Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Vulnerability in Sessions: How Tutors Can Most Effectively Help Anxious Students

While some students who visit the Writing Center are confident and highly motivated, many other students often come in riddled with anxiety. I recently had a consultation at the Texas A&M University Writing Center where the client seemed very uninterested. He didn’t want to read aloud or talk much at all, and it seemed that the session was going to have no direction. As I tried to get him talking, he clued me in on why he was so quiet: it was his first time at the Writing Center, and he felt uncomfortable with the fact that another student was going to read his writing. He told me that he had negative experiences with peer reviews and was hesitant to even come. Thankfully, I was able to relate to him and use positivity to help him open up; it then became a highly successful session!

As a peer tutor, I can sometimes lose focus on the fact that students often come in their most vulnerable states. Letting someone read your writing and offer feedback can be scary and highly uncomfortable. Because writing, even academic writing, takes so much time and effort, it can be very hard for students to allow others to offer help. Many academic researchers like Patrick Bizzaro and Hope Toler have attributed much of this anxiety to both the high expectations of university-level work and poor writing experiences in the past. Both of these experiences can significantly affect the way that a student views writing in general and can often give them the impression that they are poor writers. Thus, it is imperative for us as peer tutors to encourage students in their writing abilities. We know that even the best writers need practice, and we can use personal experiences to relate back to our clients.

When I find myself in sessions similar to the one I mentioned above, I usually explain my own writing story. For the longest time, I viewed writing as an isolated act. I never wanted others to read my writing, and I was content with this. While I was never had many negative critiques about my writing, I also did not allow many others to even look at it. Most importantly, I never experienced any growth. In high school, I finally opened up and began letting other look at my writing, and I’ve never turned back. Now, I know that I grow and learn so much by sharing my writing with others. Having another perspective on what I’ve written helps me see things in a different light, and now I try to have many people read my papers before I turn them in! Telling this story to students often helps them relate to me as a tutor. I feel that many students view us peer consultants as the “writing experts,” which can definitely make the Writing Center a scary atmosphere, especially if the students have had negative experiences in the past with people like this. However, relating to them by telling your own story could help encourage them in their own writing journeys.

To build up confidence in our students, one of the first things that we as peer tutors can do is set initial expectations. This is especially important with first-time users of the Writing Center. By letting them know that we are here to help and genuinely want them to grow and succeed in their own personal writing skills, we can help them build up confidence in their abilities. This is vital in helping these students overcome their writing anxiety.

Another way we can help students overcome this anxiety involves our wording, especially in face-to-face sessions. One strategy that is effective in most consultations is to first point out the strengths of the paper and then focus in on areas that could use improvement. Additionally, doing this with positivity allows the student to feel reassured. Instead of saying, “You did this incorrectly. A relative pronoun should be here not an article,” we can say something like “I totally understand why you chose this word. Relative pronouns are tricky, and I still struggle with them. Using one here instead of an article could make this sentence even clearer…” Showing the student that you relate to their experiences can offer such hope to them.

Because students often come into the Writing Center with overwhelming anxiety, it is important for us as peer tutors to respond appropriately and positively. We, too, know the vulnerability that arises when we let others view our writing, so encouraging our clients through personal experiences and positivity can help build up their confidence in writing.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Error 404: Focus Not Found

Sitting idle in that chair that’s comfortable in that sort of ‘office-comfortable, taupe is soothing’ kind of way, in a wash of overhead and computer fluorescence can certainly induce torpidity. It’s more than easy to slip into a “you need a comma here” type tutoring. So, how do we avoid this debilitating complacency during an online-session-heavy workday? Forcing yourself to be more deliberate with your explanations and questions can definitely help avoid falling into that sentence-level-editing rut, because it will also make you more self-aware of what you are doing in the session. Explain to your client how you read their paper, what you were looking for, and why you said what you said. If you don’t explain this, the client may have many still unanswered questions. If you can’t explain this, you don’t understand what you are doing yourself, and are obviously not fully engaged.

Personally, I find online sessions to be my most successful sessions, precisely for their allowance of close-reading and calculated comments. But this luxury requires a good deal of discipline to avoid abusing the added distance. One must keep in mind that the client cannot speak up during an online session if their goals are not being met, or if they do not understand a consultant’s suggestion. Therefore, though it’s certainly important in traditional consultations as well, it’s crucial to carefully consider the client’s preliminary requests and create a strategy for how to stay on track in meeting those expectations, keeping in mind that such vaguenesses as “grammar,” or “wording” may be indicative of concerns more fundamental than their denotation may suggest, such as clarity of ideas. In thinking of your strategy for meeting the client’s goals, be sure to actually read the paper in a way that will serve those goals. Will it need to be worked through line-by-line? Or is a skim-over to create a general mental outline more appropriate? Is the trouble with the initial argument or thesis? Or is it with the way the thesis is argued or supported?

            As you begin to leave comments and questions, remember that, unless you tell them explicitly, your client does not know how you read through the paper, what you are focusing on, or what your intent is. If, for example, a client writes “Kant’s ‘Categorical Imperative’ is in contrast with utilitarianism. It is much better morally,” and you leave the comment, “You might want to clarify this,” it can be read in many different ways. The client might simply think “oh, I wrote ‘it’ and I should probably be more specific since I have both ‘Categorical Imperative’ and ‘utilitarianism’ in the previous sentence. I’ll change it to ‘The Categorical Imperative is better morally.’” Alternatively, they may think “in philosophy, the term ‘ethics’ refers to the consideration of right and wrong, so I should use ‘ethically’ instead of ‘morally.’” In actuality, you probably meant neither of these, but rather something like “you’ll need to explain why or how the Categorical Imperative is better than utilitarianism morally.” Specificity is key!

            Although there is no secret formula for online sessions, there are ways to maintain that level of engagement. Challenge yourself with the questions you ask and the way you read, and you may find an all new appreciation for the fickle online appointment.
Clayton Hensley
Texas A&M University

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The Power of Questions

In life, we all ask questions. Two-year-olds ask the notorious “why” in response to every answer presented to them. You have to eat. Why? You need to clean your toys. Why? The sky is blue. Why? So, looking back, I wonder why I never thought of utilizing a basic question when I was confounded by a client’s paper. Toddlers learn through questions, so why can’t we as writing consultants?

There are two main types of questions: clarifying and probing. Clarifying questions are questions that the student can answer with a simple, quick response (Ekey). They allow for the foundation to be built so that the consultant can understand the basics, which can be very helpful in complicated papers. If the consultant does not understand how a horse responds to pressure, then how can they be critical of the content of the paper? Clarifying questions allow the consultant to see if the confusion stems from a grammatical error or a simple lack of knowledge. 

Clarifying questions tend to be my favorite type of question when reading, especially when confronted with scientific dissertations. One evening, while working with a client, I noticed a sentence that read “we compared the total materials, oxygen and nitrogen, to the base model.” I was a bit confused because before oxygen and nitrogen were not mentioned in the materials used for his experiment. 

So, I asked, “Are the total materials oxygen and nitrogen or are all three things different items?”
He responded with, “No, the total materials are this items in this diagram, and the oxygen and nitrogen were measured to see if our treatment worked or not.”
After he replied with this, I was able to explain to him that since he had not used the Oxford comma, I was unaware that the total materials were not, in fact, oxygen and nitrogen. He seemed astonished that this was an issue for the reader, and he was grateful that I pointed out this error. Using a clarifying question allowed me to determine what he really meant, which turned out to be different from what he actually wrote. 

Clarifying questions can also be used to increase the confidence in the student. If the consultant asks a simple question that the student can answer, they gain some authority in the appointment (Graesser and Person). As consultants, we can set students up for success by giving them authority and confidence. How many of these students have come in to a Writing Center or turned in a paper just to receive it back with numerous red marks? How many of these students feel as if the Writing Center is remedial? Allowing the students to feel successful and confident, changes their attitude and will allow them to be more open. 

The other type of question is a probing question, which are more thought-provoking questions. Probing questions also give the student more authority and confidence. When a student can make connections of their own, they gain confidence because they are able to do so. When a probing question is asked, the student is forced to think about what they do or do not know. If they do not know the material, then the paper is probably lacking connections. After responding to probing questions, the student can see if they have a knowledge deficient so that they can fix it.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

My Favorite Student is the Uninterested Student

My favorite student is the uninterested student. I enjoy the students that slink into the Writing Studio, more attention on their phones than the people around them, looking for the tutor that will hopefully fill out a session report form with little to no interaction. I love them! Why? It’s simple; they give me a sense of accomplishment.

I had a student come in the other day with a less-than enthused attitude. I was covering the student’s appointment because another tutor was out sick. Upon entering the studio, she became aware that her scheduled Writing Fellow was out. Her words: “Oh, awesome! I have other things to do anyway, so if someone could just fill out the report for me… that’s all I need!” Inside, I was a little surprised. These were the responses I more often received the first couple of semesters the studio was open; by this time, most students utilized Writing Fellow assistance and saw the benefit of an extra pair of eyes. I assumed this was her first time. It was.  

I encouraged her to come sit with me. “We will find something to improve,” I told her.

Yet, she kept insisting, “I really don’t need the help. It’s finished. I just need the report.”

“Well, let’s take a look at what you have,” I kept pushing back as she opened her product review, “We’ll need to at least talk about the assignment before we can fill out a session report form.”

“Um, okay.” She was not pleased. “I just have a lot of other stuff to do, so we don’t need to be long.”

“I understand. We’ll see what you have and go from there.” I assured her that by the end of the remaining 23 minutes, she would gain some knowledge she could apply not only to this paper, but to future papers as well. I saw the skepticism on her face. This would be a challenge.

Asking her to read out loud came with a rebuttal, “Read out loud? Why?” A slight laugh followed.

“Well, sometimes our mind skips over missing words or wrong verb tenses when we read to ourselves. When you read out loud, you’re more likely to see such mistakes and catch any awkward wording. Maybe you’re paper is perfect, but trust me, we might find one or two areas with an ‘s’ missing, or past tense where it should be present.” She stared at the paper, and reluctantly began reading out loud.

One spelling mistake fixed. One sentence restructured. A verb tense error corrected. Her irritated expression softened, as she noticed minor mistakes she might have otherwise skipped over. “Wow, I didn’t see any of these problems earlier today.”

“That’s why you’re here! It’s so easy to rush through assignments like this and overlook minor mistakes. I do it all the time.” I tried to relate to her, hoping we could continue making positive headway in the remaining fifteen minutes.

We went on to find comparative material and worked through the organization of her claims. She gradually grew more interested, more comfortable, beginning to see the benefit of the Writing Studio. “I can’t believe we were able to do so much; I thought I was finished. You’re really good.” She had found those mistakes herself, and she had developed more supporting ideas by simply talking to me about the paper. Upon completing the session report form, she left informing me that I would probably see her next week.

The best students are the interested students. They come in with lists and ideas of what they need to work on, of areas they want to improve. They enter with a positive attitude and leave feeling accomplished. However, the least enthused students are the few I feel really benefit my position. They push me to do my job, to do my job better. They force me to draw out interest, to explain our methods in an attempt to gain compliance. They move me to help students understand the benefits of the Writing Studio, but more importantly, writing as a whole. Tough sessions give me a sense of accomplishment, as I watch students crawl into the Writing Studio, leave walking, and return running. My favorite student is the uninterested student. 

Monday, February 29, 2016

Live Discussion!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016 from 1:30 pm to 2:30 pm Eastern Standard Time (12:30 pm Central; 11:30 am Mountain; 10:30 am Pacific; 18:30 UTC/GMT) the editors of the Dangling Modifier will lead a live online discussion of writing center procedure, what makes a writing center successful vs. unsuccessful, what to do about a reluctant tutee, why tutoring is different than simply editing, the concept of tutoring as an act of collaboration, and lastly about The Dangling Modifier, the international peer tutoring newsletter by tutors for tutors from Penn State.  The discussion kicks off the PeerCentered live peer writing tutor discussion series for 2016.

To attend the session, please go to

Please announce this opportunity to any peer writing tutors you have contact with.

Questions may be directed to me, Clint Gardner at

Monday, February 08, 2016

Invitation to Participate in Research on the Working Conditions of Peer Tutors!

Peer tutors in writing are invited to participate in a research project that aims to investigate the working conditions of all non-tenure line, contingent college or university writing center workers or workers at similar kinds of centers (e.g. communication or  multiliteracy centers). Eligible participants include student peer tutors; directors whose positions are non-tenurable (i.e. faculty, term, temporary, interim, adjunct, clinical, visiting, instructional, and affiliate); assistant directors (staff, faculty, or graduate assistant); staff consultants; and other writing center staff. Your participation will help us identify the personal, professional, and programmatic risks and benefits of contingent writing center positions.

All currently contingent writing center practitioners are welcome to participate. Those who previously held a contingent position--such as being a peer tutor--of any length and at any time during the previous five years may also participate, regardless of their current position or employment status.

Criteria for participation are as follows:
1. You hold or have held in the past five years one or more non-tenure line position in a college or university writing center (i.e. director, assistant director, tutor, consultant, staff).
2. You are 18 years or older.
3. You want to participate in the project.
4. You are able to provide informed consent.

If you fit our criteria for participation, please follow the link below to take our initial five-to-ten minute survey:

Participants will be contacted following receipt of your survey to discuss the details of your participation and to schedule an interview. Interviews will take place at upcoming writing center conferences and through Skype or Uberconference. Participation will be voluntary, and participants may withdraw from the study at any time.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016


Named after its first recipient and given at every other International Writing Centers Association (IWCA) conference, the Muriel Harris Outstanding Service Award recognizes outstanding service that has benefited the international writing center community in significant and broad-based ways.  All nominations should be submitted electronically to Clint Gardner, chair of the IWCA Muriel Harris Outstanding Service Award Committee, at with the email subject line that includes the phrase “MHOSA Nomination.”   Nominations should include the following materials:
•              A letter of nomination that includes the name and institution of the nominee, your personal knowledge of or experience with the nominee’s service contributions to the writing center community, and your name, institutional affiliation and email address.
•              Detailed support documents (maximum of 5 pages). These may include excerpts from a curriculum vitae, workshop or published material, stories or anecdotes, or original work by the nominee.
•              Other letters of support (optional but limited to 2)
All materials must be received by Clint Gardner by June 30, 2016.  The winner will be announced at the IWCA Conference in Denver, Colorado, October 14-16. 2016.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Get Right Back Where We Started From

PeerCentered started around 1998 as an online discussion group for peer tutors in writing centers to talk about issues that they found important.  These discussions took place on a MOO--an online textual world interface where people could text chat with each other.  The discussions were held weekly--and then monthly--and then finally sporadically, as it was seemingly difficult to coordinate the sessions with my schedule.

I was, however, going about it all wrong:  things like PeerCentered work best when peer tutors take the lead in it, and directors like me step away. Directors can provide venues and medium and opportunity for peer tutors, I think, but we should let peer tutors take it from there.

So, without further ado, PeerCentered announces the return of the regular live discussions.  This time, however, instead of a text chat, we're going to be using a Google Hangout that will allow for audio/visual and textual interactions.  Of course, such discussions won't happen spontaneously, and we will need to get a group of interested peer tutors to help initiate and lead the discussions.

This blog post, therefore, is call for moderators for a series of monthly PeerCentered discussions.  If you are interested in leading a discussion, please visit this Google form:  The form asks for your name, your email address, your institutional affiliation, whether or not you are an undergraduate peer tutor in writing, and what topics you would like to discuss during a session you moderate. One doesn't necessarily have to be a peer tutor to lead the discussions, but peer tutors will be given preference in moderator selection.  I would, therefore, ask directors to recruit from peer tutoring staff or students in peer tutoring classes.

When (and if) we get enough moderator volunteers, we'll move forward with determining dates. Once I get enough responses, I'll coordinate with the volunteers to have an open meeting to talk about the best times and dates for the live online discussions.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Training Reflections

As I reflect on what it means to be a tutor in a diverse and inclusive environment I continually come back to our responsibility as tutors to stand strongly in empathy with our writers. To me, this is about finding some way, any way, to connect with another through the experience of pure human existence. We are there to acknowledge writers’ lives, both their joys and their struggles, despite whatever differences may exist between us. Tutors are given a window into our writers’ worlds through their work. I’m struck by what a privilege that is! We are afforded the opportunity to know these people in often personal ways; through sharing their work writers may come to feel more confident in who they are or even to a greater understanding of themselves. As tutors we help others find their voice. That is a beautifully powerful thing. What creates the opportunity for that in any relationship is the presence of empathy. It is my hope that as tutors we take time to consider what that means for ourselves and how we engage with writers. 

Final Training Reflection

At the beginning of the week, when I first introduced myself to the peers I’d be training with, the first “fun fact” I revealed about myself is that I am shy. I clung to that shyness and never really wanted to dig too deep too soon. I was sharing, but there was limit imposed by my own usual uncertainties and insecurities. 

It’s amazing how much can change in three days. During the final training session, it was very clear how far I had come along in letting go of my inhibitions, and how much my peers and I had bonded. These strangers were suddenly my allies, and I was sharing much more than I would have ever anticipated. We all reached much deeper understandings of each other and ourselves because of our newfound willingness to share without fear and to open ourselves up emotionally and intellectually to experiences other than our own.

I realized this simple process of opening up creates the tone and environment that is a critical part of successful tutoring. If both parties involved are willing to open up in order to unearth the fundamental components their own strengths, weaknesses, work practices, tendencies, and even histories, they will be able to overcome any academic obstacles as a team. Becoming a team involves digging deeper than what many have come to understand as the typical tutor-student relationship, and this training period at the Learning Studio gave me the brilliant change in perspective needed to make that possible. 

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

What is a tutor?

On the surface, the job of a writing tutor is simple. We fix essays for students who need help and offer feedback to assist their future writing. However, this stereotype of tutoring comes from those who have never looked deeper into the relationship between tutor and student. When a student enters the writing center, they are welcoming the tutor into their experience of life. What is written on their paper is sacred. It's their thoughts, emotions, history, and potentially the safest place for them to be who they are. It's a humbling honor to be allowed to enter their world. We journey through their headspace to learn how their mind works. Students expose the deepest part of themselves to us, bravely allowing themselves to be vulnerable. We have the task of looking deeper within ourselves and at our own experiences to form questions that prompt the student to research their own story. If the student is most comfortable expressing who they are on paper, we are responsible for keeping that space safe for them, as well as making a safe space for conversation at our writing centers. Tutors are protectors, guardians for those who need shelter from their reality. We break down the walls of insecurity and maintain a space which generates creativity.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Tuesday's Reflection

Training resumed today with another introduction of ourselves. We met Caroline today and we went on with our training with her through google chat. We opened up our session with a video of Ant Black talking about racism and oppression. The discussion that followed after was a good ice breaker for the topic. Everyone had different opinions and experiences with racism. As for my contribution to the discussion, I talked about my experience on how people assume things about me just because I'm Asian. People stereotype Asians as smart and are intelligent with Math. But in all honesty, Mathematics is the one subject that I don't excel in. It's a subject that I hate and always struggle with and people assume that I'm a "mathlete" because of my race. I get a lot of questions from different students asking for help in math. It usually starts with "Hey, you're Asian right? So you must be good in Math" or "Can you help with Math problems?". Since people are not really aware of my background, I don't allow myself to get caught up with the assumptions. I can't respond aggressively since people don't know me well besides the fact that I'm Asian. I respond in a calmer way but at the same time, very blunt about the topic. I have to consider the fact that we don't know everyone and people don't know anything about us. Approaching the situation calmly is the best way to handle the situation while at the same time educating others by reminding them that other people don't fit the stereotype that they have about the other person's race or that people shouldn't assume that fast.

Creating Safety Through Connection In Diverse Spaces

After a day spent reflecting on creating a space where diversity is respected, encouraged and celebrated in the learning studio I continually find myself returning to the individual experience. Throughout the day my writing tutor peers and I shared our own reflections on racism both generally and within the context of the education system in which we are working. While we had varied, fresh perspectives on many points there were also many moments of commonality between us, especially in the value we place in these conversations and the importance of creating this environment in our roles as tutors. 

For me,  one contributes to creating a safe space for diversity by knowing your ‘stuff’– all the ideas, values, thoughts, beliefs, assumptions and hidden biases that have come to compose who you are as an individual. It’s about bringing awareness to how these things act as a lens through which you see the world so that, when need be, you can find another lens through which to look. By proceeding with that self-awareness in one hand and a heavy dose of openness and curiosity in the other I think a space can be created in the Learning Studio that feels safe and inclusive for our students and peers.  By having the courage and honesty to bring your authentic self into relationship you invite the same from those you connect with. If we can bring these relational qualities of openness, curiosity, and acceptance into our work as writing tutors then we can help our students to use their creativity and amazingly unique perspectives as assets in their communication and writing.  

Tuesday's Reflection

As a school that openly embraces diversity and individuality, I was stunned and saddened to hear other students tell stories of the injustice regarding race in their departments. I addressed the dance center and the issues I've noticed about the way West African classes are valued as opposed to ballet and modern classes. We discussed the importance of immersing in a culture to learn its art, and the value of broadening our perspectives when learning new things. Relating this to the writing center, I think it's important to remember that everyone has a unique voice and way of expressing themselves on paper. To aid in their writing, we as tutors must let go of our ideas of writing. Though a student might not express themselves as we do, that does not mean they are wrong in any way. We have to immerse ourselves in the mindset of the student for them to positively benefit from our tutoring sessions, which are conversations that generate creativity and thought. Our job as tutors is to enhance a student's writing and their writing experience, not to change it.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Freedom From Plagiarism: How Peer Collaboration Helps Students Master & Overcome Plagiarism

Fear and confusion combine in the minds of listeners who know all about plagiarism's negative repercussions, but are only dimly aware of its meaning. Even among scholars the topic is stressful to discuss; some time ago, as I talked with a professor about this topic, I sensed a tone of worry in his voice, as if just raising the idea of plagiarism was enough to summon shame. This fear of committing plagiarism is not a solution because it can either cause or worsen students' struggle with paraphrasing and citation, thus hurting their writing quality and their capacity to participate in our community's exchange of knowledge. Overcoming the fear of committing plagiarism principally requires understanding it through peer collaboration and acceptance—an atmosphere that, at present, are best provided by writing centers.

I mastered how to avoid committing plagiarism through practice and, most importantly, by making mistakes along the way. Despite first learning about plagiarism in school, I only understood it after practicing how to cite sources by writing entries in Wikipedia. This online encyclopedia was a great venue not only because my grade was not at stake, but also because it provided me with an opportunity to work in an open canvass with anonymity—which was important, in retrospect, because it allowed me to sweep away feelings of embarrassment that could have hindered my writing. My understanding of plagiarism was also shaped by peer-to-peer feedback. As a result, I acquired the self-confidence to fix my own errors, and learned how to properly summarize, paraphrase, and integrate different types of quotes into a written work.

Back in school, my peers struggled to find self-confidence, particularly because they had associated their work and the instructor with failure and criticism. Most of these students feared committing plagiarism and, in their frustration, focused their minds on earning a passing grade rather than on learning how to write using sources. Once in college, many of them continued having the same problem; moreover, at that point their fear extended to all forms of writing.

At Texas A&M University's Writing Center, I worked with students seeking to overcome plagiarism, and also learned techniques on how to collaborate with them as a peer tutor. One of my memorable appointments was with a student who had been admonished for plagiarizing. She came to the writing center with a paper marked with comments and point reductions. The student was confused on how to distinguish between common knowledge and information that required citation. Due to the confusion, she was unable to express her thoughts on paper. Thus, the session initially focused on brainstorming and providing her with the confidence that no one would penalize her mistakes. After the writing was finished, the rest of the session focused on us working together to understand areas where plagiarism had been committed. We also practiced the usage of paraphrases and summaries. Thanks to the writing center, the student left with a new-found trust in her writing.

All in all, peer collaboration has proven time and again to be an effective method to end students' fear of committing plagiarism. Students also need an environment where they can take command of their role as learners and write without fearing negative repercussions. Writing centers house all of these elements in addition to consultants who provide patience, confidence, and encouragement. Therefore, one of our roles as consultants is to help students regain their fundamental right, as writers, to be free from fearing plagiarism.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Writing Centers and Learning Styles

Nowadays, we all know many things affect academic achievement. One factor is learning style, a concept that has received scholarly attention more recently but has been around since the 1920s. Since the goal of the writing center is to improve the writer, part of role of the tutor becomes providing instruction in a manner that the student will comprehend. There are many different ways to offer this guidance, so I thought sharing some information on learning styles for writing tutors might be useful.

What is a learning style? Basically, a learning style is not an ability, but a preference for learning a certain way. These preferences include the things people do to learn things (e.g., making diagrams, re-reading, practice) as well as broader styles (step by step instructions, collaborative learning, etc.).
Research on learning styles shows that individuals differ in how they prefer to take in, process, and acquire new information, but much remains unknown. For instance, scholars and psychologists don’t know where learning styles come from. Are they associated with personality traits? Are they fixed ways of thinking? This research on learning styles impacts education: if it’s true that individuals learn in different ways, what should educators do about it? There are essentially two camps when it comes to addressing learning styles in the classroom. One feels that instructors should diagnose individuals, and then tailor instruction to meet each individual’s learning style. An entire business has sprung up because of these advocates; that is, commercial measurement devices (tests) to help teachers assess individuals are constantly being invented and sold. Unfortunately, most of these tests don’t produce concrete results and there is no concrete evidence to suggest that matching presentation of material to an individual learner makes a significant difference. The other camp sees this lack of evidence and claims that because teaching to individual styles does not work, we should instead focus on multi-dimensional teaching.  

The most important outcome from research into learning styles is awareness. Just being aware that students prefer to understand new information in different ways goes a long way for instructors. In fact, recent literature on learning styles suggests that both educators and the learners themselves should investigate their personal learning styles. This important concept of metacognition leads to the ability to teach to different styles and provides vocabulary for talking about learning styles, where the learner can express his or her individual needs or adapt accordingly. Teachers are encouraged to diversify their lessons, and learners are encouraged to use different learning strategies and move beyond their preferred method when necessary.

To help us think about the ways we learn and the ways we tutor in the writing center, I’m highlighting 5 basic cognitive styles that relate to learning style. What kind of learner are you? What kind of learner is your client? How do stages of the writing process fit into these cognitive styles, and can you think of ways to alter how you provide instruction to match each style?
1.     Field independent/ dependent. Field independent learners are internally motivated with self-directed goals, structure their own learning, and define their own study strategies. Field dependent learners, on the other hand, are externally motivated, respond better to clearly defined performance goals, need structured guidance from the instructor, and prefer to collaborate.

2.     Convergent-Divergent. Convergent style learners seek the one accepted correct answer from the available information, and divergent style learners tend to produce a number of potentially acceptable solutions to the problem.

3.     Leveler-sharpener. Similar to convergent/divergent styles in many ways, the leveler has a tendency to oversimplify and reduce the complexity of a task, but the sharpener introduces more complexity, treating each detail or event as a serious event.

4.     Holist-serialist. Although these are different cognitive processes, they can produce the same end result. Serialists operate on a step-by-step approach to learning, while holists will use significant amounts of information from the start, looking for patterns or trends to understand the data.

5.     Verbalizer-visualizer. Visualizers tend to learn best from pictorially-presented material, while verbalizers learn best from text-based materials. These styles are seen as incompatible with each other and are often cited as a problem when instruction doesn’t match.

Keeping these basic divisions in our tutor tool-belts might help us recognize how to best present materials to our clients, and practicing different ways to present that material will help us stay sharp (and maybe even save a session where something just doesn’t seem to be working!)

Cassidy, S. 2004. "Learning Styles: An Overview of Theories, Models, and Measures." Educational Psychology 24:419-44.

Coffield, F., D. Moseley, E. Hall, and K. Ecclestone. 2004. Should We Be Using Learning Styles? What Research Has to Say to Practice. LSRC reference, Learning & Skills Research Centre, London.

Fan, J. and L. Zhang. 2013. "The Role of Learning Environments in Thinking Styles." Educational Psychology 34:252-68.

Hatami, S. 2012. “Learning Styles.” ELT Journal 67:488-490.

Pashler, H. M. McDaniel, D. Rohrer, and R. Bjork. 2008. "Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence." Psychological Sciences in the Public Interest 9:105-19.

Rolfe, A. 2012. "Learning Styles." InnoAiT 5:176-81.