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Guidelines for Tutors

General Information:

The typical tutorial will be scheduled for either thirty or forty-five minutes, with fifteen minutes after each session devoted to writing a report. Tutors should recognize that no two tutorials will be exactly alike, and thus it is important to approach each student and tutorial on an individual basis. Still, there are certain guidelines that can and should be followed for most sessions.

General Guidelines:

One of the difficult tasks in any tutorial is to overcome a student’s discomfort. Many students who arrive at the Writing Center will feel they are poor writers—which can be embarrassing—while other students will be very sensitive to any perceived criticism. It is not uncommon, in fact, for a student to resent the very help that he or she wants to receive. So what can be done? You want to make it clear to the student that you are an ally and not the teacher or the "grader," that you are in a partnership and not there to lecture or pontificate.

Oftentimes students can be helped as much by praise as by criticism. Telling a student what he or she is doing well, especially if you are specific, encourages students to do more of the same thing. If, for example, you tell a student that you really like the connection between the two ideas on page three, you will encourage the student to build on those strengths in other parts of the paper. You need to be careful, though. First, you don’t want to mislead students into  thinking that the essay does not need work (every essay can be improved, after all, and it’s your job to help the writer raise the level of quality). Second, you can’t be certain that the student’s instructor will have the same response to the passage that you have; indeed, it is inevitable that at some point an instructor will find fault with the very passage you praise. Thus it is imperative that you remind students that the essay is not being written for you but for the instructor. Public writing is geared toward an audience, you should say, and since the audience in this case is the instructor, the instructor is always "right." Your job is to help the student produce quality work for that intended audience.

Never, under any circumstance, should you speculate about what grade an essay should receive. Do not even hazard a "ballpark" estimate. Grading is the job of the instructor and no one else, and you should do nothing that might undermine that authority. If a student persists in trying to draw out your opinion, suggest that he or she set up an appointment to talk with the teacher.

The best tutorials generally proceed in the form of a dialogue. In other words, you are better off trying to form a partnership with the student, to engage in a conversation rather than simply telling the student what to do. One effective way to begin a dialogue is to phrase your points as questions rather than as statements. For example, if you think the thesis of the essay might be unclear, you should avoid saying, "You need to establish a clearer thesis if you want the essay to work." Instead you should ask, "What do you have in mind as your thesis? I thought at first it was this sentence on page one, but now I’m not so sure. What do you think?" The same guideline can apply to mechanical errors. If you see a fragment, for example, you don’t have to say, "This is an incomplete sentence and you need to fix it." You are better off saying, "Does this sentence sound right to you? Does it have a subject and a verb?" There may be times, of course, when you would be wise to state your view directly. If , for example, the student insists that the fragment sounds fine, you need to say directly that it worries you. Referring to one of our grammar texts at this point would be a good idea.

Occasionally you may find yourself in a tutorial that you know is not going well. Perhaps you have sensed that the student doesn’t really want to be there, or perhaps the student is resistant to your questions and suggestions, or perhaps the student doesn't want your help but wants you to write the essay for him or her. All you can do in these cases is to keep trying to do your best, to keep being friendly and supportive, and to hope that matters will improve.

During the tutorial itself you will need to decide what issues to look at and discuss. If the student has been referred by an instructor, you should make certain to devote most of the time to addressing those topics suggested by the teacher. Likewise, if a student asks to focus on a certain issue, you should respect that request and respond accordingly. Still, many students will ask for general rather than specific help, and so it will be your job to determine what matters most. After all, you can’t cover everything in forty-five minutes. Moreover, talking about too many different points during one session will overwhelm the writer and reduce the chances of anything sinking in. Your task, then, is to make certain that you spend the thirty or forty-five minutes discussing the most important issues.

Four Crucial Writing Topics:

Audience: You will want to help the writer see clearly that he or she is writing for a public, academic audience, that he or she means for the essay to be read by a particular instructor in a particular academic discipline. Because of this, there are certain expectations that the writer must meet in order to earn a high grade. One way to emphasize this, of course, is to stress the importance of looking closely at assignment sheets and to discuss what the teacher has said in class about the assignment. Also, ask the writer if the teacher has assigned "model" essays by students or professionals, and how these essays are like or unlike the draft before you. If this is not the first essay the student has written for the class, you might ask as well how the instructor responded to previous work. On some occasions you may have taken a class yourself with the instructor, and you can certainly ask the student if the teacher is still suggesting things about essays that he or she was suggesting when you took the class. Again, questions are generally more helpful than statements. "Does the tone of this sentence sound right to you for an academic essay?" is a better way to approach the issue than, "Academic essays must have a formal tone, so you need to change this sentence."

Purpose: Purposeful writing has a clear point or focus, a sense of heading somewhere in a logical progression. On the essay level, a purposeful essay has a clear thesis and often a directly stated thesis sentence. In most essays this thesis sentence appears near the beginning of the essay, often in the first paragraph; but other times the thesis may be stated in the final paragraph (inductive essays, for example, often begin with a question that is answered at the end). Different instructors may well have different preferences about organizational structures for essays, but you can assume that all instructors will want the writing to be purposeful and focused. Therefore it is reasonable and helpful to ask students about their central idea, to query them about whether, in fact, they have clearly established and then developed one main point. Of course, purposefulness is not only important on the global level of an essay but also on the paragraph level. Thus you will often find yourself asking questions such as, "What is the main idea you are getting at in this paragraph? Do you think you’re making it clear enough from the start? And what about the idea in the third sentence? Is that still about the same idea or a new one? And do all of these ideas relate back to the central thesis we were discussing?" Many times, indeed, you can help a student by asking whether adding a topic sentence at the start of the paragraph would help to "cue" the reader to the central idea, and other times you will need to ask whether the sentences flow one to the next in a way that makes them seem logical and purposeful. Writing paragraph outlines or full essay outlines in a partnership with the student is an excellent way to help students make their writing seem more purposeful, so you should include as part of your regular set of questions, "Do you think that working up a quick outline here would help?"

Development: In academic communities it is usually insufficient to simply state your viewpoint then move on: you need to prove your points, to back them up, to develop them. A lack of sufficient development, in fact, is often what separates the basic writer from the more accomplished one, so you should do your best to encourage students to back up their points with concrete details and examples. Again, you can do this by asking questions. "Do you think you need an example here to help your reader better understand what you’re saying?" you might ask, or, "I’m a little uncertain would you mean here . . . can you think of a way to make it more specific?" You might also ask, "Did your teacher say anything about offering examples or other kinds of evidence to back up your ideas? Are you supposed to make a case for your ideas or just state them?" A word of caution, though: the amount of development a student will be expected to include will differ widely from instructor to instructor, from discipline to discipline. English teachers, for example, are likely to stress the importance of having long, rich paragraphs and elaborate development, while Business instructors are more likely to value clarity and brevity. Still, a certain amount of development will appeal to all instructors.

Style and Mechanics: All essays, of course, consist of a collection of individual sentences, and you will be wise not to ignore the style and mechanics of these sentences. Many students referred by instructors to the Writing Center will be there because of grammar and usage errors, and so, for these students at least, you will need to make mechanics a high priority. Indeed, for all students you will want to focus on mechanics if it is an area of need. Still, you want to strike a careful balance: you don’t want to avoid talking about mechanical errors, but nor do you want to deal with them to the exclusion of all other crucial matters, as though an essay that is grammatically correct is necessarily an effective one. Once again, you should approach mechanical problems by asking questions. Sometimes the question can be as general as: "Does that sentence look right to you? Something looks funny in it to me." Other times you might want to be very specific: "Do that subject and verb agree here? It doesn’t sound quite right to me. Do you hear it?" Some teachers, of course, will find certain kinds of errors more egregious than others, and you should stress that to students. Still, as a general rule you should devote the most attention to the errors that affect the reader’s ability to read and follow the content of the essay. You should devote the next most attention to errors that make the writer seem out of place in academic communities. Some common errors you will run across in student writing are as follows: comma splices, fragments, run-ons, agreement errors, spelling errors, pronoun reference, misplaced modifiers and dangling modifiers, comma errors, word choice confusions, and tense shifts. At the same time as you discuss mechanics, you might want to ask questions about the format or the appearance of the essay. "Are you supposed to have a title?" you might ask, or, "Are you supposed to double space?"

Additional Considerations:

It is unlikely that you will be able to address the issues of audience, purpose, development, and style with every student in every tutorial, so you will need to decide in each case the areas to emphasize. So how do you decide? You should ask yourself what areas of the essay the instructor is likely to find the most deficient. Once you make this decision, you will want to begin by discussing the most important issues first, since you don’t want to run out of time while dealing with less central matters. You should also recognize that each student arrives for each tutorial with a specific set of needs, so you have to be prepared to meet those needs before time runs out. For example, if the student says that the essay is due in two hours, you do not have time to work on anything other than "quick fixes" and polishing. From time to time you may have students ask for help in advanced classes or in fields far outside your area of study, or you may be asked to help students with learning disabilities or for whom English is a second language, or you may have students ask for help in areas outside of your job description (for example, a student may ask for help in retrieving an essay from a disk). All you can do in these cases is to help the student as best you can, which may sometimes mean suggesting a different tutor in the future or sending a student to talk to the Writing Center Coordinator. At all times, though, remain friendly and courteous.

Beginning the Tutorial:

When the student first arrives for a tutorial, say hello in a friendly and supportive manner, asking a casual question or two by way of greeting. This may sound obvious, but remember that many students who visit the Writing Center will feel uncomfortable about their writing abilities. Beginning with a moment or two of casual conversation can be helpful in putting a student at ease.

Begin each tutorial by asking questions. What written work is the writer wanting to complete? For what class has the work been assigned? When is it due? Does the student have the assignment sheet handy? How long is the essay supposed to be? Did the teacher suggest that the student seek help? What, specifically, is the student wanting help with during the thirty or forty-five minute session? The answers to these questions, of course, will determine the direction of the tutorial. Keep in mind, however, that oftentimes the student may not know exactly what kind of help he or she wants. Don’t let that discourage you. Part of your job is helping students see more clearly their areas of strength and weakness.

If the student has a draft of an essay for you to review, you will need to decide what method to employ to look at it. One possibility is to ask the student to read the essay aloud while you look over his or her shoulder. The advantage of this method is that students are likely to see things they didn’t see before, but the disadvantage is that it will make some students uncomfortable. A second option is to read the essay aloud yourself while the student looks over your shoulder. Hearing the words spoken aloud can be very helpful to a student—especially with the identification of surface problems—but some students will find the experience unsettling. The third option is to read the essay silently to yourself, which also has advantages and disadvantages. Your best bet, I think, is to ask for the student’s preference. (One small note: if, while you are reading the essay, you plan to jot down notes, you should do so on a separate sheet of paper and not on the essay itself. Indeed, you should never write on the student’s essay because, if that draft is later turned in, the unfamiliar handwriting might lead a teacher to believe, mistakenly, that part of the essay was written by someone other than the student.)

After reading the essay, you should begin by praising something in the writing that impressed you. You are better off putting this in personal terms rather than in the voice of an authority, and the more personal you are the better. For example, you should avoid saying, "Your final sentence sums things up effectively but also places the material in a larger and more interesting context, which is what a good ending is supposed to do." You would be wiser to say, "I really liked that last sentence. I hadn’t though of things quite that way before. What made you think of it? It’s interesting the way you are still talking about your thesis but also give the reader something to ponder. How are you feeling about it? Do you think your teacher will like it?" Praise of this sort is important, obviously, because it boosts the confidence of the writer, but it is also important because you want to encourage the writer to take whatever is working effectively and to do more of it. Indeed, you should often ask, "Those examples are really great here on page two, but do you think you can do more of it in the paragraph on page three? Is it just me, or doesn’t the material on page three seem less strong to you?" Of course, you should make certain never to praise something that you don’t honestly find praiseworthy, and you should never assume that the student’s teacher will necessarily feel the same way about the passage as you do.

Even though it is important to begin by pointing out something effective in the draft, it is also essential that you move on quickly to discussing the areas of the essay that can be improved. Once again you should phrase your worries as questions. For example, if you are worried that the student didn’t follow the assignment closely enough, you might say, "Wasn’t there something on the assignment sheet about first beginning your paper with a summary of the essay that was assigned for class? Did I misread that part? Do you think we should look again at the assignment sheet and make sure?" So long as you present yourself as the student’s ally rather than as an authority figure pronouncing judgments on the student and his or her work, your suggestions are likely to be appreciated. Working in concert with the student to uncover areas of weakness and to find ways to improve them will also serve the important pedagogical goal of helping students to improve not only the essay in front of them but also their writing skills in general.

Ending the Tutorial:

Some sessions will come to a natural close before the full thirty or forty-five minutes are completed, and it is up to you and the student to decide whether, in fact, the tutorial has run its course. Asking directly is the best way to do this: "Do you have any other questions or anything else you want to talk about? Do you want to keep talking or do you think we’re done?" Other times, of course, you will find that thirty or forty-five minutes is not enough time to complete the work. Certainly, if you are able, you should continue beyond the thirty or forty-five minute mark. If this is not possible, you should encourage the student to set up another appointment at a later time. Indeed, you should end most sessions by asking if the student would like to set up another appointment—with you or with someone else. If a student expresses interest in setting up another appointment or in scheduling regular appointments, you should do your best to accommodate that student’s schedule.

It is essential that you write your report as soon as the tutorial session is completed, before you forget the details of what took place. You should have encouraged the student to have signed the permission slip that allows you to send the report to his or her teacher (you should point out that most teachers will be impressed that a student is seeking extra help with writing skills), but you need to write a report even if the student has not signed the permission slip. If the student does not want a report to be sent on to the instructor, you should respect that request, though you should still compose your report on the computer and send an e-mail copy to the Writing Center Coordinator. Most students, I hope, will sign the permission slip, and you should make certain that complete information is included in your e-mail message to the teacher: the date and time, the student’s name, the professor’s name, your name, and the class and assignment for which the written work is being completed. In the report itself, which should range between approximately 50 and 100 words, you should describe in a factual way the issues that were discussed during the tutorial, the areas of writing you and the student worked on together. You should make it clear in your description that you did not write the essay or supply ideas that were not the student’s own. You should refrain from assessing the quality of the student’s work (that’s not your job), and you should write your message in complete, grammatically-correct sentences. Inform the instructor that he or she should feel free to contact you or the Writing Center Coordinator with any questions about what took place during the session. The message should be sent via e-mail to the instructor, and a second copy should be sent to the Writing Center Coordinator.

Last Modified:  06/12/2008


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