When terminology escapes you

Hello everyone,

One of my recent tutoring sessions gave me some insight into a broader issue that we have been experiencing at our writing center. When tutoring very subject-specific lab reports or scientific papers, tutors often face the challenge of helping writers with papers whose subject matter is specialized and unfamiliar.

My session was actually with a good friend of mine, Liz, who scheduled an appointment with me to work on a paper for her advanced medical technology class. It was a research paper riddled with anatomy and medical terms, so in trying to help Liz make sure her sentences had clarity and effectively explained their purpose, I felt stumped.

Because the terminology was so unknown to me, I was limited to two tutoring strategies. The first one, zooming in on the details and fixing sentence-level grammar and syntax issues, seemed a frivolous approach to this seven-page paper. The second, zooming out and asking about the paper’s organization and structure, seemed more appropriate.

So I asked questions like “How does this paragraph contribute to the purpose of the ‘Discussion of Results’ section?” and “How does the reader know what the information in this table means?” I didn’t bother to ask what the information actually meant; I just tried to help her put the smaller pieces of the report together cohesively. But there were only so many of these bigger-picture questions that I could ask before our tutoring session, again, hit the wall of me not understanding the scientific terminology.

I imagine that this problem is present in most writing centers, and its solution is up for speculation. How can you tutor someone who has several years of collegiate education in a specialized field more than you do? I have a couple of ideas for resources that tutors could use in this kind of predicament, but I would love to get some feedback and advice from other tutors.

For one thing, using lab report rubrics that describe the requirements for each subheading (Introduction, Procedure, Discussion, etc) are a valuable resource for making sure the writer’s paper fulfills the assignment. This resource might be improved if a set of example questions for each subheading of a lab report were provided to tutors. I have provided some examples below.


Are all of the key terms used in this report defined, with background information given?

Is your initial hypothesis included in this section?

Is your hypothesis a testable prediction?


Is every step in the procedure listed?

Is the procedure, as written, able to be repeated?


Are all data tables and graphs appropriately labeled and provided with a description?

Are the trends in the data obvious?


What did you deduce from the trends in the data? Is this consistent with your initial hypothesis?

Do you have enough data to establish a conclusion?


Have you summarized all the data that is necessary to make your conclusion?

Do you accept or reject your hypothesis based on your conclusion?

Is there a real-world application of this experiment?

As I said, this set of questions might prove to be a useful guide to some tutors facing the problem I did, but I would appreciate any feedback or ideas for more questions like these- go ahead and post them in a comment!



  1. Welcome to PeerCentered, Liv!

  2. Wow! I wish I would have had your list a long time ago! But I will defiantly be using it for next semester when all the 'required' biology class visits begin.
    I, too, am overwhelmed by the whole science world, and am still amazed I got a B out of my online biology class last semester. The thing that saved me was the papers that I wrote. I was very thankful that if I wasn't given a scientific brain, then at least I was given one that could write enough to fake it.
    When our writing center had a huge influx of biology papers that were all about the acidity of beef liver, I was finally able to 'zoom in' towards the last few papers. Even though I hadn't tried to learn the technical and scientific information being given, after so many times it began to sink in. I then felt sorry for the first few students that came to me. Although they were in some part helpful to those who came behind them.
    So even though I cannot give you any further information to help you in your quest, I can thank you for your insights that you have had so far, and to tell you to keep them coming! Maybe we can all add to the list you have started. Because, of course, this is a collaborative writing centered world we live in.


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