set a lower hourly wage. However, an hour spent tutoring should be properly recompensed, even if it was dull to the tutor. I'll leave for you to judge if my experience applies to you, but don't hesitate to raise your hourly rate so that you don't feel like you're wasting your time.

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    I once had a student approach me for tutoring at a time when I was a bit overloaded with other priorities. I told them to seek another tutor but they apparently could not and returned basically begging for help. I decided to just tell them my hourly rate was double of what I usually charged (which wasn't especially cheap to begin with) to make them go away. To my surprise they said that was fine with them. It ended up being a busy term, but I made a killing. Point is if you're not sure about a student, you can give a high number to mitigate the risk. You don't need to charge everyone the same. – Kyle Nov 3 '17 at 8:10
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    @Kyle: Another lesson to be learned there - as tutors we often grossly under-rate our value to students. Certainly the colleges who hire student-tutors have no capability of assessing quality, beyond the student-tutor's own marks. – Pieter Geerkens Nov 3 '17 at 17:56
  • @Kyle: If you're not going to charge everyone the same, you need to make damn well sure that you're not systemically disadvantaging certain groups based on your own prejudices or unrelated conditions that may be correlated with their being in a systemically disadvantaged group. Failure to do so is both morally wrong and may expose you to legal action. – R.. GitHub STOP HELPING ICE Nov 6 '17 at 1:31
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    @R.. I charge everyone the same during a given term, unless there's something exceptional. E.g. one student wanted me to drive a half hour out of town to their residence for meetings, which is fine with me... if I'm compensated. – Kyle Nov 6 '17 at 10:01
  • @Kyle: Thanks for clarifying. I didn't expect were doing anything wrong, just that your comment could easily be misread as such. My aim in commenting was more to warn others. – R.. GitHub STOP HELPING ICE Nov 6 '17 at 16:23
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Dealing with low-performing students is a necessary part of education, whether you're a tutor or a TA or a faculty member. In all these cases you can:

  1. Set the expectation that learning is a self-directed exercise. You are there to guide students, but you can't learn the material for them. It's a good thing to be honest with your students about their lack of progress, and it's perfectly reasonable to tell your students that you will stop working with them if you don't see improvement.

  2. Give reasonable and achievable assignments as take-home work. Learning does not only happen during your tutoring session (or class time). Set deadlines and stick to them. Failure to keep deadlines is a valid reason to end your tutoring relationship.

  3. Don't let students say "I don't know how to do it." Make them be specific about their process and their own understanding. How did they approach the problem? Where did they get stuck? Why did they get stuck? What specific thing don't they understand? Failure to demonstrate that they have carefully thought through the work before coming to you for help is a valid reason to end the current tutoring session (or kick students out of office hours) and eventually end the tutoring relationship.

The basic concept here is that you have to set specific expectations with specific consequences for failing, and then follow through with your consequences. Hopefully they will improve. If they don't and they continually fail to meet your expectations then it will be clear to the student why you will no longer tutor them.

An example, since you cite definitions as a problem. Challenge them to memorize three key definitions of the subject you're studying. Tell them that you expect them to have memorized these definitions by your next meeting, and that if they haven't memorized them then you're turning around and going home. First thing when they show up next week give them a short quiz over the task you've asked them to do. If they succeed, tutor as normal. If they fail, set them the same challenge and tell them that you can't proceed until they accomplish your task- then turn around and head home. If this goes on for a few weeks and they make absolutely zero progress then tell them it's time to find a new tutor.

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Why? The good students don't need a tutor, but merely a life coach (or perhaps just a kick in the keester); they are more than capable of teaching themselves the material, once provided with motivation.

The true reward of tutoring, since the pay is often poor, can only be found from elevating the bad student, who truly requires assistance. Teach simple steps, easily learned by rote, and emphasize the memorized patterns. By this means even the weakest students can be elevated in accomplishment, and achieve a degree of understanding exceeding their start.

Ten years ago I had the opportunity of tutoring a young man, still articulate and very personable, who had suffered a bad head injury that impaired his ability to extend long term memory. It was clear that he had once been bright, but now was struggling to pass a Grade 8 math equivalency to get an apprenticeship. He had been abandoned by numerous tutors before me, who had simply dismissed him as an unteachable idiot; despite his new disability he most certainly was not that.

Week by week we repeated simple patterns for each type of question he would see, that would enable him to solve some problems and get part marks on all the rest by achieving progress towards the solution. I raised his mark from under 10% to over 45% by that means, though unfortunately not quite to the required 50%. Life moved me on after that term, however, and I was unable to finish the task at hand.

A couple of months ago I was sitting at my desk, at work, when I heard the call "Hey! Netherlands! Remember me?" Of course I did. (My name was gone from his long term memory, but not my face or favourite soccer team.) He had passed the exam on his next attempt, with the confidence and technique I had taught him, and gone on to apprentice as a copier repairman. What a pleasure it was to run into him, reminisce for a few minutes, and note his found succes, before life again took us in different directions.

My recommendation is to (of course) accept the money offered, but not to look to it for your measure of success as a tutor. Seek the rewards inherent in the tutoring itself for that, and take students as they arrive at your office door.

Update Repeating a comment of mine below:
The depth of understanding that a tutor acquires by teaching poor students, and by teaching them well, is in my humble opinion very difficult to obtain by other means.

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    The key is the last paragraph. As a tutor, how are you gauging your success? $/hr? Your personal satisfaction? Satisfaction of your clients? Greater good? – Nelson Nov 3 '17 at 5:39
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    @mmmmmmm: I took particular offence to OP's comment "It's a waste of my time and their money to have me repeat definitions to them an hour a week, week after week" On the contrary, the constant repetition is exactly what will enable the weaker students to learn the material - provided that the correct techniques are being repeated. The depth of understanding that the tutor acquires by teaching poor students, well, I believe is very difficult to obtain by other means. – Pieter Geerkens Nov 3 '17 at 9:41
  • I'm a little concerned with the assertion that the pay is never sufficient. Tutoring is a demanding job. If you're good at it, you should charge a reasonable rate. USD 100 - 150 per hour is charged by some of the best tutors in markets that can support it. Even if you can only get in 20 hours a week (say three students a day, six days a week, two extras on the weekend), that's getting close to $100,000 per year. Pick up a part time day job and you can easily live on that in most places. – Todd Wilcox Nov 3 '17 at 23:21
  • @ToddWilcox: You are correct; "never" is too strong a word. Since I don't make that rate as a programmer and do have the patience, perhaps I should rethink careers. – Pieter Geerkens Nov 3 '17 at 23:41
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Raise your rates. This will be a disincentive to parents and students are aren't really motivated. Student who don't improve when it's their fault and their parents will both blame you and look for someone "better" and/or who charges less. Anyone who actually sticks with you will at least be paying for your higher frustration level.

If you meet a good student, perhaps at a free introductory session, you could offer them a discount (which I think you can deduct on your taxes, also).

All that said, you might keep in mind that the worst students usually need the most help. Teaching and tutoring are at least as much, if not more, about relationships, not about explaining difficult concepts. If you're really in it to help struggling students learn, then part of that is figuring out how to help students want to learn.

On top of that, when all is said and done, a school year is really short. Classroom teachers don't get to pick their students, and for better or for worse they get a whole new crop the next year. With tutoring, you have the option to try to keep up with students over several years of school, or drop them and refer them to other tutors after the end of a year.

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I see this is an old question, but I feel a lot of answers are aimed at people in official tutoring engagements (they mention "when students arrive at your office door"). While it is unlikely this will help the OP, I'd like to add another perspective and offer a frame challenge, which seems to be mentioned in some comments but not clearly in any of the answers.

To me, the situation looks more like the informal tutoring I was also doing (now, quite while ago) during my BSc and MSc. We had a student forum where we would post offers "Looking for / offering tutoring in A, B, C. Rates XYZ/hour. Contact through PM". If your motivations for doing these were anything alike mine (below), I would suggest not trying to filter those students out.

Firstly, I would clearly evaluate my motives for tutoring. For me, the primary reason was to make pocket money: I was very outgoing and liked the freedom of not having to watch my budget whenever I went out. The subsidised student food was cheap, but also very bad, and I liked being able to shop for groceries to prepare my own meals (yes, back in the day our subsidised food was cheaper even that that... and much, much worse than any student cooking I've ever tasted). I wanted to do that in a way that would benefit me as well, by keeping my knowledge fresh in topics of interest, but that was, well, secondary.

Secondly, if your tutoring priorities coincide with mine (pocket money first, intellectually challenging work if possible), I would suggest the following (if they do not, I would look through the other answers):

  • Firstly, set a tutoring price that you are comfortable with. Don't undervalue your time. If you're better in some topics you tutor, charge more for those. And think of what you are willing to provide for that hourly prices (e.g. explaining theory or proofs, doing exercises, but not working on their project assignment)
  • Explain clearly on your first session what you believe is the best way of teaching and learning. Listen to the response of the tutee, and settle for a strategy you find reasonable if at all possible.
  • Keep in mind that everybody learns and understands differently: being able to explain the same thing in several different ways is what makes a great tutor.
  • If they want to use your time together differently from what you propose, that is ultimately their choice as long as what they are asking is within the services you are willing to provide. You are not in an official, University teaching role. You are offering a service: one hour of your time for a certain amount of money, where you will demonstrate or explain a certain topic.
  • Keeping above in your mind, do not slack on the quality of any of the "services" you are delivering. If somebody insists on flying over theory and focusing on exercises, explain the exercises to the best of your ability, and including all the theory necessary (as an added bonus, they might now ask you about that theory they weren't interested in a few minutes ago).

Here are some "lessons" I learned through my tutoring session:

  • There are a lot of nice, affable people that are a pleasure to chat with, that have a very bad attitude towards learning, and you can't change that. In this kind of setting, that's not even your responsibility.

  • Repeating the same thing over and over again is exhausting. Patience is key. It does help you retain knowledge and skills tremendously.

  • Some people have very specific (mis)conceptions on how they prefer to study, and again, you can't change that. You are all young adults, responsible for your own decisions. Some will make mistakes, and some will learn from their mistakes, but for that to occur, they must be allowed to make the mistakes.

    I remember a lad that insisted only ever doing practical exercises for different maths courses, flat out refusing to go through any proofs and theorems. Eventually, I made it clear that I think this is not a good way to study, and his progress will be slower than if he had a basic understanding of the theory behind it. He acknowledged my warnings, said he doesn't agree, I shrugged and said "well, your money", and we did a bunch of exercises. I clearly communicated that I believed he could get more value out of our sessions, and he clearly communicated that's not what he wants. It took him 2 or 3 years to pass that course -- and he liked working with me, kept coming back. Honestly, I did as well, he was a nice enough guy. He even got me a drink when he finally passed :)

  • Working with less-than-motivated students is discouraging, hard, and exhausting. It makes you wonder why you're doing it in the first place. But then you get that one student in 10, and they struggle, but they put effort in. You see their progress, more vividly than any exam scores could tell you. You help them turn their D into a B or an A by the end of the semester, and they make it all worth it. (even today, more than 10 years later)

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I've been there.

What I did was I set learning milestones for the student and test them regularly. I would raise my rate exponentially every time they fail. They will either put a lot more effort into it or drop out and stop wasting your time.

Obviously the details of this dynamic need to be put forth from the very beginning.

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You weed them out by weeding them out

The simple answer here is that you weed them out exactly by doing that --- if you encounter a student you no longer wish to tutor, you cease tutoring them. You seem to be asking for advice on how to do a thing without feeling the feelings that you get by doing that thing. If you are reluctant to drop students because you feel guilty then you need to examine your premises; are students entitled to your time irrespective of your wish to teach them? You have a decision to make that we cannot make for you: either continue teaching students out of guilt and don't weed them out, or do weed them out.

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I have another suggestion. Before your first lesson, tell the student that if they don't do their preparation work for each lesson, there's nothing you can do to help them, and that if they haven't done their preparation one week, you won't tutor them for that week, you'll send them away after five or ten minutes and only charge them for that time. (Obviously, only do this if you can afford to travel for that long for a low fee.) That way, the student understands how badly they're wasting your time, and if they don't improve by the following week, you won't feel at all bad about dropping them.

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