Friday, October 9, 2009

What we talk about: a longitudinal study of writing tasks students and writing center tutors discuss.(Report).

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We who work in writing centers know that students who visit our centers talk extensively with tutors about writing and learn to communicate their ideas more clearly through this dialogue. Not surprisingly, we have studied this talk extensively, examining in particular its collaborative qualities and benefits. (See Gere and Abbot; Davis, Hayward, Hunter, and Wallace; Wolcott; Severino; and Blau, Hall, and Strauss.) While this research has helped us to understand how tutors and students interact and what kinds of language characterize their conversations, little has been published identifying the variety and frequency of writing tasks--from understanding assignments to developing ideas to editing mechanics--that tutors and students actually discuss. Such information, if made available, could help us determine more accurately what takes place in writing center tutorials, which in turn could help us better assess our services.

Like other writing center directors, I had a general sense of the kinds of writing tasks being addressed in tutorials, but without a statistical record, I didn't know the proportion of each. Was editing really the focus for most students and tutors, or were other writing tasks given more attention? How often did students and tutors talk about editing? How often did they talk about organization, idea development, or documentation? Could I find trends in the tasks and identify their causes? Ultimately, I wanted to know what kinds of writing tasks were being discussed (and performed) in the Center and how these tasks might vary among students from different disciplines, at different course levels, and in different class years.

To find some of the answers, I performed a four-year quantitative study of over 3,200 tutorials at the North Carolina Wesleyan Writing Center. I asked tutors to identify the kinds of writing tasks discussed in their sessions; I then quantified the ways in which those tasks varied by discipline, course level, and student year. The study and its findings, reported here, presented me with a new window into tutoring sessions. The study also offers the writing center community at large a useful model for assessing the degree to which our centers are more than the editing shops they are sometimes accused of being.


To track tutorial discussions, I devised a list of tasks that tutors described as having taken place in their tutorials. Tutors then identified these tasks in their tutor reports. One tutorial could address between zero and ten of the following tasks:

* Understanding the assignment/format

* Establishing a purpose

* Developing or clarifying a thesis

* Establishing a proper focus

* Developing ideas

* Organizing ideas

* Documenting/researching

* Editing ideas and language

* Editing mechanics

* Other

Entering the writing tasks along with basic student information in an Excel database allowed me to calculate the total number of these tasks and to determine the percentage of visits in which they occurred according to a visitor's year in college, major, division, course-level, and (eventually) course.

Initially, student information was stored on two separate Excel databases--one that tracked number of visits by student, major, and division, and another that tracked the writing tasks in each visit. Although this setup recorded the information I needed, it prevented me from identifying the tasks student visitors performed by course. Realizing a missed opportunity, I eventually merged the databases and added the variable of course name. Thus, whereas I have identified the total number and percentage of instances in which a writing task was performed according to student year, major, and division in more than 3,200 tutorials over a four-year period, I have tracked these figures at the course level from 2003 to 2005 only.


Several institutional factors influenced the outcomes of this study. First, the study occurred in the initial four years of our Writing Center's existence when a writing center culture had to be developed on campus to educate students, faculty, and administration of its mission and presence. During these years, many viewed the Writing Center as a place to fix papers. If I had conducted my study ten years after the center had been firmly established, the results might have looked quite different.

A second factor was tutor training that emphasized a non-directive approach to tutoring and placed concern for global issues above surface-level ones. This emphasis not only affected the topics of conversation between students and tutors but also shaped the way tutors reported their conversations, since they were writing reports for an audience who had trained them. In tutor training, I distinguished between "editing ideas and language" and "editing mechanics," noting that the first phrase referred to helping a student clarify ideas and language, often in cutting wordiness or refining vocabulary, while the second referred to issues of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Despite my efforts to make this distinction clear to tutors, some confusion between the two lingered, as illustrated by repeated discussions of the topic each year.

A third factor influencing the outcomes was tutor turnover. Over four years, thirteen tutors worked in the center: eight full-time undergraduates and five non-students who taught English part-time at the college. While all tutors participated in the same basic training, each brought distinctive personalities, biases, and levels of writing experience to tutoring that no doubt influenced their conversations. Some were comfortable with non-directive tutoring, others weren't. Some enjoyed tutoring for the experience of exploring ideas and language, while others fought the temptation to clean up mistake-ridden prose. Tutor training helped to balance these peeves and preferences to some extent, as did our policy preventing tutors who taught from working with students from their own classes. Since the study relied on tutor-generated reports, its accuracy might have been influenced by tutors' biases and their awareness that the director was invested in validating a new writing center. Future researchers would do well to draw from both student- and tutor-generated reports or even some third-party means to address the question of reporting reliability.

Another limitation of the study is that, while it measured the frequency in which writing tasks were addressed in tutorials, it did not quantify time spent on those tasks. Having done so, the study could have presented a clearer picture of tutorial focus.


Tracking total student visits from fall 2001 through summer 2005 reveals that the writing tasks most frequently discussed with tutors involved editing of some kind. In 49.4% of all tutorials, students worked on "editing mechanics" and in 38.2%, students addressed "editing ideas and language." These tasks were followed closely in frequency by "developing ideas" (38%) and "organizing ideas" (34.7%) and, in turn, by "documenting/research" (29.6%), "developing or clarifying a thesis" (24.3%), and "under standing the assignment/format" (21.6%). "Establishing a proper focus" (17.8%), "establishing a purpose for the paper" (14.3%), and "other" (8.3%) rounded out the list.

At first glance, these numbers seem to support a view that sees the writing center as similar to an editing shop. Nearly half of the tutorials addressed editing issues, a surprisingly high figure, and this focus on editing cannot be ascribed to second language speakers because ESL students comprised less than 2% of the college's student population, and few of them visited our Center. Ultimately, many native English speakers sought help from the Writing Center in cleaning up surface-level problems in their papers.

Is this finding a cause for concern? I think not, for two reasons. First, students who were involved in "editing mechanics" and "editing ideas and language" were not simply dropping off papers to be corrected; instead, they were learning how to edit those papers under the guidance of a tutor, which is a justifiable activity.

Second, while this study's findings fail to establish how much time was generally devoted to editing in tutorials--a subject for future research, they do put into perspective the frequency in which editing was addressed in relation to other writing tasks:

* In 38% of student visits, "editing ideas and language" and "editing mechanics" never occurred

* Students who worked on "editing ideas and language" also attended, on average, to 2.0 non-editing tasks

* Students who worked on "editing mechanics" also addressed, on average, 2.9 non-editing tasks

While editing was a concern addressed in nearly 50% of Writing Center visits, students on average tackled at least two other issues in those sessions. Moreover, nearly 40% of all visits involved no editing of any kind, and only 23% of visits focused solely on editing. To me at least, these figures suggest that our Center was more than an editing shop, as editing was just one of many concerns that students sought help with.


Identifying students by division--Humanities, Education-Social Sciences, Business, and Math-Sciences--reveals several trends in the types of tasks they addressed with tutors. Consistent with the overall findings, students in every division addressed "editing mechanics" more frequently than any other task. But the percentages differed by division, ranging from a high in Business (64%) to a low in Education-Social Sciences (43%), with Humanities (49%) and Math-Science (48%) falling in between. Clearly, editing played a more prominent role in tutorials with business students than it did in tutorials with students from other divisions. The question was why.

It wasn't that business students were any worse or less experienced at writing than other students; in fact, most came from upper-level courses. However, the Business division at North Carolina Wesleyan, as such divisions at other schools, possessed an ethos stressing that all communiques--memos, job applications, reports, etc.--must be free of grammatical and mechanical errors to be effective. Thus, from 2001 through 2005, one business instructor required all students to get their papers "proofread by a tutor," and he refused to grade any paper without a Writing Center notice confirming a visit. The students complied, and so not surprisingly Business led the other divisions in the percentage of visits addressing "editing language and ideas" and "editing mechanics." To its credit, however, the Business division also led in the percentage of visits in three non-editing categories: "documenting/researching," "organizing ideas," and "establishing a purpose for the paper." So while editing was a dominant component--one mandated by faculty--it was not the only one important to business students.

Several other trends can be found by looking at writing tasks according to division. Visitors from the Math-Science division worked on understanding assignments at a significantly greater percentage than did students from other divisions. Math-science students discussed assignment expectations in 31% of their visits, while humanities, education-social science, and business students addressed assignments in 23%, 20%, and 18% of their visits, respectively. The noticeable gap between the math-science students and the others could be attributed to several causes. First, it is possible that math-science writing assignments were less clear than in other divisional courses; however, a high percentage of the math-science faculty discussed their assignments with Writing Center staff to ensure clarity. Second, math-science students may have had less experience writing in those classes in high school and so may not have felt prepared to deal with writing assignments in those subjects once in college. It may also be that the learning styles of these students differed from those of humanities students.

Another notable trend suggests that tutorials with students from humanities courses placed greater emphasis on addressing global writing tasks, such as "developing or clarifying a thesis," "establishing a proper focus," "establishing a purpose for the paper," and "developing ideas," than did tutorials with students from other divisions. This emphasis may reflect the kinds of papers humanities students are asked to write, the pedagogical focus of their professors, or both. Whereas business, education, and social science students often write research reports or case studies, humanities students typically must write papers in which they develop their own topics, formulate responses, or offer interpretations. As a result, when these students visited the Writing Center, they did a lot more than edit.


Examining the writing tasks addressed by students from different course levels points out several other trends. First, students from 100-level courses tackled global writing issues at a greater frequency than students from other course levels. The percentage of student visits addressing "understanding the assignment/format," "developing or clarifying a thesis," "establishing a proper focus," "developing ideas," and "organizing ideas" decreased as student course levels increased. While "understanding the assignment/format" and "organizing ideas" decreased less than 5%, "developing or clarifying a thesis," "establishing a proper focus," and "developing ideas" decreased at least 10% from 100- to 400-level courses. The clearest pattern of this decrease occurred in visits addressing "developing or clarifying a thesis," which dropped from 37% in 100-level courses to 17% in 400-level courses and "establishing a proper focus," which dropped from 29% to 18%.

A possible explanation for this first-year emphasis on global issues lies with Writing Center visitors from English 101, the course that generated most of the Center's traffic. English 101 students generally discussed a higher percentage of all writing tasks than did students from other courses, addressing on average eight out of ten categories in at least 20% of all visits. Thus, it may not be true that students in upper-level courses weren't concerned with global issues in their writing; they simply weren't as focused on these issues as when they participated in formal writing courses, typically taken in their first year of college.

A predictable second trend demonstrates an opposite development. As their course level increased, Writing Center visitors generally worked more on documentation and research issues. Whereas only 28% of visits from students in 100-level courses contained discussion of documentation and research issues, 48% of visits from students in 400-level courses addressed these areas. Not surprisingly, 100 level courses, including English 101, place less emphasis on research writing than do upper-level courses.

A third trend suggests that students attended to "editing mechanics" more as their course-level increased, at least until the 400-level. Students from 100-level courses dealt with this task in 46% of their visits, while 200-, 300-, and 400-level students did so in 47%, 53%, and 39% of their visits, respectively. The interesting figure here occurred at the 300-level, where the high percentage was due in large part to the 300-level business instructor who required mandatory proofreading visits to the Writing Center. Because a significant proportion of 300-level student visitors to the Writing Center came from that class, and because 64% of those visits addressed "editing mechanics," it appears that the overall 300-level percentage was skewed by the policy of a single professor. Nonetheless, if this professor's students were pulled from the overall mix, the percentage of tutorials addressing "editing mechanics" still would have been 49%, slightly higher than 100- and 200-level figures.

The decline in the discussion of global issues suggests that students had less of a need in these areas, which in turn might imply that their skills had improved with college writing experience. Conversely, the fact that students were more likely to use the Center to address editing issues might suggest that they were being held to a higher standard in these areas in upper-level courses and so went to greater lengths to achieve them. Even though it is difficult to attribute the exact cause(s) of this decline to expectations of the discipline, professorial emphases, or student assumptions about using the Writing Center, collecting and sharing data on student use of the Writing Center can initiate conversation between the Writing Center, faculty, and students aimed at encouraging best use of the Center's services.


As a result of this four-year longitudinal study, I must acknowledge that editing was a prominent part of what we did in our Writing Center, though in part because of faculty expectation; however, it can certainly be said that we were much more than an editing shop, especially in serving students in lower-level courses like first-year composition. The study is important in that it validated our new center by providing data that gave me, the director, concrete knowledge of the kinds of work tutors and students addressed in their tutorials, knowledge that continues to hold profound implications for tutor training, public relations, and administrative reporting.

The study may also prove to be an important model and benchmark for others interested in writing center research and assessment. Although it considered over 3,200 tutorials, this study should only be the beginning of a larger conversation. A need for comparative research on the writing tasks addressed in other centers remains; a broader data set drawn from a variety of institutions and student-bodies would provide the academic community with an even clearer picture of student-tutor dialogue in the writing center.

Works Cited

Blau, Susan R., John Hall, and Tracy Strauss. "Exploring the Tutor/Client Conversation: A Linguistic Analysis." Writing Center Journal 19.1 (1998): 19-49.

Davis, Kevin, Nancy Hayward, Kathleen R. Hunter, and David L. Wallace. "The Function of Talk in the Writing Center Conference: A Study of Tutorial Conversation." Writing Center Journal 9.1 (1988): 45-51.

Gere, Anne R., and Robert D. Abbott. "Talking about Writing: The Language of Writing Groups." Research in the Teaching of English 19 (1985): 362-81.

Severino, Carol. "Rhetorically Analyzing Collaboration." Writing Center Journal 13.1 (1992): 53-65.

Wolcott, Willa. "Talking it Over: A Qualitative Study of Writing Center Conferencing." Writing Center Journal 9.2 (1989): 1531.

Doug Enders

Shenandoah University

Winchester, Virginia

Source Citation:Enders, Doug. "What we talk about: a longitudinal study of writing tasks students and writing center tutors discuss.(Report)." Writing Lab Newsletter 33.9 (May 2009): 6. Academic OneFile. Gale. Alachua County Library District. 9 Oct. 2009

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