I recently had the privilege of attending the third Academic Peer Educator's Conference at Texas A&M University, and at this conference, I sat in on Cameron Brown's discussion of "Structured vs. Unstructured Environments." Cameron Brown was a Supplemental Instruction leader. One of the instructors, Caroline Hirko, described the Supplemental Instruction, or an SI, as: “a program to help student's succeed academically in not only challenging courses, but also throughout their collegiate career. SI leaders facilitate learning skills through peer led group sessions to create a positive and rewarding learning environment.” So, Mr. Brown’s discussion was based around a classroom-oriented setting, but if one looks closely at the definition given, one may see where SIs and writing centers share common ground.
Brown defined a structured environment as one where the instructor sets out clear and direct instructions for learning. An example of a structured environment in a writing consultation would be when a student comes into the writing center for the first time and the consultant has to set out clear, specific guidelines for what he or she will be working on. The speaker saw an unstructured environment as a place where the students take control of their own learning. His example was posing this question at the beginning of a lecture: "Based on what you have been learning in class, what should we work on today?" This seems like the ideal environment for a Writing Center consultation, but unfortunately for us, the students are not always able to take such great control of their own learning.
Brown discussed several ways instructors can provide an unstructured type of environment. Writers who became more familiar with their environment are more likely to allow for an unstructured type of environment. We see this at the Writing Center when students have come in three or four times; they bring in their paper and tell the consultants what they feel they need to work on. The students are taking more responsibility for their own learning. Brown pointed out that if students are working with a lot of new, or unfamiliar, material it is more effective to use a structured environment. This strategy may be more apparent in a consultation where students are unfamiliar with the material that they are writing their paper on. A good consultation is based on the idea that you, as a consultant, are knowledgeable about your topic, writing, and the student is knowledgeable about his or her topic, the subject of the paper. However, if they do not come prepared with that knowledge, then you are the only one with authority, so you must practice a more structured environment.
In order to implement structured and unstructured environments in a writing center consultation, a consultant must first ascertain how confident the student is in his or her ability to write a paper. A writer with little confidence in their writing will need more direction, a structured environment. The consultant can introduce a structured environment by simply setting out a list of goals for the session, such as “developing a thesis, organizing paragraphs, proving your thesis, building your ideas, etc…” Setting up these goals will allow the student to progress through the consultation with a clear result in mind, and this list will allow the writer to formulate his or her own goals the next time he or she writes a paper. Developing a structured environment is ideal for a student who has never been to the writing center, who is uncomfortable writing papers, or who has not written a paper in a long time. Another aspect that can be used in a structured environment is using a sentence that is incorrect in some way as an example for the writer, then allowing him or her to work through the rest of the paper to find similar mistakes. These are techniques that are often used during writing center consultations, which leads me to believe that a structured environment is easy to develop in a consultation.
Allowing for an unstructured environment is a bit more difficult, especially when the consultant is eager to help the student, but an unstructured environment lets the student help him or her self. One way to start an unstructured environment in a session is to say “where do you think you need help in this paper?” This question allows the student to think critically about the paper he or she is writing. Usually, a writer can pinpoint the areas they as the most flawed in a paper, but they do not always know why that area is flawed. Making a student think about “where” the paper is flawed will then cause them to think about “why” the paper is flawed. The consultant should ultimately focus on getting the student to the “why.” An unstructured environment can also be developed by simply not allowing the student to depend on you for guidance. If you do not give the writer a set of goals for the session, then he or she will begin to make goals for the session on his or her own. We, as consultants, tend to want to help the student any way that we can, but when we step back and let the writer work things out alone, we see them begin to think critically and independently.
Whether we, as consultants, realize it or not, we use structured and unstructured environments in almost every consultation, and it is important that we are aware of how these two environments can help or hinder a consultation.