Academic journal article WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship

Taking Initiative: The Evolution of a Writing Tutor

Academic journal article WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship

Taking Initiative: The Evolution of a Writing Tutor

Article excerpt

In her 2009 article "Scaffolding in the Writing Center," Isabelle Thompson called for "longitudinal studies of tutors' scaffolding behaviors" and this project looks to follow Thompson's call and examine whether or not tutors in one writing center significantly change during their time in the center. Anecdotally, the director of the Wittenberg Writing Center (Mike) would argue that the tutors sound different as seniors--more confident, more mature, more patient--but we had not before attempted to prove that claim. (1)

The data for the project is a collection of ten audio files recorded by five writing tutors--one each in their sophomore and senior years. The recordings are a requirement for employment; the tutors listen to and reflect on a session every year they are employed. (2) Such reflection gives the tutors (and the director) a chance to think about individual sessions, but the recordings also provide a chance to consider growth for the tutors overall. (3) Thus the guiding question for our research: are there differences in the types of speech and conversation habits these tutors use as sophomores and as seniors?

To begin to answer that question, we utilized Jo Mackiewicz and Isabelle Thompson's taxonomy for tutor comments: direct instruction, cognitive scaffolding, and motivational scaffolding. All ten of the audio files were sent to an outside transcription service--each file was close to thirty minutes, so there was a nearly equal amount of session time to compare for each tutor and for each year. (4) Once the audios were transcribed, the authors analyzed and catalogued each tutor comment into Mackiewicz and Thompson's categories.


When we had a final tally, we discovered what seemed to be changes in the numbers, especially with direct instruction. We knew, though, that comparing numbers is not always as helpful as comparing percentages, so we also calculated the difference between the types of comments in terms of percentages (table 1). To us, there seemed to be some significant differences between the two semesters, but in order to verify our assumptions, we worked with Doug Andrews, one of the math professors on campus who teaches a statistics course. He ran a chi square test in order to determine whether the difference was due to chance. (5) He found statistical significance in the numbers (p-value of 0.000 (stat=107.8, df=3)), and, in his words, "[C]hanges of this magnitude are really, really unlikely to happen just from natural variation."

Something, then, had changed from sophomore year to senior year. If we look at the sessions in the aggregate, we could say that the tutors talked more and utilized more direct instruction and less motivational scaffolding. That might not be terribly surprising, as seniors would presumably be more knowledgeable and more willing to tell writers what to do, especially if the writers were younger. This change aligns with Mackiewicz and Thompson's findings in Talk about Writing, as in the successful sessions they analyzed, "instruction played a critical role" (100). In other words, these data suggest that seasoned tutors offered more direct instruction and were more direct in their conversations. The big picture argues that the tutors did evolve during their time in the center.

However, such a leap ignores that the changes found here do not hold for all five of the tutors. For example, Vicki (6) talked less in her senior year session and had a higher percentage of motivational scaffolding comments, even as she increased her direct comments; Sondra, on the other hand, talked more in her senior year, but her percentage of cognitive comments increased while the percentage of direct comments stayed relatively the same (see table 2). The big picture does not explain each individual session because of all the variables at play in a session. It is not just that a tutor is older--we also need to consider the level of writer they are working with (first-year, sophomore, junior, senior); the assignment (lab report, narrative, literature review); the stage of the writing process (brainstorming, revising, editing); as well as a host of other concerns, such as the respective attitudes of the tutor and writer, whether or not they know each other (ours is a small campus), and whether or not the tutor is familiar with the faculty member who assigned the work. …

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