Mock tutorials: a dramatic method for training tutors.
Teacher centers (Methods)
Tutors and tutoring (Training)
Writing (Study and teaching)
Teachers (Training)
Teachers (Methods)
Komara, Kirsten
Pub Date:
Name: Writing Lab Newsletter Publisher: The RiCH Company, LLC Audience: Academic Format: Newsletter Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2006 The RiCH Company, LLC ISSN: 1040-3779
Date: May, 2006 Source Volume: 30 Source Issue: 9
Event Code: 280 Personnel administration Canadian Subject Form: Teacher centres
Product Code: 8292000 Teacher Training & Development NAICS Code: 611699 All Other Miscellaneous Schools and Instruction
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

Accession Number:
Full Text:
Dramatizing / Traumatizing the tutorial session

My most anxiety-laden moment as a consultant was the time when my supervisor sat in on a consulting session. When my student, a regular, saw the supervisor in the room, he turned around in the doorway and left because he didn't want her to judge him. As a minority on conditional status, his consulting visits were mandatory, so our first few weeks together I had spent trying to get him to trust me. The supervisor and I had to goad him back into the room, reassuring him that I was being observed and "judged," not him. That was a very tense session for both of us. He worried that he would lose me as a tutor, if I didn't do well, so he tried very hard to make me look good. Because of this incident, I have always been reticent about observing my Writing Center consultants' student sessions. At the same time, I am keenly aware that writing consultants need and want supervisory training. In order to bridge this gap, I have developed mock tutorial sessions. Mock tutorials offer a good method for training new writing consultants because they provide an interactive environment where consultants put to work the strategies learned in the Writing Center seminar.

As a writing center director, I met regularly with my writing consultants in a seminar forum. During this seminar we would discuss their experiences--both positive and negative--in order to learn from each other, to disseminate my own practical professional strategies, to review basic writing language, techniques and grammar, to discuss articles from a variety of writing center journals that I required them to read and to calibrate assessments of anonymous student essays. During these sessions, I buoyed their energy level by stressing the value to their whole educational process, but I also knew that some of them needed more direct help. This need became even more evident after several students from my writing class had sought help at the Writing Center, and I received Conference Summary forms that overemphasized surface issues and grammatical correctness to the detriment of larger structural problems, such as thesis, organization, and development. I suspected that in an attempt to help the students and to avoid looking like they didn't know what to address, the new consultants looked for quick tangible ways of making a difference. I also suspected other new consultants might need more direct help learning the trade because they avoided interaction during seminar calibrations, usually taking notes on other's comments and avoiding eye contact that might elicit a direct question to them.

I wanted to watch the consultants in action, but I didn't want to create the tension or the trauma that I had experienced as a new consultant or that my student had experienced. Moreover, the arrangement of our new Writing Center did not lend itself to easy conversation eavesdropping because it had been divided into individual conference rooms. These small rooms offered a much-appreciated privacy for the students, but they also prevented new consultants the opportunity to watch the seasoned hands at work. These casual observations of the senior consultants had taught my two senior-most consultants their craft when they were new. They both concurred that learning in that way had been invaluable. Videotaping seemed to offer an option for tutorial observation, but it too seemed invasive, especially since many students prefer not to be taped during an interactive learning session. After discussing the idea of training with two senior consultants, we decided to try mock tutorial sessions. The mock tutorial offered the new consultants a private, independent opportunity to learn, without the director hovering over their shoulders.

Setting the stage

The mock tutorial is a role-playing session in which the senior consultant visits the Writing Center in the guise of a freshman with a poorly written paper and requests help from a consultant. Every Writing Center consultant was required to sign up for a half-hour session. The session sign up sheets were posted in the Writing Center. After each mock tutorial session, the consultants were required to write up a conference summary form and to send it directly to me. The senior consultants were to jot down notes during the session about the advice given; they also took notes afterward about their general emotional feelings about the session. The quotations in this essay are from those forms and notes written during spring 2002 semester at the University of Evansville.

In order to prepare for these sessions, the two senior consultants and I selected an anonymous essay from a freshman level course that all students are required to take. The paper included an assignment sheet that emphasized the basic elements of a good essay: thesis, evidence, analysis. The essay had surface problems with grammar and mechanics, as well as structural problems. It lacked a sound the sis, textual evidence, analysis, and organizational strategies. All of the consultants would have been somewhat familiar with the book, Achebe's Things Fall Apart, being discussed in this paper, an advantage that they wouldn't always have during a regular session. Both senior consultants decided to use the same essay, in order to reduce variables during the consultation. The two senior consultants were able to get through all of the sessions in about two weeks.

Thinking about the performance

I met with the senior consultants after all of the mock tutorials were over, and we reviewed and compared conference summaries and their notes. The senior consultants identified several problems that had originally raised red flags for me in the conference summary forms. These problems centered on consultants focusing on surface issues, such as awkward phrases and grammatical mistakes, rather than larger structural problems such as thesis, paragraph organization, and development. The senior consultants noted that these sessions emphasized the same things: rewritten sentences, phrasal corrections, and comma changes. One senior consultant's post-conference notes revealed that as a writer, she felt frustrated that these new consultants had immediately addressed the paper's surface problems without preliminary discussion about the assignment, topic, thesis, or development. Larger structural problems were not mentioned until the very end of sessions. Also, she noticed that consultants who focused on grammatical structures would often get "tangled in surface problems" without ever referring to a handbook or explaining how to use a handbook. Both senior consultants agreed that using overly technical terms with a fledgling writer, without offering them access to a handbook or explaining the language, put them off, making them feel like they would never "get the technical stuff" enough to improve their writing.

The senior consultants noticed other problems too that did not and could not appear in a brief conference summary form. A consultant's body and verbal language could affect the student's response. For example, some consultants failed to introduce themselves, make eye contact, and offer a place to sit down to work. Both senior consultants felt that the lack of "hospitality" made them feel a bit tentative and awkward about entering the Writing Center's space. Eye contact seemed especially important; both senior consultants felt that lack of eye contact indicated avoidance and insincerity. Sometimes the avoidance issue occurred right when a student walked into the Writing Center, as if the consultant did not really want to have a consulting session. Also, the senior consultants noted that inquiring about the assignment and the class made them feel more at ease, almost like inviting them into a discussion. Friendly interaction helps to create a more productive environment.

Also, the consultant's tone in addressing the student and issues in the paper were significant. For example, some consultants were very directive, almost dictatorial, in making suggestions for improvement. This behavior is often accompanied by consultants rewriting sections without adequately interacting with the writer. In other words, the consultant takes over the paper, almost leaving the writer out. Both senior consultants felt that this behavior made them feel inadequate as writers, as if to invalidate their ideas or strategies. This aggressive behavior did not help them when they left the Center, either, because they didn't know how to proceed independently. Conversely, both senior consultants also noted that when a consultant set aside the paper, the consultant inadvertently insulted them. Such a gesture suggests that the paper is beyond the realm of revising; its ideas are not worthy of being discussed, and it simply needs to be started all over again. Although the senior consultants may understand Donald Murray's claim to write a paper, then put it away, and start all over again to get at the more interesting ideas, the average college writer doesn't appreciate this perspective when coming into the Writing Center for revisions. It is best to keep the paper as the focal point and to let the writer decide which ideas should be excised.

The last issue of student/consultant interaction that the senior consultants addressed in their post-conference notes was the problem with consultants barraging them with questions that they could not adequately process. Though this was not a common problem, both senior consultants noted that when they didn't have time to think through the first question before the second question was asked, they began to feel muddled and would simply avoid responding, mostly because they didn't know where to begin.

During the most productive sessions, the senior consultants noted that the discussions remained focused on the paper, included such issues as thesis, topic sentences in paragraphs, idea development, and required writing. In these sessions, their consultants either read through the paper completely before beginning the discussion or read through sections then paused for discussion. The consultants led the discussion by referring to the paper, but didn't dominate the discussion by taking over the paper or questioning without allowing adequate time to consider and to answer. And, most significantly, the consultants almost invariably included interactive writing, such as note taking, outlining, brainstorming, jotting down thesis or topic statements. One consultant wrote that the "thesis statement did not reflect the rest of her paper, so [she] revised it to reflect her point, and revised a paragraph reflecting the thesis statement." This consultant actually asked the senior consultant to write during the session because he didn't want her to forget the ideas they had covered. The senior consultant said that when she left that session, she felt very positive about what she could do with the paper. In another instance, a consultant wrote that the role player needed "less summary and more ideas." In order to achieve this end, the consultant asked her to create an outline from the various items that were summarized, focusing on why each item deserved to be cited. They then used these points to discuss and create a thesis. The strongest consultants were those who engaged the two role players in some activity that made them feel ready to tackle their papers when they left. Both senior consultants felt as if a light had been flicked on when the session became interactive.

The role-playing aspect did get in the way for at least two of the consultants. In the first case, the consultant treated the paper as a hypothetical situation, discussing the issues in the third person: "I would tell this student that she should work on.... " The senior consultant responded in a like manner, remaining hypothetical and using the third person to raise questions: "What if she responded to you by saying.... " About this conference, the senior consultant noted that the advice covered all of the larger structural problems that would be important in revision. In other words, consultants uncomfortable with the dramatic aspect of mock tutorials could still gain critical reading and tutoring skills from an independent session with a senior consultant. The second case was more difficult because the consultant felt that the senior consultants didn't know the paper well enough to have a sound discussion. This consultant wrote to me that she thought that the senior consultants should have used their own papers so that the conversation would have been smoother. On one hand, she is correct to think that the senior consultants would have been more articulate in discussing their own work; even they realized this point. On the other hand, most freshmen do not think enough about their papers after they hand them in to remember why they wrote something in particular. I often have had students ask me, "How am I supposed to remember what I was thinking at the time?" Of course, this response indicates that the writing is not very clear, but it also indicates that the writer was not very involved in the material and probably was writing against a deadline. The consulting session also must address the intellectual development of the student. If the student cannot answer critical questions regarding a paper, then the consultant must be able to explain the relationship between the critical questions and the structural and developmental problems in the paper. This is not an easy task, but when students begin to see the link between these two issues, they start to think in more sophisticated ways. Hence, using a paper not written by the senior consultants in a mock tutorial can offer productive challenges.

Directing the weak performances

Before meeting with all of the Writing Center consultants, I took the opportunity to meet casually with several of the new consultants about their performances. In order not to single out the "weaker" consultants, I met with a few of the stronger consultants too. With the stronger consultants, I asked them to tell me how they felt about their mock tutorial. Their responses were overwhelmingly positive, highlighting the point that the session enabled them to practice the skills we had covered in the seminar and to receive feedback later in casual conversations with the senior consultants. The weaker consultants had mixed emotions: they worried about "pleasing" the senior consultants, feeling overwhelmed by the number of problems in the paper, and losing their jobs. I had addressed these issues prior to the mock tutorials, emphasizing that this process was geared toward improvement, not toward getting rid of any tutors. These emotions, however, aren't easy to disperse, especially with students who are used to excelling and who may suspect they are not being as productive as they could be.

With the weaker consultants, I asked them to discuss how they approached a paper with a large number of issues. As suspected, they approached grammar first; I was given three basic reasons for this strategy. The first was to find out if the student was really involved in correcting the paper. They claimed that students who came to the Writing Center because their professors required it rarely wanted to talk about anything else. One consultant also noted that fixing grammatical issues immediately made the client feel good about his paper; she said the students often didn't seem to want anything else. So, she rarely pushed clients onto the higher road without first "testing" them via grammar issues. The second reason was related to the first: the consultants felt so overwhelmed by the number of problems that starting with the grammar just seemed easiest. Though these consultants knew the hierarchy of issues to address and discussed them in seminar, they felt that facing the "real live problem" rather than sample papers in group discussions was far more difficult. Most of these consultants needed more time to watch others tutor and to get used to the tutoring environment. The third reason was that the consultant felt so distracted by the surface problems that she could not get beyond them. Excessive surface problems indicated, to one particular consultant, a level of carelessness that made it difficult for her to take the student seriously. This consultant admitted that she pointedly refused to read a paper that had surface errors until they were fixed. She even informed me that she had sent a student away to fix all surface issues before she would read the paper. Larger pedagogical discussions during the consultants' seminar had not helped these consultants to overcome their focus on grammar to the detriment of other issues. In each conversation, I encouraged the consultants to take the high road by engaging the client in larger structural problems, as we had discussed in seminar. Though these consultants all intellectually understood the importance of thesis, organization, and development, they resorted to a comfort zone when faced with a "messy" situation. These cases indicated to me that many new consultants needed and wanted more guidance than a seminar could offer. To respond to that issue, several of these consultants rearranged their schedules so that they could work with the senior consultants during the rest of the semester. Pairing them up with more seasoned consultants made them feel more comfortable and did help to improve their skills. Only one consultant opted to stop tutoring at the end of the term; she did not feel that she could ignore grammatical issues while helping others with thesis, organization, and development. She preferred her method of grammar first, though she admitted that she rarely saw any students more than once.

Critiquing the drama

As a group we addressed the mock tutorials during our regular seminar session after all of the tutorials were completed. In order to facilitate a discussion, I asked the consultants to freewrite on the following questions:

1. When you receive criticism on a paper, what might cause offense?

2. How do you feel when someone sets aside your ideas, and how do you feel when someone incorporates your ideas?

3. What are your thought processes when you are asked an intricate/ complex question, and what helps your response process?

I developed these questions based on the information from the senior consultants' observations. The consultants' responses concurred with the senior consultants' observations made earlier. In fact, one of the stronger consultants put in the margin of her freewrite about the second question, "Yikes, I think that I do this to students!" The consultants obviously were honest with themselves and really reflected on their positions as peer consultants and students. I then asked the consultants to freewrite specifically about the mock tutorial session, focusing on the following questions:

1. After your mock tutorial, how did you feel about your position as the "authority"?

2. How did you think the student felt?

3. Would you have done anything differently?

The aforementioned consultant discussed her penchant to set aside papers in order to get students talking. She theorized that maybe she should focus more on what is put in front of her. This was a real breakthrough moment for her. The majority of the consultants at the Writing Center felt very positive about the mock tutorial sessions. The freewriting brought into focus the duality of their roles as both students and tutors, and the soundness of the "golden rule": do unto others as you would want them to do unto you. Indeed, during this seminar, the tutors voiced their desires to be referred to as consultants because they felt that the word better represented their position as peers and as fellow writers. They further suggested that we continue using the mock tutorials in the future in order to address individual needs.

The mock tutorials also motivated the consultants to write a mission statement for our Writing Center:

This mission statement reflects the consultants' collective experiences. They want to help students with the creative and intellectual process of writing. The mock tutorials, more than any other grading calibration exercise or journal article, had prompted an intense discussion of their purpose and goals. They taught a group of young consultants quite a bit about themselves and their roles as consultants. Moreover, these tutorial sessions established a bond for them as writing consultants, which was another reason why they wished to continue the mock tutorials. Overall, the mock tutorial sessions created a positive environment for interactively assessing consultants' skills as well as developing strategies for training stronger consultants.

Kirsten Komara

Schreiner University

Kerrville, TX
Writing Center consultants do not
   serve as a replacement for a
   grammar book, but instead serve
   as creative consultants who
   encourage the writing process by
   providing feedback on the clarity,
   organization, and strength of the
   student's work. Consultants are
   not professional editors or judges.
   They are critical readers who can
   provide access to resources, such
   as writing techniques and styles,
   and textual guides and handbooks.
   Consultants are aids, and sessions
   at the Writing Center are meant to
   be interactive, cooperative efforts.
   Responsibility for the writing
   ultimately belongs to the student.
Gale Copyright:
Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.