The INSPIRE model
The INSPIRE model (Lepper & Woolverton, 2002) describes 7 behaviors exhibited by effective tutors. As you plan how you will facilitate your office hours, consider ways to incorporate these aspects into your coaching to support students.
There are 3 different types of knowledge that effective tutors possess:
- A strong breadth and depth of subject-specific knowledge, such as being able to provide a wide variety of real-world analogies or historical information about a topic to engage students
- Subject-specific pedagogical knowledge, which constitutes understanding what kinds of problems are difficult for students and the types of errors they typically make, as well as what problems appear difficult (when they’re not) or what problems appear easier than they actually are
- General pedagogical knowledge in teaching and incorporating instructional or motivational strategies
Effective tutors are not only knowledgeable but also supportive and nurturing of their students. For example, they establish rapport by starting each session by asking about students’ interests and life outside of school. They show concern for students, are attentive to their needs, and show that they believe in students’ abilities while empathizing with their difficulties.
A Socratic approach involves using more questions (rather than directions) to draw out as much from the student as possible. In fact, a study found that more than 90% of the remarks made by effective tutors were questions. Such tutors offer hints rather than immediate answers, providing 5 or 6 continuous hints before talking about the answer. Additionally, rather than responding to every error a student makes, a successful tutor might let trivial errors slide in the moment (especially if it doesn’t prevent the student from reaching the answer with the correct process) and point them out at the end.
The best tutors also appear to distinguish between productive and unproductive errors. They may decide to let students make productive errors, allowing them to discover the error themselves with help from the tutor, and correct unproductive errors, which are pointed out because the student will go down a completely wrong path if left unfixed.
To plan your office hours sessions more effectively, it may help to have a systematic progression of problems. An effective progression may consist of pre-selected initial problems to diagnose a student’s understanding, with subsequent problems addressing regular misconceptions, then increasing the difficulty after the student has mastered a given problem level. It is also helpful to engage in systematic debugging during this process, starting with general hints and questions and gradually making them more specific if those prompts fail.
Indirect feedback involves avoiding negative feedback and directly saying the student has made an error. Instead, successful tutors pose questions that imply an error and the error’s location, allowing the student an opportunity to catch the error themselves (with the added benefit of positive motivation resulting from the student catching their own error). Successful tutors are also less likely to provide explicit praise—particularly praise directed more at the student than the process. The office hours session should not feel evaluative, so it is important to emphasize learning rather than performance.
You can greatly improve your students’ understanding by having them articulate what they have learned. For instance, ask students to reflect aloud about what they have just done after solving a problem. This can help them better conceptually understand what they just learned and discover any other misconceptions that might not have been obvious during the learning process. Effective tutors may also encourage students to periodically explain their answers, reasoning, and procedure after a successful problem. They elaborate on the students’ responses and provide a more complete explanation if needed. Students can reflect on how their work relates to other problems or generalizes to real-world examples as well.
Successful tutors increase student confidence by emphasizing the difficulty of the problem. If students struggle with the problem at first, they can attribute it to the problem’s difficulty instead of a personal shortcoming or being “less than”; if they complete the problem, they can also view success as more valuable. It is also important to challenge students with difficult but not impossible questions. Make students curious by asking them to predict what a problem solution might look like or how it might differ from other problems. When possible, allow students choice, such as by letting them choose which problem they want to solve next, as long as it doesn’t have negative instructional consequences. Finally, contextualizing problems in the real world or in contexts that are personally interesting to students can increase student curiosity and motivation.
Mock office hours videos
Figuring out the best way to coach students during office hours is a tricky thing. To show how the INSPIRE model can be used during office hours, the following videos show examples of a TA interacting with a student who has come to office hours for help with a homework problem. We highly recommend that you watch Office Hours – Scene 1 before watching Scene 2.
As you watch Scene 1, create a table of good and questionable strategies used by the TA. You may find it useful to use this observation log.
Reflecting on what you observed in Scene 1, consider how you could improve upon the strategies employed by the TA. Then watch Scene 2. What does the TA do to make sure the student is following and understanding?
Special considerations for facilitating remote office hours
Remote office hours may require adjustments compared to in-person office hours. To make your remote office hours more efficient, you may consider:
- Putting students into breakout rooms based on the problem or topic they have questions about.
- Soliciting questions from students in advance so you can organize them into groups (if you have many students). You could also assign times to students based on their questions.
- Enabling the “waiting room” feature in Zoom so that you can admit students individually or in small groups. Consider creating 2 breakout rooms: (1) a general waiting area where students can discuss among themselves, and (2) the other for students to work on specific problems.
Lepper, M. R., & Woolverton, M. (2002). The wisdom of practice: Lessons learned from the study of highly effective tutors. In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education (p. 135–158). Academic Press.