Responding to Problems: A Facilitative Approach

Once you've diagnosed a writer's writing problems, you are ready to craft your response. There are four kinds of responses that you can make: facilitativedirectivecorrective, and evaluative. We believe that writers learn best when tutors and writing assistants respond in ways that are primarily facilitative - that is, when they make responses that help writers to discover their own ideas and strategies for improving their papers.

What is the Facilitative Approach?

Facilitative remarks avoid telling a writer what to do - Change this; rearrange that. Instead, they raise questions that are carefully crafted so that they encourage a writer to consider her ideas and their expression more fully. These questions might be general - for example, Where is your thesis sentence? More often, however, they are specific, addressing a weakness in very particular terms. For example:

  • Your introduction talks in general terms about the strengths and weaknesses of various presidents; you conclude the paragraph by announcing that your paper will consider Bush and his presidency. However, you don't declare the terms of your discussion. What do you plan to argue about Bush's strengths and weaknesses as president?

Facilitative remarks are not always phrased as questions. Very often, a declarative sentence can be facilitative in that it challenges a writer, asking her to reconsider some aspect of her paper. For example:

  • I'm not following the connection you seem to be making between presidential privilege and the downfall of the American political system.

You might also find facilitative remarks taking the form of suggestions. Note the plural noun: if you make one suggestion, the writer may follow it without thinking; if you make several, he must consider them all and choose from them - or come up with an alternative.

It's important to understand that while the facilitative response is in spirit very different from the directive, its aim is to lead writers to a desired end. Indeed, the facilitative approach involves asking what one might call the "leading question." In other words, simply asking questions of a writer doesn't do the trick. These questions need to be propelled by a plan. (See Example: Facilitative Commentary.)

Still, you should proceed cautiously when asking leading questions: be happy to lead, but be just as happy to follow when the writer takes off in a new direction. Be prepared to think on your feet, and to come up with new strategies to facilitate any fresh, exciting turn in the writer's process.

Why Use the Facilitative Approach?

The idea behind the facilitative response is that student writers best learn to write when they are made responsible for their own writing and re-writing decisions. The facilitative question or comment permits writers to retain this important responsibility by locating authority and authorship with the writer. Tutors and writing assistants who respond facilitatively do not give writers easy answers. Nor do they provide them with explicit directions for revision. Rather, they raise questions that encourage writers to think about their writing problems and to choose from among a variety of solutions.

The Limitations of the Facilitative Approach

Despite its strengths, the facilitative approach is no panacea. It does not solve every writing problem you'll encounter. Nor does it work with every writer. Sometimes, in fact, tutors and writing assistants find the facilitative approach annoying, or unnecessarily coy. "Why ask questions when you're simply baiting the writer for an answer? Isn't it better sometimes simply to tell the writer, in simple terms, what she needs to do?"

These questions are fair. Sometimes, writers do need direction. And sometimes stubborn adherence to the facilitative approach results in a silly game of cat and mouse. Still, it's a method that we believe in and that has worked well for our student writers for more than a decade. Our advice to you is to be patient with the method, and to trust that it works. Sometimes what seems like a silly cat and mouse game to you can be an enormously valuable teaching moment for your student writer.

For those instances where the facilitative approach doesn't seem to be working, we offer these alternate ways of responding.

Directive Responses

Sometimes, writers need and ask for explicit writing advice: they want to know, in simple terms, where the writing went wrong, and why. In this case, you'll want to consider offering direction.

For example, if something is clearly wrong with a paper - and you see a clear and simple solution - tell the writer: for example, to move a paragraph, to omit a sentence, or to change a word. Remember, though, that directive responses - such as "omit" - are more instructive when they are accompanied by some explanation: Should the writer omit a sentence because it is redundant? Because it is irrelevant? Because it doesn't make sense?

Also remember that the directive response is most effective when combined with facilitative remarks - for example, "This sentence doesn't work here. It disrupts the paragraph's continuity by introducing a new idea. Still, the idea is an interesting one. Do you want to consider it more fully? Where might it be most useful to the argument?"

Be very careful when using the directive approach. Some writers will want you to tell them what to do, and it's easier than you might realize to alter the content of a paper. Always remember that you are not the writer of the paper, and act accordingly. (See Example: Directive Commentary.)

Corrective Responses

The third category of remarks that a tutor or writing assistant makes on papers might be classified as corrective remarks. Typically, these are copy-editing remarks that point out errors in syntax and grammar. There are several ways of making corrective remarks on papers - most of which we cover in our section on grammar.

Evaluative Responses (The Grade)

The last category of response is one that you won't be asked to make: the grade.

In your remarks as a writing assistant, you should do nothing to predict a student's grade. Do not, for example, say, "If you tighten up the structure of this essay, I'm sure it will be an 'A'." Nor should you ever comment on grades that a professor has given. Even if you feel that a professor has really burned a student, and even if that student is a friend of yours, and even if he's crying or complaining bitterly, do not tell the student that he deserved a better grade. You have neither the right nor the qualifications to grade student papers.