A while ago, I wrote an article about how to teach a trial session. In that article, I mentioned that my trials (or first lessons) are normally quite informal and conversation-based. However, it doesn’t make sense to have just a pleasant conversation with a student. So let’s discuss how to ask the right questions which will make your student feel confident about future lessons and will encourage him to book further lessons with you.

Before we get to the actual list of questions you can ask, I’d like to talk about two general things:

1. Don’t be afraid to ask for information you already know

It’s very likely that you and your student exchanged some messages before the trial, so you already know a bit about each other. However, don’t be afraid to ask for those things again when you meet for the trial session. It gives the student the opportunity to practice his language skills and things said during a conversation often stick better in one’s mind. You may also take the opportunity to correct your student’s mistakes.  It’s very likely that your student will need the topics which usually pop up in a trial session in other conversations, too. So it’s helpful when he’s either corrected or reassured that he’s using correct language.

2. Don’t be afraid to Discourage a student to start taking lessons with you

Sounds strange? Well, sometimes it happens that you perceive during a trial session that a certain student is not a good fit for you. I’ve recently had a couple of trials with students who had an A1/A2 level of German and wanted to have conversational lessons. Well, I prefer to work with books at such low levels. My conversation lessons are aimed at students who have at least a B2 level. I find conversational lessons with low-level students extremely stressful. There are exceptions but in general, it’s not my cup of tea. Normally, I tell such students that I’d recommend working with a book. Either they agree or I don’t hear from there again. I wrote a bit more about turning down a student in this article. In the case of those recent trial session students, I didn’t hear from them again.  That’s fine for me although I would have liked to work with two of them – on my terms.

Let’ s now have a look at the questions you should ask a student you’d like to work with. 

Questions about language skills

  1. For how long have you been learning German/Spanish/French/etc?
  2. How did you learn the language?
  3. Have you ever attended a course? What did you like and what did you dislike?
  4. Have you ever had private lessons? What did you like and dislike about them?
  5. What’s your current level? (Offer a placement test if the student isn’t sure)
  6. Where do you see your weaknesses?

Why are these questions important? They will tell you a lot about the student’s learning habits and preferences. There are students who have studied the language for quite a while trying several methods but aren’t really sure about their level, their strengths and weaknesses. These students need more guidance than people who were quite goal-orientated and aware of what they’re doing from the very beginning.

Apart from that, these questions show your interest in the student’s previous experiences and tell them that you’d like to make their future lessons as enjoyable and effective as possible.

Questions about the student’s goals

  1. Why do you learn the language?
  2. Do you plan to take an official exam? If yes, which one and when? Will you need help to prepare for the exam?

These questions are important because it makes a difference whether someone learns a language just for fun or has to reach a goal (passing an exam) within a certain time-frame. Not all teachers are familiar with official exams and able to prepare a student accordingly. Or they may not want to do exam preparation like Spanish teacher Estefy who focuses on small talk and socialising. If you’re one of them, that’s fine. You may nevertheless start to work with the student but recommend another teacher for the actual exam preparation, for example.

Questions about the student’s ideas of how the lessons should be conducted

  1. What would you like to focus on during the lessons?
  2. Do you want to do homework? How much time do you have to do homework?
  3. Do you like to talk about private stuff?

These questions make sure that you and your prospective student are a good match.  My ideal lesson is a mixture of conversation, reading and grammar with a focus on conversation. This depends much on the student’s personality, though. If the student is a bit shy or reluctant to talk about personal stuff or expressing his opinion, it’s always less effective. However, it’s your job as a teacher to make sure that such students get enough conversation practice, too so be prepared to ask a lot of questions and try to find topics the student gets enthusiastic about. If you work with a book, you don’t always have to stick to the current topic.

Mentioning homework is important and should include some tips about reviewing stuff from the lessons. Believe it or not but there are still people who think it’s enough to appear for the lesson and are then surprised why they make so little progress. Students with little time or a lack of self-discipline usually do better with a higher frequency of lessons a week than students who are willing to dedicate a certain amount of time to self-study  every day.

Questions about how to proceed after the trial lesson

  1. Did you already have a look at my schedule and my courses?
  2. Do you understand the differences among the courses I’m offering or do you have any questions?
  3. Which times would work well for you to have lessons?
  4. Are you interested in having lessons at regular times?
  5. Encourage the student to get in touch if any questions remained unanswered and offer him one or two possibilities to contact you.

In my opinion, the description of my lessons on italki is pretty clear and straightforward.

courses italki
These are my current German courses on italki

However, I’ve made the experience that quite a few students book a trial session without making themselves familiar with the courses before. Or they don’t look at your schedule and may be disappointed after the lesson if they want to book a regular session but can’t find a suitable slot. So it makes sense to ask these question. Don’t try to talk your student into booking a follow-up session at once, though. If they’re genuinely interested in working with you, they’ll do it anyway and otherwise, you’re likely to annoy them.

Some last words about flexible schedules. You may have had a trial session with a prospective student you’d really love to work with but it turns out that he would like to have lessons on Friday nights and normally, you don’t teach on Friday nights. In such cases, you need to make a decision how flexible you want to be. In my case, it changes. For example, I’ve just started to take regular yoga classes and that has priority in my private life. So I’m trying to be as flexible as I can but certain times are not possible because I need the time for my yoga.

Did you find this article helpful? Which questions do you ask when meeting a prospective student for the first time? Please don’t hesitate to write in the comments. 

Author: Daniela

Hi! I'm Daniela - a native German who's living as a digital nomad in Latin America. Besides making a living teaching German, I'm constantly trying to improve my Spanish and Portuguese. On my blog, I write articles for (aspiring) language teachers to help them get started and for people who want to travel the world and make some extra cash teaching offering quality language lesson.

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One thought on “Do you ask your students the right questions?

  1. Do you plan to take an official exam? If yes, which one and when? Will you need help to prepare for the exam?
    Do you want to do homework? How much time do you have to do homework?

    These 2 questions I never ask but will do now. Thanks for sharing!! A lot of teachers don’t …

    Posted on 21. June 2017 at 18:22