One-on-one instruction

Teaching strategies

One-on-one instruction

A strategy for teacher aides, parents, tutors, teachers and other educators that supercharges progress – if done right!

A learning support officer actively engaging with students and their learning.

When most people hear the term ‘one-on-one instruction’, they think about students sitting with a tutor either after school or on weekends. Tutors can be teachers, non-teaching professionals, university students looking for extra cash, parents, an older sibling, or someone from a tutoring service. In the school environment, teachers devote a large amount of time to one-on-one instruction. This can be during class, on breaks or even after school. Outside of class time, one-on-one instruction can take the form of a quick chat after class or be a formal session of 30-60 minutes. Many of these longer sessions, whether individual or small group tuition, are part of intervention or remedial programs. School-wide remedial programs are designed as a safety net for students who have fallen behind their peers and who need specialist instruction to ensure that they don’t fall further behind.

One-on-one instruction is without doubt the most effective teaching strategy in terms of improving educational performance.

While teachers regularly employ one-on-one instruction for various purposes, teacher’s aides spend most of their time supporting students with one-on-one instruction.i One-on-one instruction is therefore particularly relevant for teacher’s aides and other support staff. For practical purposes, the term ‘one-on-one instruction’ is used to refer to small group instruction (2-4 students) as the teacher or teacher’s aide has ample time to support individual students within the small group (when compared to the time available per student in a whole-of-class situation at least).

One-on-one instruction is without doubt the most effective teaching strategy in terms of improving educational performance.ii Research shows that one-on-one instruction is far more effective than other student-centred strategies such as discovery learning, problem-based learning and any type of co-operative learning strategy.iii One-on-one instruction is also more effective than basically every teaching strategy when that strategy is delivered to large groups of students (including explicit instruction). In other words, a strategy such as explicit instruction is much more effective with 1 student per teacher than with 32 students per teacher.

This is not ground-breaking news of course. Educational researchers have been wondering why one-on-one instruction is more effective than whole-of-class instruction for decades.iv If the strategies used in one-on-one instruction (scaffolding, modelling, feedback, etc.) were applied to larger groups, the educational outcomes should be similar. However, this is not the case and one-on-one instruction is far more effective in terms of achieving gains in skills such as reading and writing. Hence the use of one-on-one instruction for remedial and intervention programs in both reading and writing. The results have led to one of the biggest questions in education: how can teachers make whole-of-class activities as effective as one-on-one instruction?

To unpack this question, we first need to look closely at all of the things that are unique to one-on-one instruction:

  • The teacher provides the student with their undivided attention.
  • The student can ask an unlimited number of questions.
  • The student and teacher get to know each other better (an increase in rapport).
  • The teacher shows a genuine interest in the student, thereby improving classroom culture and the class dynamic (in other words, creating a positive learning environment).
  • By spending time with an individual who is struggling, the teacher is signalling a high expectation of achievement for all students (a ripple effect).
  • The teacher provides advice on how the problem(s) can be overcome with metacognitive skills (for example, students may not struggle with maths, but with how to apply maths processes).
  • The teacher motivates the student by helping them to achieve micro-goals and commenting publicly that they were successful (and this recognition builds student self-esteem and confidence).
  • The teacher provides explanations, modelling and worked examples specific to the student’s learning needs (for example, the student may only have issues with one aspect of a maths problem).
  • The teacher engages in the ‘one-on-one treatment loop’, which is a continual loop of diagnostic assessment, treatment, formative assessment, practise and feedback.

Each stage of the ‘one-on-one treatment loop’ is specifically targeted to maximise individual student learning. Like a medical condition, the more targeted the treatment to the needs of the individual, the higher the treatment’s success rate overall (and in less time, making it more efficient). We will now look at each of the stages in the one-on-one treatment loop in more detail:

  • Diagnostic assessment – this first step is crucial. The teacher needs to determine exactly what the student needs help with. To do this, the task must be broken down into steps. This applies to even the smallest problem. Next, the teacher needs to test the student to diagnose the exact issue. This is usually achieved by asking several direct questions. Teachers need to establish if the issue is general understanding (concept understanding and knowledge), confusion with the sequence of steps (mixing them up), applying the process (overall or a specific part), or another small section of the task.

    Avoid the trap of thinking that a student cannot complete a task when in fact only a small part of the task causes the issue. Students will often say that they ‘can’t do the task’ and become easily overwhelmed and confused because of something minor. For example, in many instances, students do not struggle with a maths problems per se; what they struggle with are specific aspects of the problem. The student may not be able to complete a learning task because of a small gap in their knowledge. Put another way, if a task takes 15 steps to complete, the student may get stuck on step 6 which makes it seem like he or she can’t do the whole task.

    Similarly, students often do not struggle with reading per se; instead they struggle with one or more reading skills such as comprehension, vocabulary, word recognition, phonetic awareness and grammatical understanding, or from using a lack of reading techniques such as re-reading and active reading. Accurately diagnosing the specific problem is the first step in determining the best treatment.
  • Treatment – once a learning problem has been accurately diagnosed, teachers can address it using any number of strategies. Worked examples, modelling, scaffolding, board work, metacognitive skills, coping strategies, guided learning, shared learning and questioning techniques are the most common. Care should be taken to ensure the most appropriate strategy is chosen in order to maximise the chances of success. This is a critical step that novice practitioners rush – time should be devoted to carefully considering the best treatment from a range of potential options. Like medical staff, teachers could/should consult with other practitioners.
  • Formative assessment – after the student has an opportunity to practise and improve, the teacher checks for understanding and follows up with additional or new treatment if necessary. See the formative assessment section later in this book for details on how to conduct this type of assessment.
  • Practise – students should be provided with the opportunity to practise in conjunction with their formative assessment and treatment. An explanation from the teacher is not enough for learning to occur in most cases – students need to ‘do’. Additionally, the teacher should set the practice activities to target the specific issues identified in the diagnostic assessment. This may mean developing practice questions. This can be done simply by editing the original problem with new inputs. If the student then demonstrates mastery of the problem, several similar problems can be provided to consolidate their learning (adjusting the inputs). At that point, progressively more challenging questions can be attempted. Practice activities can involve both shared and guided learning strategies. At some point, support is completely withdrawn in order to determine if the treatment has been successful.
  • Feedback – teachers should supply snippets of feedback during the students’ practice activities to let them know if they are on the right track. More detailed feedback should also be provided at the conclusion of the one-on-one treatment loop. At this point, feedback needs to include information on what to do next, when the teacher will return for a follow-up check, what to do if there are additional problems, where to go for help, and a compliment such as ‘well done – that was a hard one – good on you for not giving up’ to boost student motivation, as well as a note about using metacognitive strategies if applicable (such as thinking problems through, following procedures etc.).

Hint: every interaction with a student of 2-3 minutes or more can be thought of as a micro-lesson. As such, the same best-practice recommendations apply: set goals, structure your micro-lesson with an introduction, notify students if they achieve a goal, accurately diagnose any issues, scaffold, provide feedback, use questioning techniques, provide opportunities for practise and finish with a conclusion or summary.

Foot notes:

  1. Thomson, S.D. (1963). The Emerging Role of the Teacher Aide. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 37(6), 326-330. doi: 10.1080/00098655.1963.11476274.
  2. Vadasy, P., Jenkins, J., Antil, L., Wayne, S., & O'Connor, R. (1997). The Effectiveness of One-to-One Tutoring by Community Tutors for At-Risk Beginning Readers. Learning Disability Quarterly, 20(2), 126-139. doi:10.2307/1511219.
  3. Fryer Jr, R. G., & Noveck, M. H. (2018). High-Dosage Tutoring and Reading Achievement: Evidence from New York City. Journal of Labor Economics. doi: 10.1086/705882.
  4. Bloom, B. S. (1984). The 2 sigma problem: The search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring. Educational Researcher,13(6), 4-16.

About the author

Image of the managing director of ITAC.


Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of ITAC, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.

Source: Teaching Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners. Amazon #1 best seller in the category of Classroom Management.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.


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