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Same Learning, Different Medium: The Phases Of Learning When Tutoring Online


We’ve entered a new era of learning – but that doesn’t mean the way students absorb information has changed.  There are just more challenges to engagement (tutors and parents alike can attest to this). 

Terms to know

  • Stages of learning
  • Direct instruction
  • Modelling
  • Guided practice 

What are the stages of learning?

There are four stages:

  • Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence 
  • Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence 
  • Stage 3: Conscious Competence 
  • Stage 4: Unconscious Competence 

What does this mean for you? 

You need to be able to recognize where your student is in their learning cycle. 

This will help you better plan appropriate lessons and nurture learning outcomes!

Learning Stages & Online Tutoring 

Stage 1: You don’t know what you don’t know: unconscious incompetence 

Learning something new can be scary. 

Students might worry about looking foolish. It’s normal for students to show disinterest, frustration, or embarrassment (they may not initially realize how big their knowledge gaps are).  

As a tutor, here’s how you can help: 

  • Start with trust. You won’t get far without fostering a relationship with your student. Show them that you are someone they can rely on (don’t forget to show some personality)!
  • Do they have reservations about the subject? Answer any questions they may have before diving into the material. 
  • Help your students see why the topic is worth studying. Break it down in ways that may be of interest to them. 

Here’s how you can leverage the online environment: 

  • Students love videos. Take advantage of YouTube and other types of media on the academic subject to help build interest. 
  • Send your student on an information scavenger hunt. Provide them with a worksheet of questions and ask them to research the answers online. 

Stage 2: You know that you want to improve: conscious incompetence 

Your student wants to improve but doesn’t know how to.

Educate your student on what you want them to learn without overwhelming them. 

With older students, one way to do this is to build a simple learning roadmap (learning is a journey after all).

The outline helps identify soft goals and timelines. This takes some of the ambiguity out of the journey – making it less intimidating. Just remember to assure your student you will go at their pace and be flexible.

Here are some ways to support stage 2 learning online: 

  • In the beginning, your student may need direct instruction from you. As they grow, be sure to move towards modelling and guided practice instead.
  • Let your student take a breath. Add a break to the lesson to reduce learning fatigue. 
  • Make sure your technology is reliable. An unreliable connection or poor platform can disrupt productivity and engagement. 
  • Ask to record the session. This will make it easier for you and your student to remember the important parts of the lesson. You can also review how the lesson went and where you think your student may need more help. 
  • When assigning your students work during the lesson, check in often to see how they’re doing. Ask them to work through their problems out loud so you can be involved in their thinking process. 

Stage 3: You know how to succeed with added effort: Conscious competence 

It’s always great to see a student getting the hang of a subject. 

In this stage, students will start to develop self-determination and confidence. They now can conquer tasks solo. 

While they are not masters of the field yet, they have a solid understanding of how to work through problems. This self-awareness allows them to identify areas where they may still need support. 


Here’s how you can support them during this stage:

  • Know when to step back. It is time to allow your students the opportunity to drive the lesson. At this point, you are more responsible for guiding than instructing. 
  • Foster confidence, but reinforce the importance of continuous practice. Provide students with learning material that will challenge them. 
  • Be aware of your student’s body language. Pay attention to when they pause, frown or appear frustrated. This will provide insight into where they might still be struggling.

Stage 4: You can do it with your eyes closed: Unconscious competence 

This is the phase all tutors want their students to reach. 

Students feel comfortable, confident and can solve problems with ease. 


What should you do when your student reaches this stage? 

  • Make sure they know that their hard work is paying off! 

With online learning, it might be nice to find a way to recognize your student’s success. You could send them a personal e-card, or a commemorative certificate.

Sit back and have a coffee, of course!

Your work is over (joking). Speak with your student about the next steps. Ask them if there is anything they would like to learn more about or refocus on.

Plan their next stage of development. 


Wrapping Up

Although the environment might be changing, learning is still a process. 

As you settle into online tutoring, take the time to find out where your students are in their journey – then find ways to connect. 

The more you know about their learning process, the smaller the online distance will feel.

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