Self-Reflective Tutoring: Practices & Concerns

2.1 Conferencing with Students

The initial session between tutor and student sets the tone for all future sessions. Therefore, don't rush the getting acquainted period, even when a student just drops in. Take five or ten minutes, if possible, to encourage the student to talk about her writing experiences while you ask the student to complete the "Student Information Sheet." Such an initial getting-acquainted period results in a more relaxed conference, helps build trust, and provides the tutor with an opportunity to observe and evaluate the student's attitude. Don't hesitate to ask students about their previous writing experience, their strengths and weaknesses as writers, and their writing and academic goals.

The Importance of Dialogue
In "Peer Tutoring and the 'Conversation of Mankind,"' Kenneth Bruffee says writing is grounded in conversation which in turn is grounded in thought. With this in mind, he tells us "teachers should engage students in conversation at as many points in the writing process as possible and... we should contrive to ensure that conversation is similar in as many ways as possible to the way we would like them to eventually write." Tutoring, according to Bruffee, provides students with the opportunity to learn and practice the kind of conversation (and in turn writing) that will benefit them most in the academic community. Just talking with students about writing, allowing them to practice the academic dialogue, will benefit their writing. The entire conference need not be spent practicing sentence skills or revising a paper.

General Guidelines for Conferences
The ability to listen well and provide clear explanations may be the two most important skills a tutor can develop. The following provides a number of specific suggestions. You probably should focus on only a few of these at first, rather than practice all of them. In time, such tutoring skills will become second nature.

  • Improving Listening Skills:
    You can indicate your attentiveness by making regular eye contact; by smiling, nodding, and making other gestures that signal your concentration and receptiveness; by leaning forward in interest, undistracted by anything else; by sitting beside the student, not hiding behind a desk or table; and by avoiding interrupting, even for the purposes of clarification, until a student has completed her or his message. To indicate trust in the student's abilities and to make thoughtful judgments, allow a period of calm silence (wait time) after a student has apparently finished talking; in this way you can avoid cutting off a student's statements, and provide enough time for reflection and self-criticism. You can provide full attention to what the student is saying by taking notice of how your student delivers his or her message, including nonverbal cues; by framing responses in the context of the student's experience, whenever possible; and by sharing personal experiences with writing, to show students they're not alone.
        • You can stimulate critical thinking and reveal the student's strengths and weaknesses by encouraging students to answer their own questions, or at least trying to answer them; and by repeating their answers back to them in your own words. In general, try these strategies: making your questions brief but specific; avoiding overwhelming your student with too many questions; asking open-ended questions, rather than questions that require a simple "yes" or "no" answer; attempting to ask non-threatening questions; waiting more than five seconds between asking a question and saying something; and avoiding answering your own questions.
  • Giving Clear Explanations:
    Give brief explanations with appropriate examples or demonstrations. In addition to giving your own examples, ask students to provide some of their own. Observe your student's learning habits and structure your approach to his or her needs. Whenever possible, model a useful behavior rather than give a long explanation. (Show instead of tell.) Once you identify a student's typical learning style, point out strengths and weaknesses in the hope he or she will become aware of how he or she learns best. Whenever possible, delay correcting a "wrong answer" until you first question your own preconceptions. It may help to ask the student to perform a task that will help you measure his or her understanding of the concept or mastery of the skill explained.
        • Overall, attempt to make each session a joint effort with at least fifty percent of the work coming from the student. Make certain you do not take over the student's paper. Do not write all over it without permission. Share access to the paper being discussed. And finally, remember that your ultimate concern is to help the student see the benefit of real learning and self-improvement, rather than merely focusing on the grade the paper will receive.

Priorities of Concerns
Given the time limitations of the typical tutoring session, it is impossible to consider all the problems in a student's paper. Therefore, tutors and writers must establish priorities based on the specific context of the session. The following classification of HOCs (higher order concerns) and LOCs (lower order concerns), which is adapted from Reigstad, may be helpful. These are presented not so much in a descending order of importance as they are in a descending order of chronological priority; that is to say, an understanding of the subject should normally be addressed before development, and development should normally be addressed before sentence structure and spelling.

  • Higher Order Concerns (HOCs)
    (a) Understanding of Subject/Material (Does writer have a clear understanding of the importance, details, causes, and consequences of the subject being addressed?)
    (b) Thesis or Focus (Does piece have clear focus and/or thesis?)
    (c) Organization (Is structure and organization effective? Do all the parts support purpose/thesis? (unity) Do the units/paragraphs cohere? (transitions)
    (d) Development (Are the assertions adequately supported?)
    (e) Voice or Tone (Is tone appropriate to audience and purpose?)
  • Lower Order Concerns (LOCs)
    (a) Sentence Structure (incorrect or seriously awkward sentences; sentence variety, length, patterns)
    (b) Punctuation
    (c) Usage
    (d) Spelling
    (Note: For a-d above, first ask if writer can find error and give alternatives; if not, point to error without offering alternatives; and finally, offer alternatives- paraphrase, translations.)

2.2 A Model Tutoring Session

This material and the preceding section on priorities of concerns has been adapted from Reigstad, T. and Donald McAndrew, Training Tutors for Writing Conferences. Urbana, IL. NCTE: 1984.

When you first meet with a student, take time to get acquainted. Have students new to the center fill out a "Student Information Sheet." If you wish, you can fill out the form while getting to know the student. Find out about the assignment, whether the writer understands it, when it is due. Then determine the kind of writing required (explanatory, expressive, analytical, interpretive, creative, persuasive, descriptive, etc.), and any special restrictions concerning audience, voice, etc., by asking questions such as these: What are you trying to do in this paper? Are you writing to someone other than your instructor? What kind of writer's voice do you think is most appropriate for this assignment? Then try to determine what approach the writer is already using or is planning to use. Respect the writer's judgment: you should not tell the writer what approach to take.

When the writer lacks a partial or completed draft, you can explore with the writer ways of gathering or producing ideas and materials. Try such strategies as oral composing, or talking about the subject; listing ideas, questions, issues, generalizations; or other invention strategies like freewriting, cubing, or clustering, etc. Then explore possibilities for organizing the ideas and materials.

When the writer has a partial or completed draft, analyze first the Higher Order Concerns (mentioned in the previous section). Sit next to the writer and read along silently as the writer reads the paper aloud. Encourage the writer to tell you what she or he wants the two of you to look and listen for. Ask the writer the following questions at this stage: What works best in your paper? What do feel most satisfied about? What works least well in the paper? Which parts did you have trouble writing? Which parts don't feel right?

Stop whenever you wish to explore alternatives with the writer. Give the writer every chance to solve a problem before you offer specific solutions. Your task is to help the writer see the problem and solve it. Avoid jumping in and supplying your solution to the problem. Let the writer do the writing. Consider questions (and strategies) like the following: Does the beginning begin the piece? Does the ending end it? Is the information presented in clear order? Are transitions between paragraphs clear? Are there weak sections that can be eliminated? At what points does the paper need more detail? Is the paper sufficiently complex? Are important alternatives explored? Are important questions answered? And finally, is the paper focused? Does it seem to create a single, dominant impression?

Then you can address the Lower Order Concerns (sentence structure, punctuation, usage, spelling). Look at the sentence structure and mechanics of the draft, but DON'T attempt to deal with every mechanical or grammatical problem; look for the most pervasive patterns of error. Question the flagrantly incorrect or seriously awkward sentences. Discuss sentence variety, length, patterns.

You should encourage the student to find the errors in the paper. If the writer can find the error, ask the writer to give alternatives. If not, point to the error and ask for alternatives before offering them yourself. You can also ask questions about the paper: Do you notice a particular sentence pattern or length? Is this an effective pattern? Or do you need more variety of pattern or length? Are there sentences that can be combined or eliminated? Is the movement from sentence to sentence clear? Are sentence boundaries correctly marked? What types of spelling errors are made? Are there patterns of error in usage or mechanics that consistently draw attention away from the paper's content?

At the end of the tutoring session, review the main points discussed. Recommend specific self-help materials to the writer when appropriate. (Students may use Writing Center texts only in the center, but there are many handouts that can be taken from the center.) Complete the reverse of the "Student Information Sheet" by making a few brief notes on the back of the sheet. Enter the date. Describe the work done using short phrases such as the following: understanding the assignment; considering audience and voice; discussing the composing process; building confidence; discovering a topic; locating information (suggesting sources); compiling ideas; organizing ideas; introducing and ending the piece; staying on the topic; expanding the draft; supplying evidence or analysis; correcting usage, sentence structure, or mechanics; stylistic revision. Then write a sentence or two describing the session's content, taking into consideration what future tutors might need or want to know.

Finally, have the student fill out an evaluation form, and be sure to leave the completed forms in the work-study in-box.

Summary of Tutoring Steps: Begin by making a positive, rapport-creating statement to the writer. Make some positive comments about the paper. (What are its strengths?) First discuss any weaknesses you find in the HOCs. Suggest strategies to eliminate each. Then you can discuss any weaknesses you see in the LOCs. Suggest a strategy to eliminate each. And finally, remember the recordkeeping duties the job entails.

2.3 Some Variations on the Model

Obviously, the tutorial model provided above will need to be adjusted to the tutor's skills and interests, to the student's needs, and to the constraints of time. Reigstad identified three types of tutorial styles, which he termed student-centered, collaborative, and teacher-centered.

A student-centered tutoring style is desirable because it encourages the writer to do most of the talking and most of the work on the paper. The writer even determines the direction of the session, initiating movement to each new phase of the conference.... Student-centered conferences, then, are conducted in an informal climate in which students are treated as conversational equals and fellow writers. During the first phase, the tutor relies on open-prompt questions to draw students out to discuss their drafts or composing processes. In subsequent phases, as students initiate conversation about various problems with composing, the tutor suggests strategies or alternatives.

The collaborative style, too, has merit since the tutor maintains a flexible posture.... The tutorial relationship changes from teacher-student to conversant-conversant several times during the conference..., and tutor and student share equally in the conversation, in the problem solving, and in the decision-making. The tutor, however, initiates the move to a new phase and usually identifies the problem areas on which to focus.

When time constraints dictate, tutors should know that a teacher-centered style may be more appropriate. Even though the ultimate goal of the tutoring session is to help the writer, not the paper, there are occasions in which a brief (three to five minutes) teacher-centered conference is necessary.... In a teacher-centered conference, the student tends to sit passively as the tutor reads through the draft and, pen in hand, corrects mechanical errors or supplies alternative, improved sentences and paragraphs. The tutor asks few questions, and the questions are usually closed or leading. A teacher-centered tutor issues directives for specific revisions to be made.

2.4 Tutoring Online

Some students may choose to e-mail us their work (or a portion of it). These requests will arrive intermittently throughout the term via our e-mail, along with the results of a form that the student has completed (one that includes the same general information as our "Student Information Sheet" as well as some additional context). These papers should be responded to by the end of the next class day.

Responding via email
After you check the center's e-mail, reply immediately to any students who have submitted work and acknowledge its receipt. This is a good time to ask any additional questions you may have about the assignment or their work. Print a copy of their work and fill out a "Student Information Sheet" for the student (or retrieve their files from the cabinet).

When responding to the students' work, keep your comments focused and brief. Tell the writer what you like about the draft. Acknowledge that you are not responding to every concern, but instead prioritizing a few items for the writer to focus on. Offer your suggestions with brief explanations and examples, and let the writer know when you are available to meet face to face if he or she wishes. Be sure to use the Writing Center's e-mail account when responding, and complete the same paperwork procedures as you would with a face-to-face visit.

  • Remember that electronic communication lacks most of the paralinguistic phenomena that help determine meaning: without gestures, expressions, hedges, etc, meaning is more difficult to achieve. In electronic communication, avoid irony, sarcasm, ambiguity, and strive instead for clarity.

2.5 Assessing Your Tutoring

Neither this Guide nor your reading as a tutor can, by itself, make you into an excellent tutor of writing. Those tutors who progress the most are the ones who reflect critically on their practice, continually assessing their work and learning new skills and strategies. To assess your tutoring, try the following:

  • Reflect on your practice. Take a few minutes at the end of the session or shift to reflect on your work. Discuss your strategies with other staff members and the director. Make a note to yourself about what to improve or study, and frame questions for the "tutor talk" at the next staff meeting.
  • Learn new strategies. As you talk with other tutors, try to discover what works for each of them in different situations. Read the Writing Labyrinth, The Writing Lab Newsletter, the "wcenter" listserv digest, and other anthologies and sourcebooks for tutoring advice.
  • Tape your sessions. While you'll probably be required to tape, transcribe, and assess at least one of your tutorial sessions, you might consider taping additional sessions as well. From the sessions, you can discern how you might improve your interpersonal communication or clarify your definitions and explanations.
  • Observe others as they tutor. Senior tutors have a wealth of experience to draw on. Ask their permission and observe their sessions. Contrast their efforts and strategies with your own, and ask questions about their approach to the sessions.
  • Have others observe you. Formal observation reports are a required part of your Writing Center tutoring, but you can request additional observations from either the senior staff or the director. Often, you'll learn multiple ways to approach a problem.
  • Conduct research. If a specific learning style, rhetorical strategy, writing genre, or sociological concern poses a problem for your tutoring, conduct some preliminary bibliographic research on the topic. You can summarize your findings in a staff meeting presentation and refine them for a later Labyrinth article.
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