Pages

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Some Thoughts on Tutoring

As my first semester in our writing center ends, I've been reflecting on what have become key points to me. I view each and every interaction in the writing center as an opportunity to enrich lives – that of the student with whom I’m working, and mine – through the work we do around writing. It begins with checking the appointment notes: I want to call the person by name. If they took the time to note anything about the assignment they’re bringing in, I reference it: “So Amanda, you’ve got a personal essay on your experience with writing!” The interaction begins the moment she walks in the door saying “I have an appointment…” I want to demonstrate, right off the block, that “We’re here to work together, I am paying attention, and I’m so glad you came!” A warm, enthusiastic welcome – and acknowledgment of the information she has already provided – can set the tone for our work together. How many times have I called “customer service” and given a complete accounting of the issue I would like to address, only to repeat it six times to people that don’t bother referring to the information I’ve already painstakingly provided? Perhaps it seems like a tiny thing in the larger picture, but I believe it makes all the difference in that crucial first impression.
Knowledge does not occur in a vacuum; it cannot exist without interaction – human communication. The degree and quality of interactions are widely acknowledged to determine both acquisition and transference. This is truly a collaborative effort, though “collaboration”, it must be recognized, exists on a continuum.
I’ve come to understand “collaboration” as having many different degrees of involvement between partners…sometimes with limited focus and scope, and other times strongly connected in a broadly focused, wide scope. Dialogue is the connection factor, and dialogue can be verbal as well as textual. The interactions may be highly collaborative, or may involve a higher degree of direction from one of the partners.
I must be as flexible, intuitive and thoughtful as humanly possible, because each appointment is different in myriad ways. In a nutshell, it means being highly flexible and responding in-the-moment. It means doing my best to elicit the highest level of engagement I can from the student with whom I’m meeting, watching body language, looking into eyes, asking careful, open-ended questions, and responding thoughtfully. It is being an encourager, translator of professorial instructions, sometimes commiserator, and sometimes teacher or director – as opposed to peer – in our collaboration. It is using all of my senses, intuition, and knowledge to gage the support and assistance I can best bring to our work.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Its All in the Name

Most WC writings use many different names for those of us who work in the writing centers, working with students with various writing abilities, a multitude of writing difficulties, and at any stage of the writing process. Some say it doesn’t matter what we our called, but I disagree. What we are called or call ourselves will have an influence on what is expected of us and the session that each student is involved in.

While doing the reading for class, it occurred to me that there is a difference between tutoring and consulting, between a tutor and a consultant. Knowing these differences can help us in our interactions with the students. And these differences can affect how the student reacts and responds when we are trying to help them.

Let’s look at the word tutor first. By definition, tutoring is to teach or instruct especially privately. Another word that can be used in defining what a tutor does is the word guide. A tutor gives guidance. All of these give the implication that it is a process, one that happens over time. Consistent, regularly, and scheduled also come to mind. All of this meaning that tutoring is more than just one session of meeting with someone. It is where someone is lacking in knowledge in a certain area, and needs to be instructed and given the information that they do not have to become efficient in the that subject. So in this case, a tutor is someone who is an expert, a teacher, someone who can instruct a person for a duration of time as in which the individual will be apt in their knowledge.

Here is a good definition of consult, “…to seek from a presumably qualified person or source advice, opinion.” A consultant is the one who gives expert or professional advice. And a consultation is a conference at which advice is given or views are exchanged. All of this gives the impression of a limited time frame. It also gives the collaborative feel that is a main theme in academic writing of what is done in the writing center. It also does not give the authoritative sense that tutor implies, where the instructor is superior to the person they are helping. It is mentioned over and over that the majority of students have fears coming into the WC. If it was expressed that they were coming in to ‘consult’ about their papers and writing process, would this not help alleviate these fears? Would this not insure that collaborative activities would be more likely to happen?

I am not ignoring that there is a need for tutoring, and that it can be done at the WC. But what if we gave the students this choice? If they felt that they just needed support for one paper at different stages, or in one specific area, then they could come in and get advice on that part. But if there was strong indication that they were lacking in knowledge of basic skills needed to be writing at a standard level, then tutoring would be offered on a regular basis with one certain person. So both services are offered separately, giving both the consultant and tutor a clear idea of the basic expectations of each session.

So basically, in the WC we are doing both tutoring and consulting. It just seems that if it were specified which one was needed and which one we were attempting, it would be better for all involved. Clarity is always a good thing, especially when it comes to writing, right?

Improving Your Teaching Style Through Student Feedback

At the Texas A&M University Writing Center, some of the consultants are “loaned out” to other departments as writing assistants. We, as undergraduates, work one on one with a professor in many different scenarios, reading drafts, looking at grammar, style, and structure in a student’s paper for the professor, and making presentations tailored to these particular students about grammar. Starting my second semester as an Undergraduate Writing Assistant, I discovered that this class, of future Special Education teachers, was very different from my previous class, a group of senior Agronomy majors focused on soil and crop sciences. Part of my job as an assistant is to give feedback on personal reflections that each member of the class writes, and they turn in five of these reflections throughout the semester. After receiving the second group of reflections it became abundantly clear to me the students were not growing as writers. Each student seemed to be making mistakes repeatedly on every paper turned in.

Desperately in search of the reason that a group of future teachers could not seem to learn from their mistakes, I conducted an anonymous survey online to discover their thoughts. Initially, only three students filled out the survey, but after several pleas from the professor I obtained a reliable amount of data to reach reasonable conclusions, 50% of the class filled out the survey.

The first question on the survey was "Do you find the notes the UWA writes on your paper helpful?" with varying answers according to the student’s varying range of emotions on the subject. Overall, I realized about half the students read the notes that I write on their reflections and half do not. Next, I asked if any of these things may be more helpful: 1) A presentation on common writing errors, 2) Regular Office Hours that you can attend for writing, 3) Clearer comments on papers, 4) More comments on papers, 5) Nothing. An overwhelming majority of the students asked for clearer comments on their papers, more comments on their papers, and regular office hours. Some of the students even offered additional explanations for how they felt I could help them improve their writing. Therefore, as a writing consultant, what can I do to give them more and clearer comments on their papers? I feel that I try to explain myself in simple terms and include helpful links in their papers, but obviously if the students are having a problem understanding me, something must change.

I began to realize that my comments must change their tone. Often, when writing comments on papers, instead of explaining in person, it can be easy to alienate the students by using direct language or academic jargon. Therefore, I have decided to eliminate all grammar "terms" from my notes. Instead of explaining that something is an appositive, and then explaining what an appositive is, I will simply explain to them that they are offering an explanation of a noun, that they are clarifying. Additionally, I will try to give more examples on their papers, rather than lengthy explanations about style or grammar.
After receiving the third and fourth rounds of papers from these students, I found that removing the technical jargon from my comments did seem to help them. I saw multiple examples of writing that was beginning to improve. Most of the writers had trouble using commas. They would either overuse them or never use them at all, so to explain when to use a comma I asked the writers to take apart one sentence from their paper and look for the subject and the action in the sentence. Using “subject” and “action” seemed to be a lot less intimidating to the class than “verb” and “noun.” They began to relate to my comments.

As an experienced UWA, it is easy to find yourself falling into a routine, but it is imperative that Writing Assistants remember every classroom is different and every group of students learns differently. Usually, if you are assisting in a class of seniors, they have been writing in their field for four years now and feel like they know what they are doing, so it may not be as easy to change their ideas as one may hope. Some classes will want to know the technical meanings behind grammar mistakes, but others will simply just want to know what “sounds right.” Some classrooms may benefit from presentations by the UWA or from independent office hours during which any student in the class may come in. So, it is the UWA's responsibility to explore every avenue to help these students better their writing. I would encourage UWA’s to implement a survey like the one I sent out because it allows you, as a UWA, to learn what the students expect from you and what they believe you can do to help them. Additionally, this survey may be best administered early on in a semester so that improvements can be made throughout the rest of the semester.