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How to Give an Effective One-to-One Teaching Session

Mohan is a family physician and a Postgraduate Associate Dean working in the UK. He has a keen interest in self-regulated learning.


In this article on One to One teaching:

We will look at its-

Advantages and disadvantages

Reflect on core principles

Design a Structure

Discuss how to evaluate one

The Power of Personalised teaching

One to one teaching is a powerful encounter for teachers and learners. It provides unique opportunities in shaping the teaching to the needs of the learner in front of us. It also provides unique challenges in planning and delivery.

As someone who delivers such sessions on a regular basis for post graduate Doctors, I've often reflected on the sessions, their intended outcomes and the subtle delights of unintended learning opportunities. The focused interplay between tutor and learner, when done well, liberates from the constraints of mass market teaching. It provides avenues of exploration far beyond the abilities of a group session. It can be energising and entertaining. It can give insights into the pupil's learning strategies and can help seek out attitudes to learning. It can give a certain creative freedom in the methods in achieving a learning objective.

Yet, it has the capacity to challenge enormously. The focus can be unrelenting and draining. It tests the teachers skill in listening, challenging, coaching and assessing. It creates unique demands of time, planning strategies and a demands a deeper knowledge of the learner.

Having looked at many models of One to One teaching, I felt that despite the creative freedom, there are certain structures and principles one needs to familiar with in delivering an effective session.


Advantages of One to One teaching encounter

The One to One encounter between a teacher and a student bestows several advantages to the tutor and the learner. The structure, pacing and content can be tailored to the individual needs of the learner. The learner gets the undivided attention of the teacher and benefits from such focus. The teacher can listen, assimilate and evaluate the learner's level of knowledge, skills and attitudes.

There are no mixed abilities to deal with and therefore the teacher can build levels of challenge appropriate to the learner in front. The goals can be mutually agreed and precise objectives set in advance. The preparation and planning of both parties can be appropriately utilised in this encounter. The teacher can adapt their language and their teaching style to suit the learning style of the single learner.

The ability to develop rapport and therefore the freedom to explore and assess attitudes and skills is much more effective in such an encounter.

Benefits of One to One Teaching Encounter

Aspects of TeachingTeacher advantagesLearner advantages


Deploy the most effective teaching style that will benefit the learner

teaching tailored to their learning style


Undivided focus

Benefits of undivided attention


Allows freedom on pacing and movement

Tailored to leaners own level of understanding and insight


Mutually agreed and planned

Mutually agreed and learner centred


Ability to assess individual level of competence

Tailored feedback on progress


Allows precision, measurability and covers knowledge, skills and attitudes

Tailored to learners level


Appropriate challenge to ensure move to excellence

Rise to their level of competence and excellence


Intrinsic benefits of one to one encunter

Freedom to ask questions in a relaxed setting


Enable expression of inner attitudes and behaviours

Expressing inner beliefs without peer pressure


Disadvantages of One to One approach

As with most encounters, the one to one encounter can also present difficulties.

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The teacher may struggle to calibrate the level of learner without others to benchmark with. The absence of rapport may cause poor engagement. A stoic uncommunicative learner can make the encounter turgid and provide an uphill challenge. The teacher may slip into didactic- teaching and talk more if the learner contributions are low. Constant engagement can be an issue with teacher and learner fatigue.

The richness of multiple learner contributions and the learner-to-learner interactions can be lost. The learner may suffer from what may be perceived as an unrelenting challenge. They have no others to provide peer support and peer challenge to raise the bar. The learners may suffer from lack of 'me-time' to reflect, assimilate and seek internal knowledge - the unrelenting focus of one to one teaching gives less freedom to do so.

Disadvantages of One to One teaching

Aspects of Teaching Teacher- Learner disadvantages


Unrelenting focus fails to give 'me-time' for learner and teacher to seek inner resources, reflect, regroup etc.


Failed rapport may affect all aspects of the encounter


Lack of peer to peer interaction affets benchmarking, internal challenge and ability to compete and collaborate


Teacher may slip into didactic mode unconsciously


The Teacher and learner act as the only points of resource for discussion and may lack colour and variety

As you can see the advantages do outweigh the disadvantages. In most educational milieu the learners and teachers are likely to experience a multiplicity of encounters - one to one being a method of instruction among other modes of teaching.

As it is a powerful teaching tool and an apprenticeship model I would like to share my thoughts on the principles that underpin such an encounter and consider how to make it a successful one.

The Educational Triangle

The Educational Triangle

Principles of One to One Encounter

The basic educational triumvirate is one of Objectives, Methods and Assessment. When we set out to prepare for an one to one encounter, as with other educational activities, we need to be aware of the need to set precise learning objectives for the encounter, be clear on what methods we would use within such an encounter and how the overall success of the encounter will be measured.

In my line of work I have seen many teaching encounters delivered by a faculty member where the overall mutual sense of rapport seems to mask lack of clear objectives and an intrinsic measure of efficiency. Equally there are some that are so focused on the objectives and methods, the rapport slips and the encounter becomes more of a 'grilling' that leaves learner or teacher bruised and drained.

While we need to explore a 'skeleton' or 'framework' to form a scaffold for our approach to one to one teaching, we also need to mindful of our own individual styles and personalities that bring colour and engagement to the process. After all we hope not to bore ourselves ( and in return the learner) during the process!

Proper preparation and planning prevents poor performance - Stephen Keague

Proper preparation and planning prevents poor performance - Stephen Keague

Preparation and Planning

One of the seven habits of 'highly effective people', according to Stephen R Covey, is to begin with the end in mind. Trouble is not everyone knows what the end should look like.

A self motivated learner will have a clear idea of what they want to achieve overall. They will have an idea how the one-one-one teaching encounter may facilitate their journey to the end they have in mind.

In reality however, many learners require gentle 'assistance' in their planning, some signposting, and a lot of facilitation from the tutor. What could be more worrying is a tutor and a learner both being vague about their goals. The Preparation and planning step will help to draw outlines, share goals and plan for a successful teaching encounter.

During this phase, the tutor can assist the learner and probe them to ensure they are clear in what they are trying to gain from the tutorial.

Key conversations during preparation and planning help to elicit learner motivation and understanding... ( As I am a medical teacher, I am using a medical topic for example- you could easily substitute any topic in the following conversation)

Tutor: We've got some time set aside for a one to one session next week, what would you like to cover?

Learner: Oh, I would like a tutorial on headaches.

Tutor: What made you choose that subject?

Learner: It is something I am not familiar with and I feel I could be better equipped if you tell me more about it.

Tutor: What aspect of headaches are you not familiar with? Is it the variety of causes, the diagnosis, the overall management plans or how to look for red flags?

Learner: ( trying it on) a bit of everything really!

Tutor: What does your curriculum say you need to know? and what would you like to be able to do more comfortably as a result of this session? ( making links to curriculum and competencies to be developed)

Learner: I haven't looked at the curriculum recently but I suspect I should be able to know the variety of headaches, how to identify them, how to differentiate one from another and how to treat patients and know when to refer them on to a higher specialist...

Tutor: You must know some of it already, how about refreshing what you already know by using this resource - say - and then we can discuss the more applied aspects - ie., how to diagnose, how to take history, how to ensure safety and look for danger signs etc. ( broad objective setting) I have also seen you sometimes struggle with asking questions around family background and work stress etc - is it worth practising this in the headache context? ( introducing some tutor agenda from prior observation)

Learner: Sounds good.

Tutor: Why don't you bring a summary of your learning to the session and you can give me a brief overview and we can take it from there? Also if you have any case examples you may have encountered before do bring those to the discussion. ( setting pre-tutorial tasks to ensure learner is not a passive recipient)

And so on...

As you can see, this prior preparatory conversation with the learner is what creates a shared ownership to the session ( I am aware that this may not always be possible and some sessions may need be tutor set) Some learners may be ahead of the game and may come with well defined objectives- in such cases it may be worth still checking their baseline knowledge, skills and attitudes before assuming competence.

Goal Setting

Goal Setting

The steps in preparation and planning may include all or some of the following:

  • A pre-encounter conversation
  • A check of subject and relevance to the learner's curriculum
  • An exploration of learner's agenda
  • A tutor reflection of specific competencies to be developed
  • Setting specific pre-encounter tasks and asking for something for the learner to bring to the session
  • Goal and objective setting

Overambitious goals.

Overambitious goals.

Shared Objective Setting

Objectives are crucial to have a satisfactory teaching encounter. It is even more vital in a one-one-encounter as the learner and the tutor should feel a sense of achievement at the end of the session. To ensure this, mutual objective setting for the planned session ( as part of preparation and planning) is important.

A combination of learner's ( maybe refined and reviewed by the tutor) and the tutors ( refined and reviewed by the learner) objectives will make a highly successful one to one encounter.

Objectives need to be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound. In the context of the one-one-teaching encounter the tutor and learner need to be clear what can be achieved in the planned time.

As a tutor you may also need to reflect on how to categorize the objectives into Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes.

Under Knowledge, you will need to consider whether you are testing recall, comprehension, application, analysis or synthesis and evaluation- levels of escalation in Benjamin Bloom's taxonomy of cognitive domain.

Benjamin Bloom's Wheel of exploring knowledge domains

Benjamin Bloom's Wheel of exploring knowledge domains

Appropriate Method

Different subject matter will warrant different methods. A tutor may choose a 'question and answer' approach with escalating challenge. They may use 'scenario' based approach to teach application and analysis. A mini-role play will test communication and conversation skills. A 'problem' based approach will teach and test problem solving. A 'shared narrative' approach will help share tutor's prior knowledge and experience in a contextual manner ( one needs to be careful not to dawdle into 'back in my time' style narratives!)

In this aspect the tutor could also use other resources to enrich the encounter- a role-player, a multi-media tool, a book, a presentation, a series of sample problems or scenarios etc.

Teaching Strategies

Teaching Strategies

...a sense of fun, a challenging dialogue, exploring problem based learning, considering simulated modelling, a sense of collaboration and a teaching style that caters to multiple intelligences will have a significant impact on learning. This will also assist the learner in their journey to competence and excellence.

Teaching Styles/Strategies

The One-one-encounter demands a reasonable rapport and a sense of camaraderie. The tutor needs to tune their styles and strategies to the learner's style as much as possible, while assisting the learner to explore newer learning styles and strategies to give a sense of challenge.

For example if a learner is a theorist, the tutor may start with exploring and outlining some underlying theory and principles but needs to gently push the learner in exploring pragmatic application and reflection.

This aspect demands the most from a Tutor as most tutors seek solace in their own style and the need to be multi-faceted can cause some intrinsic difficulties. However, educational research does prove that a sense of fun, a challenging dialogue, exploring problem based learning, considering simulated modelling, a sense of collaboration and a teaching style that caters to multiple intelligences will have a significant impact on learning. This will also assist the learner in their journey to competence and excellence.

The Teacher needs also be alert to learner's verbal and non verbal cues indicating flashes insight, joy or discomfort. There needs to be sufficient support and challenge throughout and an ongoing assessment of the learner's abilities.


As much as it is important for the tutor to start in an engaging manner, an effective endgame ensures a memorable teaching encounter with clarity over outcomes.


Many one to one encounters start well and progress swimmingly one to fizzle out in the end as if the people involved have run out of things to say. As much as it is important for the tutor to start in an engaging manner, an effective endgame ensures a memorable teaching encounter.

The endgame should keep in check the time and ensure the energy levels are high.

A successful endgame in a one-one-encounter will include:

  • A check whether the objectives have been met- if not a future plan made for residual objectives
  • A summary of any new learning needs unearthed during the encounter and a plan to address them
  • A set of tasks for the learner to take the learning forward, apply and reflect
  • Some mutual feedback from the learner and the tutor on each others effectiveness
  • A feedback on the effectiveness of the session
  • A brief record of what was covered, what tasks were set and a plan to reflect in any learner portfolio

These instructions are merely a guide and a framework and not to detract you from your own individuality. After all, an engaged learner is a successful learner. Your style, passion, individuality and inspiration are as essential as any underlying structure.


We have discussed the principles of the encounter. We may also need to consider what the teaching encounter would actually look like when initiated. The following table outlines the session construct and how things may progress along with key individual elements to consider.

These instructions are merely a guide and a framework and not to detract you from your own individuality. After all, an engaged learner is a successful learner. Your style, passion, individuality and inspiration are as essential as any underlying structure.

Hope this has been a useful journey through the pros and cons of a one to one encounter and a reflection on what could potentially make a successful one to one teaching session. Feel free to add your own reflections and experiences to what has been said here and do comment below your valuable insights.


© Mohan Kumar 2015

A One-to-One Teaching Encounter


Pre-encounter planning

Tutor and Learner discuss goals and objectives, refine and review them, consider relevance and prior learning


Learner given tasks to prepare and Tutor prepares by refreshing on the subject matter, considering resources and methods

Session Start

Outline objectives, check pretutorial tasks were accomplished, initiate after checking comfort, ensure suitable environment and avoid interruptions

Core Session

Consider appropriate method, teaching style and strategy, ensure rapport, time management and use appropriate resources, ensure engagement and interactiveness - look out for cues, learning gaps, insight and individuality. Ensure adequate support and challenge and an element of ongoing assessment.


Summarise, ensure objectives met, record, feedback.

Models of interpersonal teacher behaviour

Models of interpersonal teacher behaviour

Teach Teachers to Create Magic

© 2015 Mohan Kumar


Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on September 13, 2020:

Very well explained. Nice article.

Nell Rose from England on March 27, 2015:

Hi, great to see you back. This is fascinating reading. I remember my one to one sessions when I was teaching Kumon to Children, obviously this is slightly different than adults, but I do remember that some children understood what was meant to be happening and others had to take a totally different approach, but it was well worth while, voted up and shared! nell

Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on March 27, 2015:

@vocalcoach- Audey, thank you for your warm feedback. I am glad you consider this worthy of sharing and am grateful for more readers and feedback. It's good to be back!

Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on March 27, 2015:

@Tillsontitan- what a welcome, Mary- and thank you for the Hooray! Establishing rapport and getting the learners to engage and contribute is a steep challenge especially in the early days- thank you for your comment.

Mohan Kumar (author) from UK on March 27, 2015:

@bravewarrior- it's good to see you too, Shauna! I love the way you have condensed the values of one to one teaching- the ability to 'pitch' to the personality of the learner, the freedom of using learning narratives, connecting and coaching - the list could go on. Thank you.

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on March 25, 2015:

Thank you Doc for an interesting and excellent article. I will pass this on to my fellow teachers (a few could use your expertise.) Wonderful to see you here on HP again. Voted up and more and sharing.

Mary Craig from New York on March 25, 2015:

Hooray, you're back! So good to see you.

One-to-one teaching certainly varies according to the level. For example if you are working with a student under the age of 10 you aren't going to get much cooperation in the way of what they already know. Actually, my daughter is a high school math teacher and doesn't get much out of those 16 - 18 year olds until well into their tutoring sessions.

That being said, your article here is excellent and gives the teacher a set of tools that will never let them down!

Voted up, useful, awesome, interesting, and pinned.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on March 24, 2015:

Doc, it's good to see you!

I know you have a very specific field of expertise and it's imperative your students learn the science behind their specialty. However, when you're tutoring someone one-on-one, I think getting to know their personality and how they best learn is paramount in being successful on both sides of the equation.

Sometimes, telling a story or tearing a complicated concept down into everyday terms helps the student grasp the concept. Once grasped, it's more likely to "stick".

Remember when we were kids and we were asked to compare apples to oranges? They have different growing seasons and the fruit is different in appearance, but they are both fruits. They have different skins based on the seasons in which they grow and what they nurture inside. People are the same. We all have different skins that dictate how we grow best.

If you and your mentee don't connect, it's not a good fit and neither of you will benefit. Both teacher and student need to realize this and move on if the pairing isn't beneficial.

A really good teacher/mentor will learn his/her student's personality and learning habits first. Proceed from there. The purpose of having a one-on-one session is to get the most out of what each has to offer.

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