Saint Mary's University Writing Centre

Halifax, NS

Questions as writing tools: tutoring and the art of asking questions

2 Comments

Two articles again this week, Johnson’s 1993 piece, Reevaluation of the question as a teaching tool and Newkirk’s “The first five minutes: Setting the agenda in a writing conference” (2001).

 

Dawson McKay, Senior tutor

Responding to “Reevaluation of the question as a teaching tool.”

Johnson argues that questions are unhelpful in tutoring sessions. She prefers statements, particularly imperative statements. She says that questions often short-circuit student thought processes and that, if questions are asked, students should be the ones asking them.

I could criticize Johnson’s research methods. Is recording what happens with questions in tutoring sessions enough evidence to support his conclusion that tutors asking questions is almost always a bad idea? Instead of questioning her methods though, I would say that, in my personal experience as a tutor, questions are very helpful. I agree with Johnson’s paragraph on the benefits of long pauses after asking questions, and find that when I combine questions with pauses, no problems arise from asking questions. Also, on a more personal level, I do not understand how a tutor is supposed to establish rapport with a student, find out about their assignment, know what that student is feeling, without ever asking one question. I take Johnson’s point about the ability of wrongfully-placed questions to overburden students’ thinking, but she goes too far by not admitting that questions can be very helpful if used properly

 

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Paromtia Trask, Senior tutor

Responding to “Reevaluation of the question as a teaching tool.”

The art of asking questions is a creative process in my view.  Asking too many questions can be an obstacle because it may cause distractions, waste time, and shift away from the true goals of a tutoring session.  Receptiveness on the part of the student may depend on the approachability of the tutor, the ability to relate to the student and the dynamics between the student and tutor.  I think that some may be better than others at asking questions.  Asking questions can show the tutor if the student is paying attention and give the student opportunities to speak if he or she is quiet or distracted.  When giving a work shop about thesis statements, I first asked the student what they believe a thesis statement is.  This helped me meet the student where they are at, rather than treat the session like a generic workshop where information is simply stated as fact from a worksheet.

Writing tools are more effective when they are understood well. I believe asking a student about their idea of what a thesis statement is, is a good way to start talking about thesis statements. At first they may be embarrassed that they have no idea, but they have to get over the fear of not knowing and understand that their academic journey is going to involve processes such as this, so that they do develop good writing skills.  If the tutor has no idea about the student’s prior understanding it will be difficult to know if the session is productive.  The tutor could constantly presume the student already knows something when they do not, or waste time on something the student already understands well.

Overall, I think asking some questions can be productive, however, I would not ask too many and I would not want the student to feel that each question is a stupidity test, because they would probably feel negative about the experience.  This article has some good points, however, perhaps questions could still be positive if the student is also encouraged to ask questions, the questions are in context with the session’s main topics of discussion, the tutor gives ample time for the student to actually answer the question, and finally, the tutor should be positive and provide constructive comments, not criticizing ones. I agree that students should have questions, but I also think it is okay for tutors to have a few too.

 

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Johnson, J. B. (1993). Reevaluation of the question as a teaching tool. Dynamics of the Writing Conference:  Social and Cognitive Interaction. T. Flynn & M.King, Eds.  Urbana:  NCTE, 34-40.  

Newkirk, T. (2001). The first five minutes: Setting the agenda in a writing conference. Writing Centre Theory and Practice. R. W. Barnett & J. S. Blumner, Eds. Toronto: Allyn & Bacon, 302-315.

 

2 thoughts on “Questions as writing tools: tutoring and the art of asking questions

  1. Terrific post! And I agree — the art of asking questions is definitely a creative process. Very well said

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