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From Theory to Practice: Tutoring ESL Students

Jessica Bennett

Tutoring students in English as second language (ESL) can be difficult. Although many aspects of a tutoring session should remain the same while tutoring ESL students as native English speaking (NS) students, some adjustments must be made. High order concerns such as thesis statements and topic sentences should remain priority; however, some new challenges may be presented. These challenges include cultural differences between tutor and writer, as well as questions about grammar rules that NS tutors may know only intuitively and, therefore, have difficulty explaining. For these reasons a first encounter with an ESL student in a tutoring session may seem overwhelming. Helping these students express their ideas, however, is a rewarding experience. My experience with ESL students began long before my tutor training. I grew up with almost constant exposure to non-native speaking (NNS) students as my family hosted numerous exchange students from a variety of cultures. I hope to couple this experience with ESL tutoring theories to help the relatively small population of ESL students at Monroe County Community College. By understanding possible cultural differences, dealing with uncertainty on the part of the tutor, and applying error analysis techniques, ESL tutoring sessions can be successful and rewarding.

A good start is key in any tutoring session, but cultural differences make this a more complex process. From the very beginning, direct eye contact may not be deemed appropriate by all students. In America, eye contact, an important form of nonverbal communication, conveys attention and interest. Additionally, many cultures differ in their views on physical contact. A handshake accompanying an introduction may not be appropriate for all students. Gender can also play an important role in a tutoring session. In some cases a male and a female may not appropriately share the interaction in a tutoring session. Also, an immediate language barrier can pose an obstacle. These potential hurdles often present themselves in the first seconds or minutes of a tutoring session, but this is just the beginning. A head nod or other sign of agreement does not necessarily mean a student grasps a concept because some "students may nod their heads and appear to understand you even when they do not because asking questions is impolite in their culture" (“On Tutoring”). A student may also nod in agreement because they are ashamed or embarrassed to ask for clarification. When a student must use a rule or technique to show comprehension, the tutor will know with some certainty whether or not the concept is truly understood. Tutors must also consider cultural differences while engaging in simple chitchat with a student. “Humor is often culturally determined” (“Tips”). Jokes or sarcasm easily sensed by a NS student can confuse or even offend an ESL student. Engaging a student in conversation, as required by the Socratic method, may even present issues. In certain countries, only professors speak in “class” (“Tips”). The student in this situation views a tutoring session similarly to a class and, therefore, wants to limit speaking. When these potential obstacles are overcome, culture can play a role in the paper itself. Not all cultures “teach writing or learning in the same manner,” and these writers might “never have written a paper with a traditional thesis” (“Tips”).

Grammar issues are often the chief concern of ESL students. Foremost, tutors should explain to students that grammar errors are not the most important issue. The tutor and tutee must first focus on issues such as thesis statements and organization. However, the students concerns must also be addressed. My first tutoring session with an ESL student shocked me for this reason. The assignment was relatively simple, and it was apparent to me the student communicated effectively; she needed more help with the English mechanics of syntax and diction. She asked grammar questions I felt completely unprepared to answer. I knew how to apply the rule, but did not know the rule itself. This intuitive understanding of English did not adequately address the student’s concerns. American culture can affect ESL tutoring sessions in this way. “U.S. grammar instruction is not formal, as it can be in other nations” (“Tips”). Most American students are not taught all of the specifics of grammar. In my tutoring session, I was willing to admit my ignorance to the student. I was, at first, somewhat embarrassed and surprised because I had never closely examined my own specific knowledge of grammar. Instead of dwelling on this feeling, I moved to find answers. I directed the student to the Internet and showed this student how to search for topics so she could look for her own answers to future questions. Simply finding a rule may not solve a grammar problem. Knowing a rule is not the same as exercising the rule (Pandolfo). It is important to work with ESL students with any rule presented. Similarly, encouraging ESL students to converse regularly with NS students will help show the proper application.

ESL students’ papers may contain a large number of errors that might be difficult to address one by one. Applying error analysis techniques can help simplify the seemingly impossible task of overcoming these errors. In this technique, the tutor attempts to understand the reason for which an error was made. The student may simply not know an English convention for writing. In this way, the tutor can deal with the cause of an error and allow the student to make future corrections. Student’s errors are often repeated, and these global errors should be tackled first (Pandolfo). While some errors made by ESL students may be the same as those of NS students, there are some key concerns in ESL paper that will likely arise. “The worst grammatical problem areas for ESL students are articles (definite and indefinite), prepositions, verb tenses, subject/verb agreement, marking time by verb tense and adverbs, plurals, and quantity words” (Pandolfo). In my tutoring session, the student had difficulty using past tense. Another word was present that ended in “ed” but was not past tense, which initially masked the root of the problem. Once I looked for the pattern of the error, I could show the student an example of the problem and its correction; the student was then able to correct the rest of the errors.

 A tutor must make herself aware of all of these potential difficulties. It is not, however, important to memorize rules for dealing with every situation that may arise when tutoring an ESL student. Each student and each session is unique. Tutors will never know all the nuances in all cultures that may affect each individual student. When a tutor is aware of potential cultural differences, he or she can be attentive and sensitive to each student as an individual. Similarly, a tutor does not need to be an expert on all grammar rules and conventions. Tutors need to know, especially when dealing with ESL students, questions will likely arise to which the answer is unknown. When a tutor is prepared to admit to a student that he or she does not know an answer, and then help the student find the answer, both tutor and tutee benefit. Finally, dealing with errors one by one is a difficult task with ESL students. Tutors must look for patterns of error, deal with the global issue, and resist the urge to correct individual mistakes.

Works Cited

“On Tutoring ESL Students.” Online Handbook. YU Stern College for Women. 24 Aug. 2005. 30 Nov. 2005      <http://www.yu.edu/stern/writingcenter/new_page_17.htm>.

Pandolfo, Elizabeth. “ESL Tutoring Handbook.” Virginia Tech Online Writing Lab. 29 Nov. 2005      <http://atena.english.vt.edu/~owl/wcip/esl-tutoring.htm>.

“Tips for English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) Conferences.” Writer’s Web. University of Richmond Writing Center.
      30 Nov. 2005 <http://writing2.richmond.edu/ riting/wweb/ESLtips.html>.

 

Required vs. Non-Required Students: What is the Difference?

Callie Gordon

In working in Monroe County Community College’s Writing Center this semester, I have learned many new things about helping students write papers. Many different types of people come to the Writing Center. Some have no interest in our services and what we have to offer them—it is just a requirement to see us in order to receive a grade for final papers in some situations. Others are outgoing and excited to work on their papers, specifically because that person has been to the Writing Center before, and he or she has benefited from the service provided by the Writing Fellows. These two types of tutees make up the students who use the services we provide. While working in the Writing Center this semester, I have learned ways to interact well with both types of tutee. While every person is different, knowing how to handle sessions with these basic types of people is an essential element of being a successful tutor.

Many of the appointments made in the Writing Center are made only because students are required to conference with a Writing Fellow. It is very common for professors to make it mandatory for a student to see a Writing Fellow before turning in a paper. While some students would have chosen to come in for an appointment anyway, others may become resentful and make the session very difficult to conduct. Even though these sessions are not the most productive ones, or the ones that are most enjoyable to conduct, as tutors, it is our job to make sure the student gets the maximum amount of knowledge possible from a tutoring session, whether the student wants to be there or not. In a recent survey I conducted amongst the MCCC Writing Fellows and professors who take advantages of the services we provide, I found that some professors do make it mandatory that students meet with a Writing Fellow, and that those students who choose not to are penalized (Professor). Students come in who really do not want to be there. Consequently, these students are uncooperative in the tutoring sessions conducted with them. As we have discussed in class, students will lie in order to get out of doing work. If  students claim to know how to do something, and we just go with it and allow them to do it on their own, those students get out of doing any work during session. If tutors allow students to get away with this, nobody is learning anything. To keep this from happening, tutors need to ask for examples. When tutoring on MLA format, ask questions that require specific answers. Discuss specific elements like margins, headings, and formats for parenthetical citations.  If the student can answer questions like these, it is safe to assume that he or she really does know how to do those things. It is also important to make the student feel comfortable, and make sure he or she knows that the Writing Fellows are there to help.

Body language is a very important thing to keep in mind when tutoring anyone, but there are some certain things that need to be paid special attention to in tutoring sessions with required students. As a Writing Fellow, it is very important to show that I am listening attentively when a student reads a paper or asks me questions. By making eye contact with the student every now and then, I can show the student that he or she still has my interest. It is also very important to show attentiveness outside of making eye contact. A student who is already upset about being in the Writing Center could become easily annoyed or could just be looking for a way out. Writing Fellows should always avoid actions like constant tapping of the feet or staring off into space. A tutee will feel like the Writing Fellow has no interest in what is going on in the session if the tutor just keeps staring out the door or looking at the clock. When tutees act like this, Writing Fellows can usually conclude that the student is disinterested. Shy, quiet students can often seem distant during a tutoring session. It is not safe to assume that quiet students do not care about what we have to say. In Paula Gillespie and Neil Learner’s book The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring, one strategy that I find very important is discussed about tutoring quiet students.  The authors suggest that quiet students will try and get out of tutoring sessions by allowing the tutor to answer any questions asked. Gillespie and Learner suggest that the tutor have the tutee write down some possible answers to whatever questions have been asked (180).

On the opposite end of the tutee-type spectrum are the students who come to the Writing Center simply because they are trying to become better writers.  These are the students who tend to come to the Writing Center very well prepared. Through surveying the other Writing Fellows, I learned that some Writing Fellows feel that students who come to the Writing Center on their own are more prepared than others and are more enthusiastic about improving their work (Writing).  Students who are enthusiastic and willing to work on their papers make our job as tutors much easier. They arrive prepared and leave with questions to ask in the next sessions. I think students learn more from non-required sessions.

For example, I have had multiple sessions with one tutee this semester. From the very beginning of our first session together, her preparedness for the session amazed me. She is a dual enrollment student, and this semester has been her first in college. Her personality is outstanding; she was friendly from the very instant I met her. Her first trip to the Writing Center occurred when she got a paper back from English Composition I. Our first session together went excellently.  She had a list of questions that she wanted to ask me, including prewriting and organizational ideas. Her half-hour appointment turned into an appointment lasting between an hour and an hour and 45 minutes. In that time, we worked on some prewriting activities, as well as some ideas for organizing the paper. At the end of the session, she told me everything she learned in that hour-long session. That session was the first one that had seemed like a success to me. I think that, overall, sessions with non-required students are more successful. The preparedness that they show up with gives a major boost to the session.

While body language is important for the tutor to keep in mind, in a non-required session, the tutee usually shows more positive body language. Throughout this semester, I have learned that one of the most important things I can do in a non-required session is to make sure the student has plenty of time to ask any questions he or she may have.  In my sessions with the student I mentioned previously, she had many questions. By asking her questions in response to those, she was able to find the answers that she was looking for on her own. This method of descriptive tutoring is one that works wonderfully and benefits the student.

Non-required and required students may require different tutoring methods to accomplish a successful session, but regardless of the student, our goals in the MCCC Writing Center are always the same. Different methods, like the Socratic Method for required students and methods of descriptive tutoring for non-required students help provide a better tutoring experience for both the tutor and the tutee.

Works Cited

 Gillespie, Paula and Neal Lerner. The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson Education, 2004.

Gordon, Callie. Professor Questionnaire. Dec. 2005.

---. Writing Fellow Questionnaire. Dec. 2005.

 

The Importance of Immersion and Observation

Jessica Krueger

When I was nominated to be a writing tutor at the Monroe County Community College (MCCC), I never expected to learn so much about myself, and my peers in such a short amount of time. The Writing Center at MCCC has a tutoring program that involves an early immersion program, a rigorous training course, and a required observation of an experienced tutor's session. The definition of an "early immersion" program in this essay is the MCCC policy of putting new tutors to work in a writing center before they have completed a training program. All new tutors are uncomfortable and unsure of themselves at first, and my peers and I had our reservations about beginning tutoring before finishing our training. Over the course of the semester, though, I have realized the myriad benefits associated with our training curriculum. I have come to view the best training programs for new writing tutors as including early immersion in a writing center and several assigned session observations.  

Although they may not feel entirely comfortable, or very comfortable at all, tutors should begin working in a writing center almost immediately after their training begins. Once tutors have learned the basic rules of their writing center and their mission as peer tutors, they should commence tutoring in a writing center. Early immersion is an integral part of any tutor-training curriculum, for a few different reasons. Tutors learn the most from both their personal experiences as well as those of their peers in an actual writing center. In addition, they are more likely to remember various tutoring methods when given the opportunity to try them out right away.

When center directors place fledgling tutors in writing centers, they give these inexperienced tutors the resources and time to develop their own styles and techniques. Shy tutors must learn to cope with meeting new individuals on a regular basis, and overly talkative tutors need to allow their tutees to do more, if not most of the talking. All tutors’ personalities have to undergo some sort of change in order to aid their tutees more successfully. The only way tutors can discover how to improve is by tutoring real tutees in an actual writing center. When I first began tutoring in the college Writing Center, I was one of the shy tutors. After a few sessions though, I realized how important it is to sound self-assured during a conference. Even the best tutors lower their credibility in the eyes of their tutees when they do not clearly display confidence. During my first session, I felt unsure of my capabilities and nervous about whether I could truly help the tutee. Because I did not feel entirely confident, my suggestions to my tutee were made in a very passive manner and I was reluctant to really let the tutee know when something in her paper was incorrect. Conversely, while observing the body language of the tutees in my second and third sessions, I found them more actively engaged and interested in the conference when I spoke with confidence and ease, than when I sounded uncertain. My first few tutoring sessions had a few rough spots, but after each one I walked out of the Writing Center with a better idea of how a session should flow, and what I could work on to improve both my tutor personality and organization. Luckily, both the tutee and I came away from those starting sessions unharmed. I attribute those positive outcomes to an important goal for tutoring I was taught during my first week of training.  

If tutors encounter problems in the writing center when fully trained, their center director will generally be able to help them find a solution. If the same problem arises while the tutors are still in training, however, the center director can aid not only the individual tutors, but their peers as well. It is helpful for an entire group to have the opportunity to discuss an issue that one person faces so they may come up with a solution together and learn how to effectively deal with the matter themselves. Many writing center directors from colleges across the nation realize the value of this sort of interaction for new tutors and incorporate early immersion into their tutor training programs. In a recent survey of writing centers I conducted, ninety percent of directors said their tutors would benefit from an early immersion experience, and most of them already had a simultaneous training and tutoring program in place (MCCC). All of the center directors reported their tutors' training regimes, both those including early immersion and the few who did not, to be moderately to highly effective. In addition, the results from a survey of MCCC Writing Fellows shows that while most tutors did not feel comfortable with early immersion, seventy-five percent thought the policy was moderately to highly effective (MCCC).

Another important benefit of early immersion is the practical application of theories in a writing center as they are learned. Working in a writing center, students have the means to teach themselves and actively implement the strategies learned through training on their own. It is important for tutors training to be simultaneous with firsthand experience in a writing center, because they will be able to test new theories and apply them to sessions as soon as they are learned. This method helps tutors to remember the theories not just as words, but as concrete methods that produce certain results as well. Working as a new tutor in the Writing Center at MCCC, I found it very helpful to be able to practice a tutoring method or strategy as soon as I learned it. For example, a few days after I learned about the Socratic Method, I was able to use it in a tutoring session. The Socratic Method involves asking tutees questions in order to help them discover problem areas in their writing (Gillespie). It would have been impossible for me to try out this new strategy, and many others, if I had not been tutoring students while being trained.  

Although critics may argue that partially trained tutors are detrimental to a writing center's reputation, if tutors keep one goal in mind as they begin the immersion process, no one will end up unhappy. Overly exuberant new tutors may attempt to transform their tutees' papers into perfect pieces of writing, but neither of the session participants can possibly accomplish such an extraordinary task. In fact, tutors should never attempt to accomplish very many tasks at all. A student can really only remember a few techniques or ideas from one session without feeling overwhelmed. Therefore, tutors should focus on helping their tutees to learn one to three new skills during each session that will improve their writing in the future. In the MCCC Writing Center, the Writing Fellows use an online report form to record the topics discussed in each session. The report form categorizes various aspects of writing as "high, middle, and low order concerns" (Writing). Writing Fellows are required to check a box next to the stage of the writing process the tutee is at, as well as each point discussed with the student. At the end of the session, the Writing Fellows print out a copy of the form for both the tutee and the Writing Center Director. Looking over these forms after the tutee has left is a good way for new tutors to evaluate their sessions. Because each group of writing issues correspond to a stage of the writing process, new tutors can easily discern whether they led the students in the right direction during the conference or not. For example, if a tutor checked the 'Revision' box on the form as well as commenting on the writer's diction and lack of MLA formatting, a review of the form would show the tutor the irrelevancy of the comments given to the tutee. Essentially, if new tutors have one mission in mind, their sessions will be helpful to the tutee almost every time no matter how little previous experience the tutors have. A tutor's most important priority is helping tutees become better writers—papers are merely vehicles for improvement.     

Most tutors do not feel very comfortable with early immersion programs, because they do not know what to expect from tutees or how they should conduct a session. For this reason, it is important to supplement early immersion programs with required session observations of more experienced tutors.

Writing centers across the nation generally have extensive training programs for their tutors. Most of these writing centers' handbooks include mandatory session observations as part of the training for new tutors for a good reason (International). When writing center directors place new tutors in their centers with merely a handful of theories and basic knowledge of the mechanics of English, they are placing a half-trained tutor in a potentially awkward situation. Observations of more experienced tutors' sessions provide new tutors with models to follow, and give them opportunities to evaluate tutoring methods, learn about tutee personality types and attitudes, and discover various problem-solving methods. Some new tutors may not know that to begin successful sessions, they should greet tutees with a handshake and a friendly smile. Other inexperienced tutors may not be prepared to deal with different personality types of their tutees. Perhaps a tutor just feels overwhelmed at the prospect of working with new people. Session observations provide solutions to most of the problems new tutors face, and help to reduce any anxious feelings they may have. In their article "Observation, Interaction, and Reflection: The Foundation for Tutor Training," Roger Munger, Ilene Rubenstein, and Edna Burow state, "Initially, for the first two to three weeks after our writing center opens, tutor trainees [pair] with veteran tutors in our writing center to observe tutoring nuances such as body language, active silences, and questioning techniques" (3). The three writing center directors move on to say that session observations help new tutors to [develop] "the awareness of knowledge of academic, social, psychological, and physical issues that may interfere with the writing process" as well (3). 

When I became a Writing Fellow at MCCC, I was not quite sure how an actual tutoring session should operate. However, as I observed a Senior Writing Fellow’s tutoring conference, my questions were answered. I watched as the Writing Fellow greeted his tutee at the door in a cheerful and welcoming manner, and led the student to a seat at one of the tutoring stations in the Writing Center. The Writing Fellow showed me the importance of starting a session off on a positive note. Similarly, the Writing Fellow praised the tutee on the paper’s strengths while helping the student to find the weaknesses in his writing. I also observed the tutor’s method of wrapping up the meeting by highlighting the main points he and the student had touched on during the session. While these points of a session may seem to be routine and automatic for an experienced tutor, I was grateful for my exposure to them.  

During our training, the Writing Center Director taught my peers and me several different tutoring strategies and methods. There is, however, a vast difference between just discussing and learning about these various theories and actually watching as a tutor puts them into practice. While I observed my first session, I had the opportunity to identify and evaluate the strategies I saw the Writing Fellow using. I saw that, based on the tutee’s needs and his personality type, the tutor was carefully selecting different strategies to aid the student. When one strategy did not seem to work, the tutor simply moved on to a different method until he found one the tutee could understand. Session observations are important for new tutors as they allow them to view both the participants and the ideas exchanged between tutor and tutee objectively.  

Tutee personality and attitude are two important factors in any tutoring experience. A new tutor who has never observed another session may not be prepared to handle a tutee who is stressed out or having a bad day. What would a new tutor do if the tutee came into the writing center and burst into tears, or began shouting angrily? Although a new tutor can never know exactly what kind of tutee to expect, by observing other sessions, a tutee can see how more experienced tutors handle various situations. Tutors cannot possibly experience the myriad awkward situations that may occur during a session while observing others; however, new tutors will be more prepared to cope when problems arise if they have observed another tutor placed in the same situation or one similar.

Making new tutors feel more comfortable in the writing center and confident in their position is one of the most beneficial aspects of session observation. Walking into the Writing Center to fulfill my session observation requirement, I looked at the task before me simply as an assignment. I did not really think I would gain much from the experience. After the session, though, I realized how much more relieved I felt about actually tutoring someone. I learned several new tutoring approaches from the Senior Writing Fellow I observed, and gained self-confidence. Wondering how session observations affected their comfort level, I created a questionnaire for my fellow tutors at MCCC I asked twenty-one tutors to answer two questions concerning how helpful they found their observations to be, and how the exercise affected their comfort level as new tutors. Of the twelve that responded, most described their experience as moderately helpful to very helpful and none of them said it was completely unhelpful (MCCC). Seventy-five percent of the tutors reported their comfort level to have improved or greatly improved after their session observation, and the remaining twenty-five percent stated the observation had no impact on their comfort level.

I was also curious about other writing centers across the nation at both two-year and four-year colleges and universities. I e-mailed a similar questionnaire to various writing center directors and received ten relevant replies. Seven of the ten said they required new tutors to observe—formally or informally—other tutoring sessions as part of their training (Writing). All of those directors reported the observations as being moderately to very helpful overall, and greatly improving the comfort levels of their new tutors. Ninety percent of both MCCC tutors and the center directors thought tutors would benefit from a greater number of assigned observations and suggested numbers between two sessions and "as many as possible" (MCCC, James). Interestingly, the majority of the tutors suggested a greater number of assigned or personal session observations than did the writing center directors.

Tutors need to be adequately equipped with various strategies, theories, and methods before they can effectively aid students in a writing center. In order for tutors to retain the skills they are taught, they must be able to apply them right away. Tutors who cannot immediately begin to experiment with different methods are nearly as poorly equipped as tutors who have no training at all. As the length of time between comprehension and application increases, so does the probability that tutors will not remember what they have learned. Therefore, the most successful tutor training programs should include early immersion coupled with ongoing training. Because tutors are not fully, or even halfway trained when they begin tutoring in an early immersion program, session observations of more experienced tutors are crucial. Some of America’s writing centers just let their new tutors know about a few housekeeping items such as filing [and] appointments, and then rely on more experienced tutors to teach the new recruits through observation. Colleges and universities that have this policy just encourage their new tutors to jump in when they [feel] ready (Zeppetello 11). If possible, this method of training should be avoided, because tutors need to learn about different tutoring methods in a more formal environment to ensure that each member of a writing centers staff is equally equipped. Session observations are important for new tutors to give them models to follow, but should only exist to augment further training. As a new Writing Fellow at MCCC, I benefited greatly from an early immersion experience, in-depth training, and session observation. I improved immensely from my first tutoring experience to my second, and continue to learn new skills from each session. Being a writing tutor is truly a fantastic position, because there is always something more to learn and another level of success to reach.

Works Cited

Gillespie, Paula and Neal Lerner. The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson, 2004

Krueger, Jessica. "Re: Questions on Tutor Training." E-mail to Kimberly James. 30 Nov. 2005

M.C.C.C. Writing Center Questionnaire. Personal survey. 28 Nov. 2005

Munger, Roger, Ilene Rubenstein, and Edna Burow. "Observation, Interaction, and Reflection: The Foundation for
      Tutor Training." Writing Lab Newsletter 21.4 (1996): 1-5. 7 Dec. 2005 < http://owl.english.purdue.edu>.

Writing Center Director Questionnaire. Personal survey. 30 Nov. 2005

Writing Fellow Report Form. M.C.C.C. Rev.

International Writing Centers Association. 10 Dec. 2005 <www.writingcenters.org>.

Zeppetello, Joseph. "Great and Not-So-Great Expectations: Training Faculty and Student Tutors." Writing Lab Newsletter
      29.5 (2001): 11-14. 8 Dec. 2005 <http://owl.english.purdue.edu>.

 

Starting from Scratch: Prewriting Techniques and Tutoring

Tara Langton

The preliminary stage of the writing process creates many challenges for student writers, because inherent difficulties occur whenever abstract concepts are transformed into concrete ideas. Oftentimes, students experience these difficulties in a variety of ways. Some suffer from mental block, some do not know where to begin with their writing, and others are simply overwhelmed by an extensive amount of information. Therefore, to help students generate ideas, narrow a topic, or organize their thoughts, writing tutors can provide their tutees with several of the most common prewriting techniques.  If applied properly, these techniques which include Conversation, Freewriting, Cubing, Listing and Grouping, and Clustering may supply students with the necessary tools for working through prewriting barriers.

When students find it impossible to develop or choose ideas for their assignments, tutors can use the conversation method during a session to assist their tutees in breaking free from their prewriting prison. For example, in their book, The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring, Paula Gillespie and Neal Lerner suggest that tutors can actually generate thinking and facilitate learning by simply initiating conversations with their tutees (15-38). Therefore, through asking students questions such as “What are your interests?” and “What topic do you think would best fit the assignment?” tutors can engage their writers in an active dialogue, and thus encourage them to express their ideas through words and phrases. Throughout this process, students are also able to explore the possibilities of certain concepts and choose topics which are best suited for their assignments. When this is accomplished, students can take pleasure in owning their writing, because their ideas, and not their tutor’s, are the source of the proposed composition (25-38). For these reasons, the conversation method is an effective tutoring technique.

In addition to the Conversation method, a technique known as Freewriting also provides an effective approach to idea development. This technique, according to Don Richard Cox and Elizabeth Giddens, in their book Crafting Prose, allows students to break through the constraints of prewriting by removing grammatical rules from the writing process (16). Because these rules often act as hindrances, Freewriting attempts to draw ideas out of students and onto a page before procedure and form are given the opportunity to edit and create "self-doubt" (16). To accomplish this, tutors can encourage students to write "nonstop" for a "short period of time" without taking a break to reflect on what they are writing. Then, when the actual Freewriting is completed, The Penn State Undergraduate Writing Center Handbook for Peer Tutors suggests that tutors and students reread the composition together and proceed to separate key ideas from less important phrases (Penn). Through participating in this phase of the Freewriting process, tutors can help students identify and eliminate unrelated topics and information from their writing. Therefore students, with the help of a writing tutor, are able to generate ideas and find a focus for those ideas through the Freewriting process.

When tutors meet with students who need assistance developing ideas for an assignment, the Cubing technique may also prove to be a helpful prewriting technique. Cubing is a method which requires students to explore an idea or topic from "six different perspectives" (Duckart). Therefore, during a tutoring session, tutors can apply this model by asking their tutees to perform several different tasks from each of these perspectives. For example, to teach students how to examine a topic from many different aspects, tutors may ask their tutees to describe, in writing, the physical characteristics of a topic (Duckart).  Also, to further develop their tutees' understanding of a topic, tutors may ask students to compare and contrast different elements of their ideas, thus forcing them to see their ideas in relation to the thoughts and plans of others (Duckart). In addition to the methods of description and comparison, Cubing also forces students to analyze their writing, make associations among separate ideas, apply their writing to the real world and argue different sides of a topic to learn more about it (Duckart). This "six-sided approach" to topic discussion is an important facet of the prewriting process, because unlike many other techniques, Cubing forces writers to look at information in pieces rather than from a holistic stand point. 

Once concepts are generated during the first stages of the prewriting process; writers can proceed to organize their ideas through a prewriting technique called Listing and Grouping. This technique is particularly valuable for students whose ideas are continuously checked by their tendency to edit a train of thought before it can be put down on paper. To begin listing and grouping during a session, tutors should have their tutees write down "words and phrases" in a general, linear order (Cox 18). Then, tutors should encourage their students to revise these lists by demonstrating how to edit out phrases and ideas that have no relationship to the topic of choice (Penn). After this phase is completed, tutors should then ask students to group their remaining phrases and words underneath appropriate topic headings where differences in ideas and opinions are apparent (Cox 18). Thus, this technique assists during the organization process of writing, and it also causes writers to see associations and relationships among several different ideas. Therefore, Listing and Grouping is most effective when it is applied by students who have a difficult time organizing their thoughts into recognizable, concrete patterns.

The Clustering method is also an effective prewriting technique for students who are not able to arrange their ideas in an appropriate format. Clustering, according to Tracy Duckart on her website, The Cache, begins when students write an important idea or phrase on the middle of a piece of paper. Then, to expand on this word or phrase, tutors can encourage students to circle their main ideas and draw lines connecting those ideas to several "supporting points" (Penn). By participating in this exercise, students are able to discover intertwining relationships between their ideas, while at the same time developing more specific and detailed notions about their topic. For visual learners, the Clustering method is especially helpful, because it depicts associations through a simple diagram, thus providing a visual representation for complicated abstract ideas. However, Clustering is not helpful for all tutees. Instead, many writers actually find the technique confusing, because it is not produced in a concrete, linear format (Duckart). Therefore, Clustering provides tutors with an opportunity to offer a different type of prewriting technique for those students who are responsive to visual stimuli.

The process of writing is difficult, because it requires students to employ both their creative and organizational skills. For this reason, many students have problems beginning the process. They are unsure how to begin or how to organize a large body of information; therefore, they become frustrated at the prospect of writing. When students reach this point of frustration, tutors have the opportunity to make a difference. Despite these prewriting difficulties, tutors can show students how to overcome them through employing prewriting techniques such as Conversation, Freewriting, Cubing, Listing and Grouping, and Clustering. Thus, by teaching writers how to use prewriting techniques to their advantage, tutors are able assist these writers on the journey toward achieving a successful composition.

Works Cited

Cox, Don Richard and Elizabeth Giddens. Crafting Prose. United States: Harcourt, 1991.

Duckart, Tracy. The Cache. 30 Nov. 2005. <http://www.humboldt.edu/~tdd2/index.htm>.

Gillespie, Paula and Neal Lerner. The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring. 2nd ed. United States: Pearson, 2004.

The Penn State Undergraduate Handbook for Peer Tutors in Writing. 2nd ed. University Learning Centers, 2001. 29
      Nov. 2005.<http://www.psu.edu/dept/cew/writingcenter/ handbook.htm>.

 

Training Is Worth the Work

Amanda Lundy

When my high school National Honor Society leader asked for volunteer tutors, I did not put my name on the list.  Sure, I was good at certain subjects, but how could I help other students?  I knew I did not know how to tutor.  However, when Professor Dillon said Monroe County Community College (MCCC) Writing Fellows are trained through the Advanced Composition course, I decided to give tutoring a try.   Besides building confidence, tutor training has several benefits for tutors, tutees, and writing centers.  Without training, tutors will likely lean on their instincts and talents as editors, rather than tutors.  This gives writing centers a bad name, and does not help tutees.  Giving students answers is not tutoring, and it definitely does not help students learn.  Tutoring means helping students recognize problems or weaknesses, and then giving them the tools to help themselves.  Various modes of training can give tutors an understanding of this, as well as a broad working knowledge of tutoring techniques and topics.  It also provides valuable practice and encouragement.  Tutors also need training to handle technical and social situations.  To prevent editing, Writing Fellow tutors need training in a variety of ways, which will create a focused and professional writing center environment, and develop the technical and social skills required in tutors.

Writing Centers without a training program for their tutors usually become editing centers.  Patricia Salomon, Writing Center director for the University of Findley, Ohio, wrote that before her Writing Center had a formal tutor training program, it was considered a “proofreading parlor.”  Some of the faculty even admitted advising their students to avoid using the Center (Salomon 15).  Before they were trained, the tutors did not know the type of work they should have been doing.  I interviewed Writing Fellow tutors at Schoolcraft Community College to learn how they approach tutoring without being formally trained to handle the task.  Sarah Baker, a Schoolcraft tutor wrote, “I tend to edit [the students’] papers for them and tell them what I’m changing along the way” (Baker).  Corrine Adams, another Schoolcraft tutor wrote, “I try to write comments on the paper about what is unclear, so that on review they can see what needs to be clarified” (Adams).  Because the tutors from these two colleges were not trained, they did not realize the difference between tutoring and editing.  Tutoring involves guiding students to finding and fixing their own problems, while editing simply corrects problems for the tutee.  These students demonstrate that untrained tutors will naturally lean towards editing.  Editing is not acceptable in the world of tutoring.  When a text is edited, the tutee no longer “owns” it (Gillespie 174).  Training can help students define their role as a tutor, not an editor or teacher.  This will ultimately contribute to the writing center’s true purpose: helping people help themselves.  As a part of MCCC’s tutor training program, tutors are taught not to focus on the tutee’s writing, but on helping the tutee become a better writer.

A variety of training methods can help keep new and experienced tutors from falling into the editing trap. Periodic lectures and conferences are brief methods of training which are beneficial. Writing centers around the country successfully use this method.  Mark, a student tutor at Everett Community College located north of Seattle, Washington wrote that every Wednesday, the Writing Center tutors and instructors meet to review and discuss tutoring.  Topics vary from dealing with ESL [English Second Language] students, to how to write a college research paper, and a whole lot more” (Mark 1).  Periodic lectures allow the training professor or advisor to focus specifically on an area where he/she feels his/her tutors need help.  Conferences allow Writing Fellows to interact with other tutors.  Often, tutor-to-tutor conversations can help in the same way that tutor-to-tutee sessions help.  Tutors have the opportunity to collect suggestions, tips, and techniques from others who have already done the same thing.

A credit-bearing course and assigned mentors are long-term methods of training that can also be beneficial.  Kenneth Bruffee, a Professor of English at Brooklyn College, teaches Advanced Composition, trains tutors, chairs the Writing Task Force of the City University of New York, and edits the journal Writing Program Administration.  He believes that the best way to train tutors is to require them to enroll in a credit-bearing course in intermediate or advanced composition.  “In such a course, tutors will experience thedifficulties of writing themselves, while they are tutoring others” (Bruffee 2).  From personal experience in the MCCC training program, I learned that students enrolled in a training course have more incentive to pay attention and learn.  A class provides students with the opportunity to practice different genres of writing, which they may in turn tutor.  This also enforces the rules and procedures so that students have an accurate working knowledge and can provide correct information. 

A combination of all these methods may be the most beneficial means of training.  Jessica Kruger, a junior Writing Fellow for MCCC, said that before she went through training she had informally helped people in high school.  She had not, however, participated in any formal tutoring.  After participating in the Advanced Composition course, observing senior Writing Fellows, and actually working with tutees, she “feel[s] prepared and confident 90% of the time.”  Shawna Farley, a MCCC senior Writing Fellow, said it helped to have a senior Writing Fellow mentor.  She added, “It also helped that I attended a conference the following semester and learned new techniques that I later implemented in my tutoring sessions.”  I personally have found that participating in a credit-bearing class has helped reinforce a working knowledge of MLA [Modern Language Association] style.  It has given me a taste of the struggles tutees may have.  I benefited from having a senior Writing Fellow mentor.  It gave me another reliable resource when I did not have all the answers.

These different methods of training can provide a focused and professional writing center environment for both tutors and tutees.  During training, tutors need to learn the purpose of the writing center, and how they can fulfill it.  According to the International Writing Centers Association (IWCA), writing centers should have instructional goals that all of the writing tutors understand (Simpson 4).  The instructional goals at MCCC include helping students become better writers.  Writing Fellows are trained to focus on higher-order concerns such as organization and content in a student’s paper, and then focus on the lower-order concerns, such as punctuation and spelling.  Tutors are able to break the session into manageable tasks after they understand these issues.  Consequently, the tutor is able to focus on helping the tutee become a better writer, rather than being bogged down by editing urges. 

Tutors need to be informed of the writing center’s rules and ethics to maintain the academic reputation, and guide tutors through controversial events.  The IWCA suggests that tutors should be provided with a clear explanation of the writing center’s procedures (Harris 1).  The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring states, “writers need to do the writing, not the tutors” (25).  Often, tutees will want tutors to do the work for them.  This, however, creates plagiarism and ownership problems.  Through training, tutors can learn how to deal with these situations.  The IWCA also suggests that tutors do not criticize a teacher’s assignments, methods, or grading practices at all (Simpson 4).  This is another rule MCCC Writing Fellows are taught in an effort to avoid conflict with students and teachers.  According to the IWCA, tutors should be provided guidelines for deciding when it is, and when it is not acceptable to intervene in a student’s writing process (Simpson 4).  For example, MCCC teaches that it is appropriate to intervene when a tutee’s topic choice does not fulfill the assignment requirements.  It is inappropriate to intervene when the topic choice is simply offensive to the tutor.  Training acts like a safety net for tutees, tutors, the writing center, and all who are connected with it.  The tutor will be less likely to offend a teacher or tutee, and will be less likely to create trouble for the writing center.

Learning how to fulfill the writing center’s purpose in a professional manner is important; however, tutors also need training to develop the necessary technical and social skills required of their position. During training, Writing Fellow tutors should learn technical skills such as how to approach a session and how to apply tutoring theories.  Technical skills such as setting an agenda and organizing the tutorial will make the session more effective.  Tutors trained to do these things are able to “assess the student’s present situation, class requirements, past writing history, general composing habits and approaches to learning, attitudes, motivation, and whatever else is needed to determine how the tutor and student should proceed.” (Harris 1).  Without training, tutors may be able to do this, but they will be more successful with training.  The Schoolcraft tutors showed that tutoring theories like the Socratic Method are not typically known or used by untrained tutors.  Sarah Baker explained that tutoring is especially difficult when the tutor is unsure of how to help tutees.  Without training, tutors do not have an effective foundation in technical skills.

Social skills, such as how to ask open-ended questions, how to deliver feedback, and how to establish a comfortable collaborative relationship, need to be addressed during Writing Fellow tutor training.  Leslie R. Nath and Steven M. Ross, authors of a case study published in the Educational Research and Development journal, conducted an experiment to examine the effects of peer tutoring training.  Their experiment suggested that peer tutors who received training had better communication and collaborative skills (Nath 10).  During training, the tutors were shown how to provide “corrective feedback, confirm accurate responses, demonstrate patience, offer constructive criticism, maintain confidentiality, maintain high quality work, stay on task, be sensitive to the frustrations of others, and praise and encourage fellow students” (Nath 11).  Many of these traits are a part of being courteous to one another.  However, this study showed that trained tutors were more productive and effective at achieving their goals.

Tutoring means helping students recognize problems or weaknesses, then giving them the tools to help themselves.  Effectively sharing these tools requires tutors to be given their own tools.  I have found that tutors without training become editors.  Tutors with training become a tutee’s doorway to better writing.  Training methods such as periodic lectures, conferences, credit-bearing courses, and assigned mentors can prevent editing.  They can also provide a focused and professional writing center environment for both tutors and tutees.  This professional environment will help tutors fulfill the writing center’s purpose, and promote its ethics.  Most importantly, training can help develop the necessary technical and social skills required of tutors.  Without training, tutors are lost.

Works Cited

Adams, Corinne. E-mail to the author. 7 Dec. 2005.

Baker, Sarah. E-mail to the author. 7 Dec. 2005.

Bruffee, Kenneth A. “Two Related Issues in Peer Tutoring: Program Structure and Tutor Training.” College Composition
      and Communication 31.1 (1980): 76-80. JSTOR. Monroe County Community College Lib. 5 Dec. 2005
      <http://www.jstor.org/>.

Farley, Shawna. E-mail to the author. 5 Dec. 2005.

Gillespie, Paula, and Neal Lerner. The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson, 2004.

Harris, Muriel.  “SLATE (Support for the Learning and Teaching of English) Statement: The Concept of a Writing Center.”
      The International Council of Teachers of English (1988). International Writing Centers Association 5 Dec. 2005      <http://writingcenters.org/slate.htm>.

Mark. “What are Our Writing Centers Like?” Online posting. 1 Mar. 2004. IWCA Discussion Forums. 5 Dec. 2005       <http://www.writingcenters.org/board/>.

Nath, Leslie R., and Steven M. Ross. “The Influence of a Peer-Tutoring Training Model for Implementing Cooperative
      Groupings with Elementary Students.” Educational Technology Research and Development 49.2 (2001): 41-56.
      First Search. OCLC. Monroe County Community College Lib. 5 Dec. 2005 <http://www.firstsearch.oclc.org/>.

Salomon, Patricia. “Starting From Scratch: Developing a Tutor-Training Program.” The Writing Lab Newsletter. 19.1
      (2003): 15.  7 Dec. 2005 <http://owl.english.purdue.edu/>.

Simpson, Jeanne H. “What Lies Ahead for Writing Centers: Position Statement on Professional Concerns.”
      Writing Center Journal 5.2 (1985): 36-39. International Writing Centers Association 5 Dec. 2005      <http://writingcenters.org/positionstatement.htm>.

 

The Dangers of Required Tutoring Sessions

Stephen Marlow

Not many students at Monroe County Community College (MCCC) are aware of the Writing Center, and even fewer take advantage of it. Keeping students aware of the Writing Center and motivating them to make appointments is a constant challenge. It is not terribly uncommon for teachers to offer incentives or otherwise force their students to make appointments in the Writing Center to this end. The goal is to keep the Writing Center in the mind of the student and possibly cause them to work with tutors more by exposing them to it. In fact, the entire fellowed-class system is designed to help achieve this goal. Required sessions have some success, at least: my first encounter with the Writing Center came about when I was required to visit a Writing Fellow in lieu of a missed peer review session, and I am now tutoring for that center. However, forcing a student to go to a writing center may backfire on the teacher, instead causing the student to have a minimal interest in the session and ultimately creating a poor image of the center in the student's mind. When forced to attend a session a student may have poor motivation and a poor mindset about the session, both of which may be intimated through non-verbal cues, although this mindset can be countered with use of strategies that build interest.

Being required or otherwise given an incentive to attend a session may provide a poor motivation for the student. While this is not always the case—being required to come and being genuinely interested in the session are not mutually exclusive—it seems to be very common in this sort of situation, and students with poor motivation are my primary focus in this paper1. The tutee lacks interest in asking for advice or bettering his paper, and as such he would not normally be in the Writing Center. However, the requirement or incentive brings them him anyway. While the student may be exposed to the Writing Center (thereby at least partially achieving a goal of the system), the exposure is generally poor due to the mindset that the student carries with him.

The mindset of disinterest that is present in a poorly motivated student causes problems with the session, and perhaps the center as a whole. The student's primary goal is to obtain the Writing Center report form. Some might try to obtain the form without actually attending the session, perhaps by coming in last minute without enough time to actually go over anything, or perhaps by creating some excuse to leave the session prematurely. The policy at the MCCC Writing Center prevents students from obtaining a form in those situations, but that merely treats a symptom of the problem. More often the tutee will simply endure the session, never intending to perform any revision and generally attempting to avoid listening, thinking, and so on. Some students might be under the impression that their writing cannot be improved upon by "some tutor,” or perhaps they just do not care if it improves. Additionally, the student may become uncooperative if he finds that the session does not meet his expectations (Gillespie 147). The student may get the impression (from teachers, students, or other sources) that the Writing Center is there to help proofread or otherwise do work for the student rather than to help the student learn how to do things independently. When this expectation is not met, it is quite possible that the student could become disinterested. When a student comes in unwilling to learn, something has to be done to interest the student, lest time simply be wasted on both ends. A tutor is not going to get terribly far with a tutee who repeats "uh huh" as though it were his personal mantra, and the tutee certainly is not going to get anything out of it. Even worse, a student who leaves that sort of session gets a bad impression of the Writing Center. It is not that it is any fault of the tutor; rather, it is a product of a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts: the tutee goes in thinking that the session will be a waste of time, doesn’t cooperate, thereby making the session a waste of time, and then leaves, feeling vindicated. That student may recommend a friend against visiting the center ("They weren't any help, it's a waste of time"), which could cause even fewer people to come to the center. While a single person is not going to have a great impact on attendance rates, a number of disinterested students could have a significant effect. As our Writing Center Coordinator is fond of saying, “you can do a thousand good things, but people are only going to remember the only bad one.”

In summary, the poor student motivation created by required tutoring sessions can lead to a lack of interest in the tutee. This leads to wasted time for both parties, and it can lead to a lower attendance rate for the Writing Center overall. Because of this, the lack of interest must be combated in some fashion. Finding ways to promote interest overall across a broad number of students is beyond the scope of this paper; rather, I focus on ways to increase interest within the session. To apply strategies in tutoring, however, tutors must know when to apply them. Non-verbal cues can be a great aid in discerning when to do that.

Non-verbal cues can be a good indicator of the tutee's interest level. This is partially because non-verbal cues arise without a person even really noticing. This makes them well suited for gauging interest: a student may not be aware of his body language, even if the student is feigning interest verbally. Ms. Maxwell, a Writing Fellow at MCCC, states that "bad posture, such as slouching, is usually a sign of disinterest. If someone taps his foot on the floor, it often shows restlessness or boredom" (par. 2). These are just a couple of examples of body language among many. For example, the tutee may be repeatedly looking all around the room, or just away from the tutor and the paper. Doing so is a major indicator of a lack of interest: the tutee's attention is elsewhere, and generally anywhere but the focus of the session. Looking at a watch is an especially obvious indicator, showing that the tutee does not want to be in the session. This is hardly an exhaustive list of indicative behavior, but thankfully body language tends to be intuitive: simply observing the body language ought to be enough to give the impression that the student is disinterested. Once the tutor is aware that the student is not really interested in the session, the tutor can begin to work towards building interest.

There are a number of strategies that can help to build a tutee's interest in the session. One of the best things a tutor can do is to get the tutee to talk. Getting the tutee to talk means that he can no longer simply say "uh huh" and allow the words of the tutor to slidepasthim. Conversely, a tutor who lectures more than discussing the paper with the tutee is a hindrance to the student’s attention. As a tutor, I strive to avoid this, having experienced the lack of attention that follows the lecturing style firsthand in classrooms. It is important to keep the tutee talking, but the subject at hand does not have to be the paper. The discussion can begin with small talk about nearly anything. It may be a good idea to start with small talk about material related to the subject matter of the paper, so that the tutor can easily segue into something on topic.

An excellent way to help keep the tutee interested is the use of the Socratic Method. The Socratic Method is the process of asking carefully chosen open-ended questions. These questions force the tutee to think about the paper, causing the tutee to remain interested even if only to answer the question. The use of open-ended questions also exposes any gaps in the tutee's knowledge, as the answer is not a simple "yes" or "no" (Turner, par. 2). I have personally used open-ended question a number of times to see if the student is knowledgeable and also to maintain interest. In one particular case, I asked a student how he set a paper to be double spaced, expecting an answer that involved the use of a formatting menu. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised when he deftly used a keyboard shortcut to achieve the same effect, educating me in the process.

The use of body language is also helpful to keep the student interested. Keeping positive body posture (leaning in towards the student, nodding as the student reads) makes the student feel like the tutor is interested (Maxwell, par. 3). This in turn helps the student remain more interested. The social rules of American culture should be applied to tutoring sessions, making adaptations for people of different cultures. Since my first session, I strive to apply these rules. A particularly useful behavior to help maintain interest is maintaining eye contact: anyone can attest that eye contact holds attention well, and this ensures that the tutee will not be losing focus by way of a wandering gaze.

Generating interest in the tutee and maintaining it is not always easy, but is certainly helpful in all tutoring sessions. A tutee who is interested is one who will listen, ask questions, and revise; they are the ones that tutoring centers exist for. Because of this, it is important to ensure that the tutee is interested, especially in required sessions. If there is a lack of interest, the session can backfire: the poor motivation behind the session creates a mindset of disinterest in the tutee and ultimately wastes time; but at least this mindset can be discerned through the observation of non-verbal cues and can be offset in a number of ways.

Note

1 Bear this focus in mind; I may make what seems to be generalizations about the sort of students in my paper, but it is safe to assume that I mean those who have poor motivations and subsequently poor mindsets about the Writing Center.

Works Cited

Gillespie, Paula and Neal Lerner. The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson, 2004.

Maxwell, Melissa. "Nonverbal Communication in Writing Centers." MCCC Writing Center. Winter 2004. 14 Dec.      2005<http://www.monroeccc.edu/writing/ theory_to_practice_essays/theory_to_practice.htm>.

Turner, Renee. "Socratic and Interest Make Best Appointments." MCCC Writing Center. Winter 2003. 14 Dec      2005<http://www.monroeccc.edu/writing/theory_to_practice_essays/ theory_to_practice.htm>.

 

Theory to Practice: Building Confidence Yields Results

Josiah Smith

Receiving constructive criticism can be a humbling experience. Admitting to a particular weakness in academics often results in lowered confidence in one’s abilities. Although the goals of the writing center focus upon developing writing skills, an often understated objective of writing fellows involves building a student’s confidence. Students entering the writing center are often in need of a boost to their writing ego. The student-writer must feel comfortable with his writing and confident in his ability to improve. A confident writer feels more adept in the writing process, understands the strengths and weaknesses of his writing, and remains open to suggestions for improvement. Effectively tutoring the struggling writer should involve a specific process involving building the student’s confidence in his ability to write, positively reinforcing his text through discussion of his strengths, and helping the student discover weaknesses by teaching him how to make corrections.

The tutor entering a session with a flexible process in mind possesses confidence and a clear objective for the student-writer, which increases the potential for success.  A process adds structure and offers clear, tangible goals. Guiding a student through the writing process and increasing his awareness of various facets of his writing directly builds his confidence. Paula Gillespie and Neal Lerner suggest that going into a tutoring session with a specific strategy in mind will more than double the tutor’s chances of accomplishing his or her goals (25-26). Building confidence may not be as simple a process as tutors expect; however, a general and flexible procedure can make the task more manageable. In December of 2005, a MCCC Writing Fellow survey suggested every tutoring session should begin with the tutor working to build the student’s confidence in her writing ability followed by positively reinforcing her text through a discussion of her strengths1. Applying this concept early in the process encourages the student to make corrections and become more open to making improvements. This general method of tutoring allows one stage to build upon the next and increases the chances for success.

Building a student’s confidence in his ability to write sets a positive tone and provides the student with a greater trust in the tutor. Some students feel threatened by the notion of having their writing tutored. Stepping into a writing center often means stepping out of a comfort zone. In a recent student evaluation of the MCCC Writing Center, one student-writer admitted: “The hardest part about being tutored was asking for help. …I knew I would have to look at my writing critically, and I though my pride would be crushed.” 2 Building confidence from the start of the tutoring session helps eliminate such fears and builds trust between the student and the tutor. According to Beverly Lyon Clark, the most effective manners in which to build confidence include “encouragement, appropriate and consistent praise, and providing the student with control over his or her weaknesses” (111). Building confidence in such a manner creates a positive and non-threatening atmosphere. One Writing Fellow added in her survey: “Confident students seem more assertive, positive, and willing to work with [the tutor]. When [the tutor] helps build the student’s confidence, the trust level really grows.” Implementing confidence building strategies early in a tutoring session ensures a positive tone and a greater level of trust, and serves as an excellent stepping stone to addressing strengths and weaknesses.

Discussing specific strengths positively reinforces the text and makes the student more open to improving weaknesses. The MCCC Writing Center student evaluation revealed that eighty percent of tutored students directly related increased confidence to the overall success of the tutoring session. Discussing the strengths of a student’s paper is a primary manner in which to build confidence. Clark believes there are two important reasons for talking about the paper’s strengths: “For one thing, she may be demoralized and need the encouragement: writing requires self-confidence. For another thing, she may not know what her strengths are” (116). At times, discovering high-order strengths in a student’s paper may not be easy. Yet positive reinforcement can come from something as simple as a focused paragraph or correct comma placement. Suggesting an area of strength reinforces the student’s confidence that he has at least one area of strength from which to build further drafts. However, as Toby Fulwiler points out in The Working Writer, students can easily detect “praise that is not genuine” (55). Not only can insincere praise damage the level of trust between the tutor and the student, but it can also permanently destroy the writer’s confidence. Discussing legitimate strengths builds the writer’s confidence in his text and encourages improvements. Knowing about their writing strengths and attaining an increased sense of confidence from the tutor often results in a more assertive writer. From this stage, the writer feels confident in his ability to improve and open to suggestions from the tutor. 

The process of building confidence greatly improves the tutor’s chances of helping the student discover weaknesses and learn to make corrections independently. After discussing the strengths of the paper, the student has a foundation to build upon. Improving additional areas of weakness and tweaking minor errors becomes a manageable task. The confident writer realizes that mistakes are inevitable, but careful revision can improve any area of weakness. Furthermore, building a student’s confidence results in greater trust between the tutor and the student. This opens dialogue and increases the chance of a student actively seeking improvement. The 2005 MCCC student evaluation illustrated this point. Eighty-eight percent of students who reported increased confidence in their writing felt their tutoring session improved their understanding of the writing process and how to make improvements independently. Conversely, only twenty-five percent of students who reported a decreased level of confidence felt the session improved their writing abilities2. These statistics strongly suggest the value of building confidence in tutoring. The process helps the student understand her ability to make corrections independently. Rather than asking the tutor to fix the paper, the student looks to the tutor for possible improvement strategies and resources for future reference. The student will eventually feel secure enough in her writing that mistakes can be discovered and corrected independently. Ultimately, the confidence built in the writing center leads to confidence in future papers and an improved writer.

The student’s development as a writer requires a high degree of confidence in his abilities. Tutors in the writing center can effectively build this confidence through encouragement and an appropriate level of praise for specific areas of strength within the paper. Building confidence early in a tutoring session helps develop the student into an assertive writer actively seeking strategies for improvement. Understanding specific strengths provides the student with a foundation to build upon with help from tutor suggestions. Furthermore, the confidence built in the writing center creates a positive atmosphere and allows the tutor to make suggestions rather than simply fixing mistakes. This process helps the student discover her own writing style and manners in which to independently correct flawed areas of her paper. When the student realizes the importance of her individual writing, she becomes inspired to improve her particular weaknesses. In the end, the confidence instilled from a session in the writing center serves as a driving force for the struggling writer. With poise and conviction, the writer can view every paper as a manageable task rather an overwhelming ordeal.

Notes

1 The MCCC Writing Fellow survey was compiled by Josiah Smith and given to Writing Fellows in December 2005. Eight writing fellows completed the survey and the resulting conclusions used in this paper were drawn from the answers provided pertaining to building confidence in the writing center. The Writing Fellows responses to questions suggested the importance of building confidence at the beginning of a session to increase the chances of improving weaknesses later in the session.

2 The student evaluation was compiled by Josiah Smith and given to students following their tutoring sessions throughout November and December of 2005. The questions asked the students to rate their level of confidence prior to and following each conference and also asked questions regarding how successful they felt each session was in improving their overall writing skills. They provided additional written comments at the end of each evaluation.The student evaluation form was completed by twenty students in the writing center. Sixteen of these students reported an increased sense of confidence as a result of their tutoring session. Several of the conclusions and statistics presented from this evaluation were drawn from these results.

Works Cited

Clark, Beverly Lyon. Talking About Writing: A Guide for Tutor and Teacher Conferences. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1985.

Fulwiler, Toby. The Working Writer. 4th ed. New Jersey: Pearson, 2004.  

Gillespie, Paula, and Neal Lerner. The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson, 2004.

Smith, Josiah. Student Evaluation. Monroe County Community College Writing Center. Nov. – Dec. 2005.

---. Writing Fellow Survey. Monroe County Community College Writing Center. Dec. 2005.

 

Balancing Business with Social Epistemic Theory

Holli Weaver

Re-entering the world of academics was a big step for me. For the past several years, I owned a small business and felt very comfortable in that environment. During my first semester back at Monroe County Community College I was introduced to the Writing Center. I was relieved to discover that someone was willing to listen to my writing. For me, writing is a scary task. I tend to overanalyze and second guess myself. Discovering the Writing Center gave me a sense of security. During my first visit, the Writing Fellow put me at ease. She impressed me with her professionalism. She was not intimidating and made it clear she was there to listen. She gave me the reassurance I needed to complete my assignment. When I left the Writing Center I was excited about revising my paper. The Writing Fellow treated me well. “What a great service!” I thought as I drove away. A business transaction had just taken place and I was a satisfied customer. What I did not realize was the Writing Fellow and I employed the social epistemic theory to create a better paper. The Writing Center must balance the business model with the social epistemic theory to be successful.

Although the Writing Center is located on our school campus, it operates like a business. Upon entering the Writing Center the student is greeted by a receptionist and then by a tutor. The tutor escorts the tutee back to a cubicle and makes casual conversation in an effort to relax the tutee. This initial practice of welcoming the tutee resembles business practice. Businesses understand the importance of establishing rapport and customer comfort. If the customer feels welcome during his first visit, he will be more likely to return.

Like many businesses, the Monroe County Community College Writing Center has a mission. Writing Fellows are called to “establish and maintain rapport” with writers and offer “individualized instruction” (Writing Center). As Writing Fellows we are expected to extend ourselves to welcome writers and work with them in a positive manner. We tailor information to meet each writer’s needs. The goal is to create better writers. Our mission also states we will work with “high order” concerns before “low order” concerns (Writing Center). Helping students with intention, organization, and topic sentences would be considered high order concerns and are top priority. Sentence structure, grammar usage, and spelling are low order concerns dealt with after high order concerns. Writing fellows who successfully implement the writing center mission will meet the needs of the students and faculty.

The writing fellow’s unique role offers important services and skills for those who choose to use them. Students and faculty employing writing center services are considered customers. St. John’s University writing center takes the business aspect one step further. Writing tutors are called “writing counselors” and tutees are referred to as “clients.” The counselor engages the client in academic discourse (St. John’s par. 7). The terms counselor and client clarify the relationship of the tutor and tutee. An individual visiting a counselor understands the counselor will discuss issues and offer guidance. The individual chooses what information is most useful. Visiting a writing fellow works the same way. The writing fellow listens, observes, and offers suggestions based on the student’s needs. Writing center clients receive many service such as: empathy, active listening, writing strategies, reader’s perspective, and technical support. Depending on the student’s needs, the writing counselor may apply one or several of these techniques. Writing counselors benefit faculty by serving as support staff. Reading the assignment sheet and discussing the instructor’s intention is another service provided by the writing center. Providing satisfactory service will keep clients happy and benefit the reputation of the writing center.

The writing center’s reputation depends on the perception of the students and the faculty who use it. In business, reputation is everything. Businesses with good reputations thrive; businesses with bad reputations die. Customers who perceive the service as a valuable one will most likely return. Completed student surveys revealed, 89 percent of the students who have used the writing center said their experience was a positive one. 94 percent of those surveyed said they would return to the writing center (Weaver, Student). These customer satisfaction rates are high. Good business retention can keep a business running smoothly. One hundred percent of faculty members surveyed stated they recommend our Writing Center to their students. Fifty percent of the instructors require students meet with a tutor at least one time during the semester. Reasons for not requiring students to use the writing center varied but one instructor wrote “College students should learn to determine their own priorities.” (Weaver, Faculty). However, if instructors do not make the writing center a priority then students will not either. If instructors viewed the writing center as a necessary tool that was needed by all students they would realize they are doing their students a great disservice by not offering it to them. Instructors’ endorsements add credibility to the writing center reputation.

 In many ways the writing center operates like a business, but its fundamental principles are found in the social view of writing.

The social epistemic theory provides the fundamental foundation for our Writing Center. The social epistemic theory suggests good writing is achieved through the “social acts” of “conversation and collaboration.” Attaining higher levels of thinking and clearer writing are the benefits of participating in these social acts (Gillespie and Lerner 147). The writing session finds meaning through the exploration of ideas. Using the Socratic Method encourages students to stretch their thinking.  Through this questioning process the writer reveals his intention. By employing the social epistemic theory the writer participates in a larger writing community.

The social epistemic theory supports writers’ affiliation with a literate community. Instead of viewing the writing process as a solitary endeavor, the social view of writing encourages social interaction among its members. This sharing aspect of writing invites creativity. Social interaction lets the writer know he is not alone. Understanding that others have had similar obstacles and have overcome them is encouraging. The tutor offers strategies that have worked for him; the writer decides whether to use them. The writer owns the text, but exchanged ideas can lead to successful collaboration.

The social view acknowledges writing as a collaborative effort. Tutors and tutees engage in “collaborative talk” to help the tutee “find and share meaning” (Gillespie and Lerner 14). Together the tutor and tutee construct meaning. The tutor must employ active listening and good communication skills to help the tutee gain new insight. The tutor can repeat back to the tutee his understanding of the text. If the meaning is unclear, the tutor may challenge the tutee to reexamine his writing. This collaborative process helps the writer develop and present his ideas in a clearer form. The end product is a well-written paper.

In many ways the writing center operates like a business. In other ways it has a deeper philosophical foundation. By combining these two diverse areas the writing center must strive to maintain an appropriate balance.

The writing center must strike a balance between the business model and the social epistemic view to be successful. The business model and the social epistemic view create a unique business environment. The business exterior serves a professional image, but the social view of writing drives the writing center. Improving students’ writing works on two levels. The business goal provides the service; the social epistemic goal provides the interaction needed to meet the business goal. To survive a business needs customers. The writing center targets all college students. How far should the writing center go to reach these students? Businesses spend huge amounts of money to sell their products. The writing center cannot afford to promote itself the same way corporations do. But businesses cannot mandate its customers to make appointments. However, college instructors can require that students use the writing center. Requiring appointments is one way to create a busy writing center.

The writing center’s mission statement bridges the gap between the business model and the social epistemic theory. Establishing rapport and creating better writers are concrete goals that support the business model. The writing fellow’s training includes customer care. Showing students how to use techniques like free writing, list making, and clustering will move writers in a positive direction. When Writing Fellows engage in active listening and show support they are using social epistemic theory. Attentiveness to writing and the needs of the writer use the epistemic theory. By combining these two elements in the mission statement, the writing center has created a layered academic environment.  

The diversity of business and theory pose a challenge for the writing center. Many businesses are prescriptive by nature. For example, when an individual enters a hair salon she expects the cosmetologist to take care of her problem hair. The cosmetologist gives his expert opinion and if the client agrees he proceeds with his plan. The cosmetologist provides a prescriptive service. The cosmetologist tells the client what is wrong with her hair and then proceeds to fix it. If the cosmetologist only talks about what needs to be done and does not provide the service, the client will be upset. The client’s understanding is the cosmetologist is going to fix her hair. The salon industry illustrates a prescriptive service. By contrast, the writing center offers descriptive service. When a writer shares his paper the tutor listens to the writer’s concerns, questions the writer’s meaning, and offers writing strategies. When the appointment ends the writer receives a report form. This form offers suggestions for writing improvement. The writer still has to do the work. If the writer does not understand the descriptive nature of the writing center he will walk away dissatisfied. Writers need a clear definition of the writing center. Writers with a clear understanding will have realistic expectations.

When I visited the Writing Center for the first time I was impressed by the individualized care I received. The Writing Fellow’s professional attitude made me feel welcome. I did not understand we were using the business model or the social epistemic theory. Students and faculty do not need to know the terminology of the writing center, but they do need a clear understanding of its purpose. The writing center is a valuable resource for both students and faculty. By balancing the business model with the social epistemic view, the writing center offers students the best of both worlds. The client receives service with a smile and a well-written paper.

Works Cited

Gillespie, Paula and Neal Lerner. The Allyn Bacon Guide to Peer Tutoring. 2nd ed.  New York: Pearson, 2004.

Lerner, Neal. “The Darker Side.” Friends of Writing Center Journal Mar. 2005. 28 Nov. 2005.      <http://writingcenterjournal.blogspot.com>.

Weaver, Holli. Faculty Questionnaire. Nov. 2005.

---. Student Questionnaire. Nov. 2006.

Writing Center Handbook. St. John’s University. 28 Nov. 2005. <http://www.stjohns.edu/ academics/centers/dass/writingcenter/>.

Writing Center. Homepage. Monroe County Community College. 8 Dec. 2005. Path: Our Mission.

 

Theory to Practice Paper: Student Research Strategies

Linda Whiteside

At least one student has spent countless nights of frustration agonizing over the dreaded research paper.  Perhaps a few even questioned their sanity.  When pondering my own research paper at the beginning of the semester, I started to wonder how other college students wrote theirs.  How much time did they give themselves for research?  Was it enough?  Were they able to understand the thesis statement?  How much did they use the Internet?  In endeavoring to answer these questions, I have conducted surveys among MCCC college students, Writing Fellows, and faculty; and I have conducted academic research.  College students seem to have mixed understanding of thesis statements and struggle to avoid using excessive quotes.  Also, the Internet can weaken or strengthen the credibility of students’ research.

Understanding and applying a thesis statement seems to have varied degrees of success with college students.  This critical statement is the foundation of a research paper.  But what exactly is a thesis statement?  According to a journal article from Teaching Theory and Religion, it is defined as, “an interpretation that rests somewhere between a generalization so broad that it is meaningless and a statement of obvious fact (Killen 225).   Some of the MCCC Writing Fellows surveyed related tutoring students who had a good understanding of the thesis statement.  Out of seven writing fellows surveyed, three wrote that students they have tutored understood how to clearly state their paper’s main point.  Susan Rhodes wrote that “75%” of her fellowed class had a “clear thesis and understood that the thesis is the main idea of their paper.”  However, my findings also indicated difficulty in grasping why a thesis statement is central to a research paper.  Amanda Lundy wrote, “students have heard of a thesis, and they understand the general idea of it, but they don’t write one.”  Melissa Maxwell’s response indicated a basic understanding of this important concept on the student’s part but also conveyed confusion.  She responded yes to the question, “Does the student know what a thesis is?” but wrote, “It doesn’t seem to match the paper very well.”  Furthermore, writing fellow responses also indicated a sense of bewilderment among students.   

College students may understand a thesis statement but still have difficulty knowing how to construct one.  Susan Rhodes commented that in her fellowed class, “25% were instructed to ‘sum up’ their paper in one sentence.  I usually explain that instead of freaking out when they need a thesis statement-they should think of it as one sentence to describe the subject.”  At least one writing fellow surveyed has tutored a student who struggled to put her paper’s main point into one or two sentences.  Rebecca Kennedy writes, “In the appointment we discussed thesis statements and she seemed to understand what they are and what their purpose is, but she still had trouble applying it to her own paper.”  In conducting my research I found an article that summed up the feelings of intimidation a student could feel towards the written word.  A journal article titled, “Making Thinking Real Enough to Make it Better: Using Posters to Develop Skills for Constructing Disciplinary Arguments,” explains that students, “did not understand the essay assignment and felt lost…the essay was too wide open…With the essay there are just words and blank pages.”  Although the author is referring to essays, the same could be said of research papers.  Furthermore, students must be able to integrate research using their own words as well. 

Another problem that students encounter while writing a research paper is knowing how and when to use quotes.  Writing a good research paper requires paraphrasing and summarizing.  However, for students this can be difficult.  A writing fellow responding to a survey on student research strategies wrote, “Some students understood the concept of paraphrasing, whereas, other students prefer direct quotes or block quotes, when writing or backing up what they’re trying to convey.”  Unfortunately, excessive quotation can be tempting because of its perceived ease and convenience.  Writing Fellows and Teachers relate experiences with students who overuse quotes.  Susan Rhodes wrote, “Usually there are too many quotes.  I’ve had papers that were 90% quotes!”  Another writing fellow responded by writing “too many direct quotes.”  However, the use of quotes does not always lead to over kill.  Sometimes the paper instead suffers from wordiness.  One writing fellow wrote, “Most students don’t use too many quotes, but when they do…they’re really long quotes.”  In a survey conducted among school faculty Grant Strickland commented, “It is very challenging to most students to paraphrase or summarize sources because they need more experiences in reading and writing.  Their vocabularies are weak, and therefore they want to quote too much.”  Being able to cite sources properly can make or break a research paper.  In some cases poorly citid sources can cause confusion when trying to differentiate the student’s opinion from quotes.  One writing fellow stated that along with “too many” quotes, there was also no proper citations.  Rebecca Kennedy relates tutoring a student who had a clearly organized and thoroughly researched paper, but “did not use parenthetical documentation at all and I couldn’t tell what came from sources and what were her own words.”  For some students simply not having practice using MLA style can be the source of confusion.  Ann Orwin pointed out a disparity among students’ understanding of MLA citation.  “Some come to Comp II knowing MLA very well.  Some have no clue.”  In addition, students should be adept at using the Internet to write research papers.

The World Wide Web can be a nuisance or a good resource.  Plagiarism is sometimes linked to the Internet.  “A 1999 study by a Duke University researcher found that 54% of high school students claimed to have plagiarized content from the Internet.  In a similar study involving college students, 10% of the student respondents said they had plagiarized portions of their papers from the Internet and 5% “turned in papers that were obtained entirely or almost entirely from the Web (Eodice and Pierard, par.9).”  On the other hand, students can also find academically pertinent research.  “Kari McBride and Ruth Dickstein (1998) argue that “the first step…is to teach student show to find information from all scholarly sources, whether print or online.  The second step is to teach students how to read that material critically, even suspiciously” (Eodice and Pierard par.19).  Discerning between credible and erroneous electronic sources can be challenging for students.  However, the Web can also strengthen research papers that need to present thoroughly researched topics.  Teachers are increasingly requiring students to avoid biased, one sided arguments and instead concentrate on both sides.  Ann Orwin remarks that, “I encourage students to be sure to counter opposing view points if [the] topic is controversial or has sides.” 

Along with the Internet comes an ever-expanding array of sources students must learn to use.  “While a basic mastery of card catalogs, print indexes, and citation patterns once gave students entrée into the world of scholarly communication, now students must choose among and master a wide variety of databases, search engines and electronic collections…”(Eodice and Pierard, par.18).  Unfortunately, students are not always taking advantage of the helpful advice librarians can offer.  Out of five students surveyed, only one reported scheduling an appointment with a reference librarian in the past.  On the whole students seem to be researching topics they are interested in.  Unfortunately, the Internet may also be encouraging students to wait too long before researching.  Out of five students surveyed, three reported waiting the week before the paper was due.  Two students reported starting the day after the assignment was given or as soon as possible.  In any case it seems that the Internet will be increasingly more relevant to research papers.  “Recent studies from individual institutions such as George Washington and Duke along with UCLA’s annual “American Freshman,” which surveys first-year students at some 1600 colleges and universities, report that around 85% of students regularly use the Internet for research or homework (Eodice and Pierard, par.4).

Understanding and applying a thesis statement seems to have mixed success with college students.  The student may understand a thesis statement but still have difficulty knowing how to construct one.  Another problem that students encounter while writing a research paper is knowing how and when to use quotes.  Being able to use MLA style correctly can help students avoid confusing their own words with source material.  Today’s college student must contend with a variety of electronic source.  Unfortunately, the reference librarian does not seem to be used enough by students.  The Internet can be a nuisance or a good resource.  In considering all these different factors that go into a research paper, one must remember that every student is different.  In tutoring students it is a good idea to remember that everybody has different weaknesses.  This is one case where one-size fits all approach will not work.  But, I can safely make one conclusion; good research takes discipline and a lot of hard work. 

Works Cited

Eodice, Michelle and Cindy Pierard.  “Surfing for Scholarship: Promoting More Effective Student Research.” 18 Nov. 2005      <www.writing.ku.edu/instructors/docs/sfs.pdf>.

Killen, Patricia O’Connell.  “Making Thinking Real Enough to Make It Better: Using Posters to Develop Skills for Constructing      Disciplinary Arguments.”  Teaching Theory and Religion 5 (2002): 221-226.  Academic Search Premier.  EBSCO. 
     Monroe County Community College Library, Monroe, MI.  18 Nov. 2005 <http://search.epnet.com>.   

Whiteside, Linda.  “Survey for Writing Fellows.” Dec. 2005.

Whiteside, Linda.  “Questionnaire for Students.”  Dec. 2005.

Whiteside, Linda.  “Survey for Teachers.”  Dec. 2005.