Students should be engaged in their own learning:
The easiest route is for an instructor, or tutor, or consultant to take the lead. You are viewed as the expert, and students may not be able to assess writing well enough to know what to focus on: they don’t have the vocabulary to ask the right questions.
In such a circumstance, you can model for students appropriate questions to ask, or guide them towards such questions.
- What do you think you’ve done well? Tell me why you think you’ve done it well.
- What have you most struggled over? Why do you think you are facing these struggles?
- What has traditionally given you difficulty in your writing?
- What have your instructors told you about your writing? Do you agree with their assessment?
Do not swoop in and save the day:
If students bring very little to the conference, then the best piece of advice you might give is to set goals for the next meeting, rather than try to rescue them from the dilemma they’ve created.
In this circumstance, it may be best to focus on some pre-writing activities.
- Explain to me what your assignment is.
- Let’s go to the text and begin to find evidence you think might aid you to develop your paper.
- Explain to me how you think the evidence is relevant and what it will prove.
- Let’s take a closer look at the evidence and begin to focus on how you might interpret it or present it to your reader
Do not give into grade grubbing:
If students ask what grade you believe the essay deserves, encourage the student to review the grading rubric with the course instructor with paper in hand.
Or highlight a specific area (argument, organization, development) and help the student to assess it.
Do not focus solely on the writer’s weaknesses.
Students may perform solidly in parts of the essay, but they may lack an understanding about why it’s solid. You might compare one solid paragraph with a weaker one, and ask the student to work on the weaker part so that it becomes more solid.
Do not focus primarily or solely on the argument:
Students may want feedback on their argument because they may want to be assured that they are “on the right track.” But in seeking that feedback, they are also trying to short-circuit the reading and writing process: a process in which continuous engagement with the text enriches an argument, or in which they assess the body paragraphs as they develop them relative to an argument which is gradually enriched in a recursive process.
You may find yourself in the uncomfortable position of guessing how the student might develop an argument in a sketchy form.
If the argument is too preliminary for effective feedback, if there is no draft accompanying it, you may simply point out that it’s too early to assess the argument, and may suggest that it would be more appropriate to focus on another part of the essay.
If the introduction and argument are sufficiently drafted, you can then ask students to talk them through the rest of the paper.
- What evidence do you think you will need to support this argument?
- How do you think the evidence will support it?
- What do you think the evidence means?
A more fruitful place to begin might be in the assessment of body paragraphs. They are a smaller unit of the essay and an easier place to start.
- Ask students what their understanding is about how to construct a body paragraph.
- Work on the body paragraph to make sure it is based in the discussion or interpretation of evidence.
It’s ok not to be an expert:
If you’re a tutor or a consultant, you may not be familiar with the text students are responding to. In this situation, you may still be able to play an important role.
You may be in a position to encourage the student to become the expert:
Make students explain why they have selected the evidence, what they believe the relevance of the evidence is, and ask that they explain the rationale behind their interpretation of the evidence.
Do not be trapped into teaching a class:
Students may proclaim that they’ve never understood how to write a conclusion: can you give them “tips.”
In such a situation, you may want to point them to an appropropriate resource such as a composition primer: one that you feel confident offers accessible, initial instruction.
But you might also gently tell the student that you can’t cover complex issues in short periods of time, issues best left to actual classroom instruction.
Do No Harm:
If the instructor is requiring that students write in formulaic ways, and in ways that constrain students’ abilities to develop their writing, you might help them to find a better approach.
But this tricky situation may also offer an occasion for you to encourage students to be more proactive in developing a relationship with their instructors.
- I’m trying to focus my paragraph on a single example because it’s the most apt example and can be richly developed. In this case is it necessary to have more?
- I have more than five paragraphs worth of material. What do I do with the sixth paragraph?
At the end of the session, ask for “feedback” from the student:
- What are you taking away from this session?
- What concrete steps form your revision plan?
The takeaway may reveal a complex understanding of what went on during the session, or alternatively, the student may reveal gaps in understanding. In subsequent sessions, you can build on your assessment of what a student learned.
By Jonathan Lang, Donnett Flash and Kim Freeman, with thanks to Chisako Cole and John Levine who contributed to this article.