Advice for Tutors

The Big Moment: Opening the Tutoring Session

Perhaps the most frightening moment of any tutoring session is the opening moment. We aren't referring here to the way you greet the tutee - though of course you need to greet him in a way that is frank, focused, and welcoming. Rather, the opening moment that we're referring to is that moment when you have read the paper and are scrambling to come up with what you might say.

Remember: the tutee is probably very nervous as she watches you read her essay. If this makes you nervous, give her something to do. Some tutors ask tutees to write while they read: make a list of questions, create a short outline (ostensibly because it might be useful in the tutoring session), and so on. This strategy has two advantages: one, it keeps the tutee from fixing you in her stare and so allows you to be a more focused (and more relaxed) reader; and two, it focuses the tutee's thoughts back to her paper - which she may have stopped thinking about when she shut down her computer last night. Another way of focusing the writer - and yourself - on the paper at hand is to ask the writer why she came. Are there things you should be thinking about/looking for as you read the paper?

As you proceed through the paper, remember to read in the ways we've trained you to: as a common reader, in order to know the writer, and in preparation for a response. Also keep your eye on the clock: if the paper is unnecessarily long, or unusually difficult to read, you might want to read only part way through, so that you have enough time to address the paper's problems. Some tutors like to take notes as they read; others do not. Whatever notes you make, keep them brief. It's fine to make notes to yourself so that you won't forget to make an important point in the tutoring session. But if you start to scribble frantically on a paper, you're bound to feel the writer's anxiety begin to rise.

Finally comes the moment of truth: you have to turn to the writer and begin. What's the first thing you should say? Always praise something about the paper. Most papers that you see at the Center will have something praiseworthy about them - some particular point that is interesting, an inviting style, etc. If the paper is particularly weak, you might at least acknowledge that the assignment seems very interesting, or that the writer seems to have worked very hard on the essay. You might also return to those concerns that the writer raised before you read the paper. She wanted to know if her thesis was OK? Well, then, that's a good place to begin.

Prioritizing Your Goals

Once you get through the first few minutes, you have to consider what you'd like to accomplish in the session, and how you should prioritize these goals. Of course you should keep in mind the writer's goals for the session - though sometimes you understand that even though the writer is coming for help with, say, the "flow" of the paper, he really needs first to develop his ideas. If you can, try to talk about both agendas at once. In other words, try to determine a way that you can talk about the critical thinking problems in terms of the paper's overall flow. If this seems to be too much of a stretch, tell the writer that you're happy to talk about the flow of his ideas, but that you want to talk a bit about the ideas first. Be sure, before the session ends, that you've made good on your promise to discuss his concerns.

When a paper has many problems, you'll have to prioritize among them. In general, we believe that thinking problems are more serious than sentence problems. After all, we can help writers to compose lovely sentence, but if the ideas are flawed those sentences don't add up to much. That's why, generally, we recommend that you prioritize in this way:

  • First: Ideas/Argument/Thesis/Overall Structure
    Second: Structure/Logic of Particular Sections
  • Third: Individual Paragraphs
  • Fourth: Syntax and Grammar

Note that our recommendations are general, not absolute. Every paper is different and calls for different approaches. Sometimes, for example, the problems of a particular paragraph will seem important to the larger argument that the writer is trying to make. You might decide to begin with that paragraph.  Be flexible, and follow your instincts - which will get pretty sharp with practice.

Pacing the Tutoring Session

After you've tutored a few times, you'll develop a sense of what you can and cannot accomplish in a one-hour tutoring session. You'll also develop a sense for where you are in a tutoring session without having to rely too often on the clock. In your first few sessions, however, you may be surprised at how fast an hour can fly. If you've spent ten or fifteen minutes reading the paper, and another five or ten minutes talking with the writer about his aims, you may find yourself with only half an hour to address the paper's problems.

Try in these early sessions to have a strong sense of what you'd like to accomplish. If you have four problems you'd like to address, and they are all equally important, then try to limit your discussion of each problem to ten minutes. On the other hand, if one or two of these problems are less significant, allot them a few minutes at the session's end.

Attending to the Affective

Often a tutoring session will succeed or fail according to what you didn't say. You'll therefore want to play close attention to the non-verbal, affective elements in tutoring.

  • Always greet the writer eagerly. Give yourself a moment between clients so that you can gather your resources for the next writer. If you're involved with some other task when the writer comes in, put your work aside immediately. Don't make the client wait. Make him feel as if he and his paper are important to you.
  • If the client has never before been to the Writing Center, create a "Client File" in the Client Data Base. It's important that we keep careful records on our clients. These records are useful to other tutors who will help this client; they also provide important information about our service to the Writing Center administrative team.
  • Throughout the session, praise what the writer has accomplished, and empathize with his difficulties. But never condescend: the writer should feel that you are there to assist him in addressing his paper and his concerns.
  • Don't allow your posture or your tone of voice to signal impatience. Allow the writer to take his time in exploring the issues that he wants to explore.
  • Engage the writer by being a good listener. Make eye contact, and wait for the writer to finish a thought before jumping in with your questions or suggestions.
  • Respect the writer. Nothing inspires trust like respect.
  • Keep track of the writer's responses to the session. If the student seems to be confused or distracted or bored, try a different approach.
  • Remember the Golden Rule: How would you want to be treated if it were your paper under scrutiny? There's no room for sarcasm, superiority, aggression, or criticism in a tutoring session.

Closing the Session: A Lesson for Later

The way you close a session is as important as the way you open it. Too often, tutors rush the end of the session, feeling the need to get to the next writer on the sign-up sheet. Don't rush. It's here, at the end of the hour, that you have a chance to synthesize the session for the writer, and to really teach her something about writing. Make sure that in closing you remember to:

  • Summarize in a sentence or two what you think was accomplished in the session. If you think that the writer is walking away with a better thesis sentence than she had when she came in, say so. If she seems to have gained a better understanding of what's expected of her in an academic paper, let her know. It's important for the writer to see what progress she's made in that hour of work.
  • Ask the writer if she has any questions. You may not have covered everything; the writer may have some lingering questions that you'll want to attend to. If the questions are big ones, suggest that the writer make another appointment to talk them through.
  • Ask the writer what her plan is for revising the paper. Is she going to continue to develop the thesis? Will she write an outline to revise by? If the writer doesn't have a plan, take a moment to help her work one out.
  • Finally, leave the writer with a lesson on writing, gleaned from the session you've just had. If you've been working on her thesis sentence so that you've strengthened its arguable point, then remind her as she goes that she'll want to do the same every time she writes a paper. If you've shown her how to check the coherence of her paragraphs by underlining the subject strings, remind her that this strategy can work for all her papers. In short, provide the writer with a nugget of writing wisdom that she can take with her, to use throughout her Dartmouth career.

After the Session: Completing the Client Record

After the client leaves, you'll want to write a brief summary of your session in the client's record in the RWIT database. We ask you to keep these records so that other tutors serving this client can come to the session with a sense of the writer's strengths and weaknesses.

In these files you'll want to address:

  • Where the writer was in the writing process.
  • The writer's problems/concerns.
  • What was covered in the session.
  • Whether or not you sent the writer off with a particular task to accomplish.

In brief, you'll want to record what is it that you would want to know. Be as specific as you can be.

Note: Clients may choose to read their session records. Everything that you record in the database should be something that you would be happy having that client see.