Saint Mary's University Writing Centre

Halifax, NS


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

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.

 


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Bruffee and North – What is a writing centre?

The following commentary is a response to two articles: The Idea of a Writing Centre” (Stephen North, 2001) and “Peer tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’” (Kenneth Bruffee, 2001). At the Saint Mary’s Writing Centre, tutors are assigned weekly readings and are required, as part of their training, to respond to the readings in a google doc. Tutors are then asked to respond to each others’ responses, and a conversation ensues. We’d like to extend this conversation to and with you, especially with other writing centre practitioners.

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Mandy Lapointe, BA Hons, Religious Studies (SMU); MA candidate, Religious Studies (SMU)

First year writing tutor

 

“The Idea of a Writing Centre” Stephen M. North

Expressing his utter dissatisfaction with the overall image of “the idea” of a writing centre, North uses a number of different examples to illustrate his frustration with ignorance about what writing centres actually do, how they operate, and what they offer to the student writer. North highlights the misconception that writing centres are not for the well-rounded and average writer, but for those “others,” or “impossible” students, who pander to the “fix-it shop image” of the centre, where the main focus need be grammar and punctuation, rather than stylistic thought process. Speaking to what the idea of a writing centre should not be, North identifies two qualifying terms in which writing centres should be concerning themselves with: 1) writing is most usefully viewed as a process, and 2) writing curricula needs to be student-centreed. In this way, North is proclaiming very adamantly that writing centres define themselves in terms of the writer it serves, not the writing. The writing centre should seek to produce better writers, not better writing. Therefore, by motivating engagement of the student in the process of the writing, the tutor fosters organic growth and development of the writing skills, which will in turn permeate throughout the students overall skillset. As a writing tutor then, your responsibility is to act as a participant-observer, always changing depending on the student writer; not employing static rules derived from generalized models, but beginning with where the student is and moving with the student as they grow. As a new employee to the Saint Mary’s Writing Centre, I feel this article presented me with a clear idea of what writing centres should be concerning themselves with – the student and the process of writing, rather than simply editing student’s work, and focusing on grammar and punctuation. In addition, it also stressed the importance of cooperation of the university professors with “the idea” of the writing centre, which I found refreshing and somewhat eye-opening. In order for the writing centre to be fully recognized and used to its full potential, it requires the understanding of all parties involved; the student, the tutor, and the faculty.

“Peer Tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’“ Kenneth A. Bruffee

Bruffee suggests that peer tutoring as a practice has the potential to challenge traditional classroom learning. Using Michael Oakeshott’s essay on literature in education, he argues that human conversation and reflective thought processes are intimately linked, where the conversation is the public source of learning, and the reflection is the private, creating a cyclical learning process. In doing so, Bruffee also points to the important implications this has on the writing process claiming, “if thought is internalized conversation, then writing is internalized conversation re-externalized.” (7) Therefore, as tutors, our task must involve engaging students in these conversations, as much as we require them to be involved in the writing process. We must ensure the learning conversations we are having are collaborative learning processes, and are similar to the ways in which we want students to write. In doing so, however, Bruffee claims it requires more than selecting “good students” as peer tutors, but having tutors well-trained in the course of study (13). In order to reap the full benefit of peer tutoring, it must be centred on collaborative academic learning, where both students receive genuine educational and personal development. One of the main reasons I wanted to take a position at the Saint Mary’s Writing Centre as a tutor was exactly this reason. As a tutor, I knew I would not only be able to help other students with the process of their thought and writing, but also supplement my own academic development. As a graduate student, the learning process still feels as it is just beginning, and throughout my academic career I hope to always maintain a level of collaborative learning. Therefore, I agree with Bruffee’s argument that peer tutoring has the ability to challenge the traditional learning of the classroom setting. I look forward to working in this type of setting, and I hope to learn a lot about myself and my writing in the process.

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North, S.N. (2001). “The Idea of a Writing Centre” from The Allyn and Bacon guide to writing center theory and practice. Robert W. Barnett & Jacob S. Blumner, eds. Allyn and Bacon, Needhman Heights, MA

Bruffee, K.A. (2001). “Peer tutoring and the ‘Conversation of Mankind'” from The Allyn and Bacon guide to writing center theory and practice. Robert W. Barnett & Jacob S. Blumner, eds. Allyn and Bacon, Needhman Heights, MA