Factoring in Feelings in Online Tutoring

Molly Wright Starkweather, MA,  Kaplan University Writing Center Tutor

Girl hiding behind blue book.


“Why should we as tutors prioritize the emotional issues of our students?” This is a question that comes from a healthy place of caution, respecting the difference between the role of a tutor and the role of a counselor or mental health practitioner. One game-changer in dealing with students who might or might not present with difficulties is to use what Dr. Noreen Groover Lape (2008) of Dickinson College describes as a “pedagogy of empathy” (p. 3). This concept of incorporating empathy more fully into effective pedagogy acknowledges the role of the tutor as distinct from that of a therapist, yet it also accepts the reality that students are going to come to tutoring with emotional baggage that tutors might have to help unpack and put away in order to focus on the task at hand.

Another influential expert in using empathy for the purpose of effective instruction is Dr. Becky Bailey of the Conscious Discipline program, whose 2000 book Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline addresses principles of guiding young children, principles that are so universal that leaders in business, higher education, non-profit administration, and other organizations can incorporate them into everyday tasks and communications. From this volume, it is easy to see that there are several ways of helping students process emotions appropriately within the role of tutoring, including

  • recognizing the student’s positive intention,
  • empathizing with the student’s emotions,
  • offering positive choices while reinforcing clear boundaries,
  • and offering specific encouragement rather than general praise (Bailey, 2000).

The ideas from Bailey’s parenting text do not necessarily involve a parent guiding a small child; instead, the overall context being assumed by Bailey is that there is a facilitator or guide who is working with a learner. Age, ability, expertise, experience, and other potential factors in setting up a power differential between the two participants are reframed as potential factors in communicating consciously.

While it might seem all too rare and even impossible, there are times when students arrive to tutoring with potentially distracting positive emotions. For instance, a student might come in thoroughly excited about a thesis statement he has created, but it turns out that he accidentally plagiarized much of it from a source he had read when building his reference list. Another student might be pleased with her well-researched marine biology paper, but most of her in-text citations are made up of quotes from the Bible describing beautifully written (yet completely irrelevant to the assignment) descriptions of the creation of the oceans. Like in all cases where a student comes in awash in strong feelings (whether positive or negative), it is important to meet the student where he or she is.

In the case where it might feel like you must burst a student’s bubble, start by acknowledging the positive intent behind the writing the student has brought in. Consider with the student the time and effort it took to create something of which the student is clearly very proud. Validate that effort and praise the intention behind the effort, offering possible visions of what the student had in mind when choosing a course of action, but use language of validation and praise subtly by describing the best possible intention of the student without using language of assessment (especially avoiding assessment terms like “good”).

  • “You wanted to root your thesis statement in the most accurate and timely scholarly literature available, so you thought of your sources when you wrote your thesis statement.”
  • “You wanted to convey to your audience the beauty and majesty of the oceans in this marine biology paper, so you chose to show how oceans are portrayed in the scripture of your faith.”

By describing the positive intention, you are not telling the student that he or she made the good or right choice; rather, you are validating the positive feelings the student has about the hard work he or she has done. It is like when a chef makes ratatouille but over-chops the vegetables, making the texture more like a salsa than a ratatouille—there was hard work, but there was perhaps too much hard work focusing so much on one task that the end product came out differently from the original intention. There might be over-thinking and over-working going on when a student brings what she thinks is an organized marketing plan but is in reality a lengthy advertisement for a company. Taking that step back and acknowledging the student’s intentions will allow you to accomplish the crucial first step of meeting the student where he or she is.

After acknowledging the student’s positive intentions, use those positive intentions as the foundation for showing a better course of action than what was taken.

  • “There is a risk that your voice will be lost in the current phrasing of this thesis statement. Since your thesis can only use sources to support your ideas (and not the other way around), you must identify your original contribution to the academic conversation. Let’s use some templates to explore where you might disagree with your sources, or perhaps where you might agree but with a difference or a new perspective on the situation.”
  • “The use of scripture here might be less effective than using another type of source. Since your audience includes a diverse student body who is held together in this class by the merit everyone finds in current scientific literature, consider reaching out to all members of the audience by finding equally majestic descriptions of oceanic development among revered scientific texts.”

At no point in these discussions is the current writing labeled as incorrect or wrong. Instead, the choice the student has made is presented in its best possible light but is also recognized as less effective than a different choice that better carries out the student’s positive intent.

One emotional issue that might present a predicament to the tutor is when a student is adjusting to a new culture. Some of Kaplan’s students are from other countries and  are adjusting to living in the United States; others might be students from the U.S. who are living abroad due to military or work service. In the 2000 language pedagogy textbook Teaching Language in Context, Alice Omaggio Hadley describes how students get frustrated and overwhelmed when at first they think their new cultural setting is parallel to their home culture but learn that there are unique cultural phenomena that will not translate from a more familiar framework into a less familiar context. For instance, a student who was educated through secondary school in China might have the ideal of always using another scholar’s exact words and never paraphrasing out of respect to the source (Gillespie, 2012). That student might experience a difficult transition to a U.S. academic writing ideal of paraphrasing in order to keep control of the source’s information in the hands of the writer. Likewise, a student from the U.S. might experience similar culture shock when living abroad.

The key to handling any tutoring situation in which a student arrives with emotional issues is to meet the student where he or she is and guide the student back to the task at hand, which is to make sense of the current task or project for class. That process might involve noticing the student’s emotions (“I can tell you seem frustrated about this”), acknowledging the student’s positive intention (“You wanted to ____, so you ____”), and pivoting to offer a more effective course of action (“To reach all of your audience, you might choose different sources”). While we cannot guarantee a solution to every student’s problems, and while we are not trained therapists, as tutors we are capable and confident in showing support for the whole student, feelings included.





Bailey, B. (2000). Easy to love, difficult to discipline. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Gillespie, G. (2012, March 2). Guide to advising international students about academic integrity. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal. Retrieved from https://dus.psu.edu/mentor/2012/03/guide-to-advising-international-students-about-academic-integrity/

Hadley, A. O. (2000). Teaching language in context. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

Lape, N. G. (2008). Training tutors in emotional intelligence: Toward a pedagogy of empathy. Writing Lab Newsletter, 33(2), 1-6.

You may also like...

1 Response

  1. Imad says:

    The bullets listed above are accurate steps I try to follow when I see a struggling student. The student is frustrated with a matter but they are trying to accomplish completing the task at hand. Some are upset by the time they reach us, I need to know what the issue is and then I try to calm the student and concentrate on achieving the goal of the session. A helping hand with appraising the student on their accomplishment goes far when dealing with unknown factors of the subject matter.,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *