Learning Alongside Our Clients: the Mutual Learning Environment at Writing Centers

Walking into my first day as a peer tutor at my campus writing center, I worried about encountering scenarios where I would lack the appropriate advice to offer clients. Although peer tutoring interactions routinely place consultants in new waters, I quickly discovered that the uncertainties and accompanying out-of-my-depth feeling are necessary components of collaborative tutoring. This collaboration, in turn, enables mutual learning during sessions in even the most veteran writing tutors. I would like to pause and explore this idea of tutors learning alongside clients in the uniquely collaborative, peer tutoring space. I can testify from personal experience that the most meaningful learning I underwent in the peer tutoring environment was distinct from the process of accumulating technical writing expertise. Certainly, my knowledge of academic writing and the mechanics of the English language increased, but the major area of growth for me occurred in less formulaic ways. Not long after starting out as a tutor, I gave a thorough and engaging explanation of parallelism to a client, only be told afterward that she did not quite “get everything that I was saying” because she “liked seeing things written down.” My client’s bewilderment alerted me to the need to improve my ability to read someone else’s learning needs and strategize a plan to effectively meet those needs within a very short space of time.

Over and over, I have seen consultations prompt tutors to improvise communication strategies, particularly through the experience of learning to effectively communicate to clients with diverse writing backgrounds, learning preferences, and emotional circumstances. No two clients’ writing and educational backgrounds are alike, and tutors begin developing a sense of their client’s likely proficiencies as soon as discussion begins. While attempting to gauge a client’s current level of expertise can be a slippery slope toward pre-judging, assessing his or her existing knowledge and assumptions about writing is unavoidable. The clearer the tutor’s ability to perceive the borders of the client’s knowledge on an issue relevant to the consultation, the better equipped the tutor becomes to implement effective scaffolding techniques during the session. I quickly learned to rely on questions like “What do you think would be important for thesis development?” or “Why did you identify this paragraph as the weakest part of the paper?” not only to prompt client engagement and ownership over the process, but also to help me assess his/her existing knowledge. As my tutoring experiences broadened, I became better at devising questions to ferret out the ratio of a client’s intuitive writing capabilities to the writing knowledge that he/she had acquired from past educational experiences. If I perceived a client’s innate writing instinct as strong, I often adapted my strategies to be less hands-on and allow for greater self-discovery on the part of the client. Thus, as tutors increase their abilities to assess existing proficiency levels, they also increase their ability to strategize communication methods that match clients’ unique learning abilities and styles. I used to dread students who would tell me “I’m a visual learner,” because of my personal lack of creativity. However, as my tutoring experiences increased, my fellow consultants and writing center staff have helped me start a lexicon of visual aids so that I can adapt my teaching styles to individual client needs.

Finally, peer tutoring teaches tutors to appreciate how the individuality of clients’ circumstances impacts consultations, often necessitating the adjustment of sessions to accommodate clients’ unique emotional needs. Clearly, writing tutors are not—and, given our lack of pertinent training, should not—see themselves as therapists. Nonetheless, tutors undoubtably perform a psychological service for clients, even if it is a biproduct of attempting to understand what the client needs from the session. I have lost count of the consultations that I have started with reassurances about the possibility of improvement or by helping clients plan a schedule for finishing assignments. Under rare scenarios, I have felt compelled to adapt to a more explicit therapist role (again, informally of course!) for highly stressed clients. Some tutors may have experienced consultations with ESL clients who benefit profoundly from sharing the unique adjustment struggles they face. Simply learning to provide gentle emotional support and a listening ear can be an invaluable skill for tutors to develop. It also requires the ability to intuit which tangential conversations should be curtailed and which are too important to interrupt. This intuitive sense of the value of reassurances becomes another skill set that tutors develop as their experiences expand.

The multifaceted nature of tutor development, particularly the sharpening of their ability to intuit clients’ needs and effectively impart knowledge to clients with diverse backgrounds, learning styles, and emotional situations, underscores the dynamism of peer tutoring. The unpredictability of consultations and the scramble to discern the most effective and personalized strategy for meeting client needs remains—at least for me—one of the most challenging but beneficial growth experiences found in peer tutoring.



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