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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.

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