Communication in the Writing Center

So, you are working with a student, and the two of you are struggling to communicate. What can you, as a tutor, possibly do? I have found in my few weeks in the writing center that asking questions can help build understanding between a tutor and a student. Now, I am not saying you should interrogate the student, but there are quite a few options for you:



  • Aggressively ask why the student made this decision.
    • Why would you choose to do this instead of that?
  • Attack the student for not agreeing with your comments.
    • Why aren’t you changing that? Or how can you think your way is better than mine?


  • Inquire about the student’s decision.
    • What is this doing for the rest of your paper? What is it doing to help prove your argument?
  • Talk about why the student is doing a certain thing one way over another.
    • How does this help your argument? Or what compels you to do it this way? How does this method add to your paper?


As you can probably see, the don’ts list is malicious and judgmental, which is unnecessary in the writing center, while the dos list is more questioning and open, therefore more appropriate for writing centers. You don’t need to tell a student they are wrong or insult them; you need to work with the student to help them improve their papers as best they can. I think realizing the paper is the student’s might be the best way to approach the issue of trying to help a student make their paper understandable and clear because, while you are there to help, it isn’t your paper to tear apart any way you want to.


Another instance where asking questions can help is when I, as a tutor, get confused during a conversation with a student, I ask for clarification. What do I mean about getting confused? For example, if I am working with a student and bring up an issue of understanding what they are saying or where they are going with a statement or idea, and then the student tells me that the word, phrase, or sentence is correct or already good and I just don’t understand it. From here I ask: What does this word or this phrase mean? What is this section of text/ example/ idea adding to your text? I didn’t quite understand that, could you explain it again? Or in the instance that we are working on a thesis, what are you arguing? or what are you trying to say? can be very useful questions, as sometimes it is hard to understand what exactly a thesis should be when learning all the things you shouldn’t do when composing one.


Sometimes, I just don’t know what the student wants to focus on during the session. Maybe we have already covered the first issue they wanted discussed, or I feel like I am dominating the discussion with my concerns and not their concerns. In this instance, I try to pull back and ask: What would you like to work on? What do you want me to look at? Is there any specific section you had any questions or concerns about?


Also, it is much easier to change or alter an unclear explanation on the tutor’s part when you know what was not understood, but what can you do to try to make a student that you may only see once for this one short session comfortable, so they are not afraid to ask you questions? Look at the student when they are talking and as much as possible when you are talking to them, as this will make it apparent that you are paying attention and working with the student instead of at them. Angle your body toward your student. This will make you appear more open and once again attentive to the student and their ideas. Do what you can to make the student feel that the two of you are on equal footing. I am not suggesting that you make anything up, but, if the two of you are working on something that you did once struggle with, feel free to mention that. It not only shows where your knowledge of the topic was born from, but also helps build a common trait that can lead to communication.


However this does not always work or there is simply just not enough time to build a comfortable environment for easy communication. Because of these instances, I try to pay attention to the body language my student is exhibiting as, while I hope they are comfortable enough with me that they wouldn’t be intimidated to ask me questions, I want to be aware when something is not clicking or making sense to them. What should you look for to realize this is what is happening? This is a bit more complicated as there is no universal answer for how someone will react, but you can pay attention to your student and see if they aren’t reacting positively or if they are acting confused or unsure. These can help you realize if they don’t understand what you have said.


What do you do if what you have explained clearly makes no sense to your student? Sometimes, you can ask and see if your student understands any part of your explanation which would allow you to only have to explain a portion of what you have said instead of everything, but you can also pull back and try to explain your thoughts differently. I know that this is hard because it always seems after you have said something that there is no other possible way for you to explain it, but take a breath, attempt to erase the idea that there is no other possible way to say your explanation, and try again. There is another way. It is just a matter of figuring it out.


Now, of course, body language is not always possible, such as is the case with online tutoring. Here asking questions is even more important because your words will be compensating for the lack of body language and face to face communication, by which I mean the inflection of your voice and tone. With online tutoring, you should probably be asking more questions. Maybe try to stop once in a while and ask if what you are saying is making sense. More often than you would in person where you can gauge their reactions. This approach is unfortunately less useful when doing an online tutoring session where you look at the paper, but do not have direct contact with student. You can however use question to probe the student on where they could add content, explanations, or even clarity to hopefully assist the student that you are only speaking to indirectly. Ask: What are you saying here? Could you elaborate more? Do you have any evidence that could help back this up? These can help students see where they can work on their papers, even without having directly spoken to or physically having seen a tutor.

  • Andrea

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