Tutoring With Inquiry Instead of Answers

Integrate inquiry into each phase of your tutorial process to help students develop multiple skills while owning their learning.

Grades K-12 10 min Resource by:
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Inquiry is a foundational academic skill and an important part of AVID’s instructional approach to schoolwide strategies for learning in every classroom: WICOR® (Writing, Inquiry, Collaboration, Organization, and Reading). When implementing WICOR strategies, inquiry is uncovering one’s understanding, engaging in critical thinking and questioning, exploring a variety of ways to solve problems, and thinking, learning, and discussing to inspire innovation.

When inquiry intersects with tutoring, the dynamic between tutors and students shifts from a relationship of tutor as knowledge bearer and student as knowledge seeker to collaboration between the tutor and student. Using inquiry in tutoring places agency and responsibility for learning squarely on the shoulders of the student as they do the heavy lifting of learning.

Inquiry looks like: 

  • Analyzing and synthesizing materials or ideas
  • Clarifying thinking
  • Probing others’ thinking
  • Working through ambiguity
  • Solving authentic problems

For students to maximally benefit from tutoring, they must engage in a metacognitive process of separating what they know from what confuses them. When they bring this inquisitive stance to tutoring and are met with supportive questioning, instead of being provided with answers, they are able to not only resolve their confusion and learn the necessary academic content to achieve in their coursework, but they also have the steps to address similar problems in the future and develop an awareness of the learning process. In short, they learn how to learn.

Inquiry in Every Phase of the Process

AVID’s tutoring process features a scaffolded and supportive approach to help students exercise their “inquiry muscles.” The process is divided into three parts: before, during, and after the session. Each of the three phases is built on a foundation of inquiry. Before the tutoring session, students prepare by identifying a question they have about the material. This requires that they use their resources and background knowledge to clearly articulate what they know and what they do not yet understand.

During the tutoring session, they present their specific question to the tutor or small group and share the steps they have taken to try to understand the problem. Next, the tutor and group members ask probing and guiding questions by revisiting content resources instead of offering solutions. This inquiry incorporates the use of academic language and vocabulary associated with the content area. Finally, they generate a list of generalized steps to their solutions, so they may be used in future problem-solving.

After the session, students reflect on their learning, identifying which resources and strategies helped them better understand the concept or problem. Reflecting on the steps taken to find clarity develops their problem-solving abilities and builds their academic confidence. To complete the inquiry process, students apply their new learning in their classes.

Integrating Inquiry

Tutors need to be trained to leverage inquiry and be supplied with strategies and tools to support students in owning their learning. One helpful resource for this work is Costa’s Levels of Thinking, which divides lower-order and higher-order thinking skills and applies specific task verbs to each level. Using these levels helps the student and tutor move beyond lower-level questions, which are easily answered, into more complex questioning to get at the heart of their confusion or misunderstanding.

Question stems, such as those below, support both tutors and students in asking general questions to move thinking and problem-solving forward, without taking agency away from the student by simply providing answers. Formulating questions at different levels reinforces the metacognitive process for students as they try to help each other unravel rigorous academic content.

Question Stems by Costa’s Levels of Thinking:

Level 3: What if the situation changed to _____; how would that impact the outcome?
Level 2: What information supports your explanation?
Level 1: What information is given?

Observe in this video how a peer tutor uses Costa’s Levels of Thinking and question stems (beginning at 1:10) to guide the student to a better understanding of his point of confusion (POC). After fielding questions from other students, the presenter answers some final questions from the tutor that help him to recap his new learning. At the end of the process, the tutor asks the student to write down the steps that he took in order to solve his question. Once tutors are trained in this inquiry process, they are able to support students in resolving their questions while keeping ownership of their learning.

Inquiry Leads to Ownership

Using scaffolded resources, such as question stems, gives both students and tutors a foundation for support in what is often a new approach to tutoring. Asking questions in lieu of offering solutions helps the tutor guide the student through complex content while allowing the student to remain in command, embrace their new understanding of the material, and own the learning themselves.

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