Research Report: Better Writers: Writing Center Tutoring and the Revision of Rough Drafts
Bell, James H., Journal of College Reading and Learning
Do undergraduate students who attend one-on-one writing conferences on rough drafts improve as writers? To answer this, Faigley and Witte's (1981) taxonomy of revision changes was used to compare intermediate and final drafts, and Reigstad's (1980/1981) and Hock, Deshler, and Schumaker's (1999) typologies of tutoring were used to describe the tutoring. The first year focused on peer tutors, but because they edited most drafts during sessions, few changes remained for students to make; thus the study could not say whether the students became better writers. The second year focused on a professional tutor who used an instructional approach, and 68% of revisions were made after the sessions. Sixty-five percent of revisions made afterwards were in line with conference objectives, and 82% of these changes were positive, suggesting that the tutoring directed the revision and that the students became better writers.
The primary goal of most writing centers is, following North's (1984) manifesto, to produce better writers, not just better papers. Most commonly, students enter the writing center with a draft they want to improve. Do tutors help these students become better revisers? Only one empirical study has attempted to answer this question directly and systematically (Stay, 1983). Consequently, I conducted two studies that asked whether undergraduates who attended one-to-one conferences on rough drafts improved as writers. Better writers have better writing processes or more useable knowledge of conventions or both, and a manifestation of this improvement is often better written products. The two studies reported here audiotaped and described writing conferences and analyzed changes between rough and final drafts in attempts to see whether the writing center tutoring was meeting its principal goal.
After using Faigley and Witte's (1981) taxonomy of revision changes to document alterations in drafts, Stay (1983) compared the revisions made by students tutored in the Mount St. Mary's writing center with those made by untutored students in Faigley and Witte's study. The tutored students revised much more extensively. They made many more microstructure changes, altering the meaning of sentences but not the overall meaning of the passage, and they made more macrostructure changes, generating new meaning and rewriting sizeable sections of text.
Rather than proving that "students composing in a writing laboratory find making revision [sic] much easier (and more necessary!) than those students writing on their own" (Stay, 1983, p. 22), Stay's study reminds us of how many more similar studies are needed before such a generalization can legitimately be reached. Although differences among writing centers are well documented (Kinkead & Harris, 1993), the context of Stay's research was particularly unusual, severely limiting generalization to other locations. The 20 students had failed first-year composition, and thus constituted a narrow sample of the students most writing centers see. More important, the students had to write in the center two papers that met the satisfaction of the writing center before the students met the competency required by the college. In essence, the writing center awarded a grade, whereas writing centers traditionally pride themselves on avoiding such evaluation (e.g., Harris, 1986). Practically speaking, the students had to attend, whereas many writing centers are voluntary. The tutors were put in the position of instructors, and, in fact, both were Assistant Professors (Stay, personal communication, June 18, 1998). Although the tutoring method is not described in detail, glimpses suggest that it was sophisticated and expert. For example, Stay suggests that students made so many macrostructure revisions because the writing conferences after the first draft "consisted primarily of talking through the ideas found on the original draft" (p. 27). Though both tutors were "more collaborator than corrector" (p. 27), many students trained as tutors have a difficult time refraining from editing a draft and lecturing on how to improve it (Bell, 1989; Cogie, 1995; Harris, 1992; Seckendorf, 1986/1987; Wolcott, 1989).
In short, expert faculty helped failed students talk through ideas which subsequently appeared in final drafts that the students submitted to the same faculty members for pass/fail evaluation. Pointing out the delimitations of Stay's (1983) study is not to denigrate it but to emphasize the need for similar studies in other contexts. Several such studies would justify generalizations about the efficacy of tutoring and writing centers. In addition, the site of each study would acquire helpful formative feedback and, depending on how positive the results were, evidence of the writing center's value to the institution.
To show the many differences from Stay's (1983) context and to aid in generalizing findings to other writing centers, the context of the present studies is described below. The institution is a new university of 3,500 students. Although most students are undergraduates, the university has graduate programs and a strong research emphasis. There is little formal writing instruction: no writing across the curriculum, only two writing-in-the-discipline courses, and no writing sequence in any program, including English. Generally, an even mix of first-, second, and third-year students voluntarily sign up for confidential 30-minute appointments with tutors who are carefully selected and trained third-and fourth-year or Masters students. Their initial day of training encourages tutors to focus, when tutoring, on one or two …
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Publication information: Article title: Research Report: Better Writers: Writing Center Tutoring and the Revision of Rough Drafts. Contributors: Bell, James H. - Author. Journal title: Journal of College Reading and Learning. Volume: 33. Issue: 1 Publication date: Fall 2002. Page number: 5+. © 1999 College Reading and Learning Association. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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