Writing Center Assessment

Although I have been a writing consultant at the Center for Writers for three years, I hadn’t ever thought about writing center assessment until I attended a panel on the topic at the MnWE conference this March. The reading for this week reminded me about how much this topic fascinated me. I began thinking about how after a client leaves the center, I typically never again see the development of a students’ writing that I was invested in for a half an hour, unless he or she makes another appointment. This made me wonder how we even know if we are developing students’ writing skills in the long term, rather than acting as a quick-fix before the paper is due. Of course, we try to focus our sessions on providing students with more global, transferable feedback than minor corrections that only apply to the paper at hand. However, how much of our feedback do students generally internalize and successfully apply later on?

One strategy of assessing this outcome from the chapter was the idea of comparing grades between students who use and those who do not use the writing center. I think that this would be incredibly useful to know, but I wonder how telling the results would be, as there are many factors that can affect the results of this method, such as the differing amounts of time and purposes that students use the writing center, the specific tutors that they work with, and so on. Thus, I wonder what other methods may be more effective in measuring this. One of the presentations on the panel I attended discussed her implementation of student exit surveys within the writing center. This would be a valuable tool to gain student insight, but it would not help in determining students’ quantifiable success after using the writing center. Additionally, self-reported responses can often be biased or incorrect.

I think that it would be interesting if a composition instructor would be able to measure whether attending the writing center affects students’ success. However, a teacher cannot force half of the class to get an equal amount of feedback and mandate that the other half refrain from gaining any support, as that would be unethically influencing their grades. If it is for an assignment that is graded based on completion, the case would be difficult. This way, the results would not influence high stakes like grades. Are there still too many factors influencing the outcome? Do you think this method would be valuable? I look forward to hearing any comments!

1.) What do you think is the best method of assessing the writing center’s influence in developing students’ long-term writing skills?

2.) Do you think the classroom study described about would be valuable? Why or why not?

3.) How do you think discovering evidence regarding writing center effectiveness would impact writing centers and classrooms?


Writing Centers and Tribal Colleges

For this last blog post, I chose to use this space to reflect and discuss my final project for this class, Comp. Theory.

To begin, my seminar paper is about Tribal colleges, communal space as a means to bridge the gap between orality and literacy. I had planned on focusing on the library as a means to host programs to help increase literacy in combination with orality, but finally having read about writing centers, I believe that writing centers may be the key to solving the problem of literacy among Tribal Colleges.

In Neal Lerner’s essay on writing centers, he claims, “Almost every two and four year post secondary institution in the United States has a writing center or of some sort, whether aligned with an academic department or student services” (301). The key word in that sentence is “almost”. The Tribal College that I attended while receiving my Associates degree did not have a writing center. They had a math center with someone available to help at any level of math, but by no means had a writing center.

This led me to think, would a writing center help this unique college with literacy? I know writing centers are not meant to fix all, but I do believe that it could help these students in improving their writing skills, mechanics, and process.

To further discuss this issue of writing centers and connect it to my initial point of communal space of the library could in fact be the library and the writing center and linking them together. The writing center could be located within library. This brings to raise the next questions, which library; the public library or college library? If the public library were to have a writing center this would open new doors to eventually having a public writing center. But how would a public writing center work? Would this public writing center take business (students) away from the college? Would it disinterest students in going to college since they can learn what they need to learn about writing through the public writing center?

Secondly, if the college were to have a writing center within its library, would the library be the right environment to host a writing center? One of my arguments could be that the writing center be help in room within the library so tutoring does not disrupt students.

The idea that I love about writing centers is that they encourage peer to peer tutoring as opposed solely to teacher to student engagement. “The peer to peer dynamic offers insider knowledge and empathy that teacher student conferences might lack, and the non-evaluative aspect of writing center work- in that the tutor is not grading the student’s paper- frees the interaction from a significant constraint”(304).

This could be highly beneficial for students attending Tribal Colleges because it would create an atmosphere where the student is gaining insight from a former peer. The insight from a peer may prove to be far more beneficial to learning in a relaxed environment where the students have the space to learn without the pressures of being judged, graded or ridiculed for how they may read, write or even speak as this is a unique set of Native American students who are usually shy, timid and fear judgment and ridicule. At least, this has been my experience of attending a Tribal College and I am sure many others attending Tribal Colleges that are on or near reservations feel the same.

Recap on questions:

  1. Could a writing center help a Tribal College?
  2. Which library would the writing center most benefit, the public library that is off campus, or the college’s library?
  3. Is a library the right environment for a writing center?

I wish I had a Magic Wand!

Howard and Jamieson in their “Researched Writing” detail the critique that the research paper gets and also share the “best practices in teaching student research” (235). There is certainly no arguing the fact that teaching students research skills is an important job of a teacher but the question is how much can one teacher teach in a semester? There certainly are expectations of a teacher from her/his students when they enter the class. Being a teacher of English 120, what do I expect from my students? How much they know already and from where do I start? What should I be particularly emphasizing when teaching research? There is no way to determine this until my students have turned in their first project. The results that I find are somewhat close to what Citation Project study of FYW found as stated in Howard and Jamieson. Based on the issues, problems and critiques of the research paper, the advice that they give to the teachers is invaluable:

  • Devise alternatives to the research paper
  • Focus on engagement rather than mechanics
  • Collaborate with librarians
  • Teach the rhetoric of finding and evaluating sources
  • Teach engaged and critical reading
  • Teach summary and paraphrase
  • Explore multimedia genre


But the question remains: How much do I have to accomplish?

I believe all these pieces of advice should be imbedded in the curriculum from secondary schooling onwards, picking and choosing step by step what is appropriate for the age group under consideration. For instance, teaching “rhetoric of finding and evaluating sources” might be too ambitious at the secondary school but “summary and paraphrase” seem appropriate. When the students enter high school, having learnt “summary and paraphrase” already, can be engaged in “critical reading” and once these students enter the college, they may further be introduced to more complex skills like finding and evaluating sources rhetorically.

I know this sounds utopian but this is necessary because introducing students to all this all at once is overwhelming for them and also too much for an instructor. Another challenge that I have faced as an English 120 instructor is that some of the students do seems to have already learnt what I just proposed but greater is the number of those who only know a five paragraph themed essay with no concept of research at all. This diverse group of students itself is a challenge. Who do I cater to? Look at those who know more and start from there onwards or consider those who still need to be taught paraphrase? The authors of the essay suggest that the teacher should focus on engagement rather than mechanics. So who will teach the mechanics? And do I simply ignore mechanics while grading? So practically, as a teacher, like any other teacher, I would assume other responsibilities that the authors do not even talk about.

Learning research skills is not a matter of a semester. It is a continuous process that student should be going through in all their learning years. FYW instructors cannot be expected of doing all on their own. Either the entire curriculum from grade 8 onwards be revolutionized or the risk be taken with students passing FYW courses without actually having learnt all the aspects of research.

Writing and Learning Centers: Expectations and Perceptions (An Experential Contemplation)

Lerner’s essay on “Writing Center Pedagogy” reminds me of my first full-time academic job out of graduate school. I began with Rasmussen College as the Mentor Center Coordinator. The position entailed building an all-purpose learning center from the ground up, hiring and training tutors, and establishing a process of support for students needing help with writing (and yes this included, from administration’s perspective anyway, many of the perceptions and misperceptions about the needs and challenges of beginning writers and English Language Learners we’ve encountered in our reading this semester, i.e. Trimbur, Bizzell, Lu, Matsuda, etc.), understanding difficult subject matter, and developing or honing study skills. At first, I met with students myself and leveraged the assistance of faculty while I built a pool of tutors to better distribute the workload.

During my time as coordinator, and in the several years since I transitioned to different roles within the college, the Mentor Center has become a Learning Center, shifted modalities from primarily residential to virtual through an online service called Brain Fuse (embedded in and linked to the college’s online learning management system), and moved from a campus based to centralized delivery model. In addition to moving to a centralized model, the Learning Center also adopted a program specific emphasis, one in which a centralized coordinator manages tutors, who work either from a campus site or from home, virtually throughout the college’s 24 campuses. To Lerner’s point, I have experienced that “the mere presence of a writing (or learning) center does not guarantee its stability nor provide the resources it would need to fulfill a capacious role” (301). As these changes occurred at Rasmussen, so did the culture around and attitude toward learning services, sometimes for the good but often for the bad—trust in the process, the procedures, and the desired end product waned.

Of course underlying many of the assumptions that drive such feelings toward learning services generally, and here I will extend this perception to writing centers as well because I believe there is overlap, is a belief, though not often articulated, that a Learning Center or Writing Center is going to fix student problems. Lerner refers to this unspoken expectation as the “grammar garage” (303). While serving in the Mentor Center, I often visited with faculty who would request that their students write better after visiting with a tutor for one or several sessions. Unreasonable as it may sound, some teachers mistake the primary goal of such a place—“to produce better writers, not [necessarily] better writing—with quick fix methods meant to minimize their frustration about what they see as sloppy or poorly composed essays, usually reduced to concerns about conventional grammar. Bartholomae, Perl, and Rose are useful references of the complications inherent in such minimalistic views of language and writing.

Students also seemed to share the quick fix mentality. Their expectations of such a site may have been inaccurately shaped by the messaging promoting the learning center and speaks to yet another underlying assumption of learning (or writing) centers: that they are also separate from rather than part of the learning process. When viewed as a service for those who struggle, the site assumes an “othered” reputation and defeats the purpose as collaborative learning space meant to enhance the class experience. I remember spending significant time trying to dispel inaccurate notions of the role and purpose of the Mentor Center.

Measureable learning should be, of course, the hope of all who teach and tutor students. Lerner’s method “of effective practice… in which teaching and learning writing” involves “tutors/instructors” listening “fully and carefully, to respond as readers, and to allow the space for writers to be in control of their session and their texts” demonstrates how a writing center can support students in developing as writers and thinkers with long-term results. Too often, however, I encountered the student frustrated that a session didn’t yield a desired grade or didn’t make a specific writing task good (by which the student often meant polished enough to evade the demerits of incorrect usage circled, underlined, or crossed out by a teacher). While Lerner is correct that “writing center sessions are most useful to students when they focus on higher order concerns, such as choosing a topic, supporting an argument, or re-organizing a text,” I wonder if student expectations of the services rendered in such sites encourage or discourage use.

Based on my experience in the Mentor Center and reviewing Lerner’s essay, I am left with the following questions:

1-       Does emphasis on long-term development over immediate, seemingly urgent, assignment needs help or hurt the perceptive value of a writing center? Are writing teachers and writing centers on the same page?

2-      What qualifications must a tutor meet to offer the most useful peer support?

3-      Where will technology take the writing center in the future? Does it need a physical space?

WACing Researched Writing

Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson’s chapter, “Researched Writing,” explores the various benefits and challenges of assigning research papers in first-year writing courses. Like most forms of teaching and learning, the authors begin by suggesting the standard research paper can be approached poorly. Study after study have shown many of us do just that, supporting students’ patchwriting (whether intended or not) and assigning a research paper because, well, that’s what instructors do. After all, it’s tradition. Thankfully, Howard and Jamieson argue, “The alternative is not to cease teaching research but to teach it differently” (235, note also, 235 is not the first page of the chapter!).

Last fall, I was lucky enough to teach what Concordia calls an “Inquiry Seminar,” a course for first-year students that, along with Introduction to Written Communication and Introduction to Oral Communication rounds out our required first-year student curriculum. My course was titled Vocation and the Quest for Life’s Purpose (a research interest of mine) and was paired with a written communication course, meaning that my cohort of 18 students all had the same writing class together. Two things strike me from the experience of teaching Inquiry.

First, part of the requirement for all inquiry seminars at Concordia is that students complete an 8-12 page research paper. Faced with this teaching task, I had no idea what I was doing. None.

Looking back, the “Recommendations from the Faculty Implementation Group,” a 2007 document on Concordia’s website that, I think, was developed when the inquiry seminars were first imagined and made part of our curriculum aligns with Howard and Jamieson’s approach. From the document:

Inquiry Seminar

  1. Writing-Intensive Inquiry Seminar is one in which students
  2. Write a research paper
  3. Develop information literacy and research competencies
  4. Produce at least 15 pages of polished writing spread across multiple writing assignments
  5. Practice generative writing as a way of learning
  6. Practice a writing process, either 1) using a draft-revision cycle; or 2) breaking a large assignment into graded stages

I particularly appreciate how points 2 and 5 connect with the Howard and Jamieson’s best practices. As described above, I think the Inquiry Seminar research paper could certainly satisfy most of the authors’ hopes for researched writing. But, did I mention…I had no idea what I was doing!

And, dare I say, I was not alone. Inquiry Seminars at Concordia, generally, are taught by faculty members outside of the English department. My guess is that Concordia is not alone is such a practice. Not surprisingly, despite the development of WAC and WID, very few humanities PhD programs teach faculty how to teach researched writing to first-year students. I trust my gifted colleagues to use their sound teaching instincts to employ some of the practices Howard and Jamieson suggest, but I’m afraid at the moment there’s no real institutional requirement that we become aware of the researched writing field. But, fear not my Comp Theory comrades, despite my lack of academic preparation my class was not a complete disaster, which leads me to point two.

As mentioned above, Concordia Inquiry Seminars can be paired with Introduction to Written Communication (IWC) courses. In my case, thank goodness, I’m close friends with an IWC instructor and we requested our courses be paired together. Then, using mainly my colleagues expertise (she has a PhD in rhetoric and writing) we developed a scaffolded research paper assignment shared by both our courses. For the curious, the Assignment Sheet is here.

Thanks to my colleague’s wisdom and experience, the research paper assignment included multiple library sessions, individual conferences, a proposal stage, working and annotated bibliography documents, a detailed proposal, a rough draft, peer conferences, and a genre shift presentation before students turned in their final 10-page research paper on the last day of class. In short, I believe Howard and Jamieson would be proud. And, did I mention, this was all thanks to my wise colleague because I had no idea what I was doing?

So, I’m led back to the WAC/WID discussion, wondering how cash-strapped institutions can combine the lessons of WAC/WID and researched writing. If we expect first-year—and students in other years, as well—to write significant research papers, we can certainly do more to spread the lessons of Howard and Jamieson to faculty beyond our English departments. But how?

  1.  Beyond workshops (which we’ve discussed before), are there ways to educate instructors beyond English about the lessons of researched writing? 
  2. Have you had experience teaching courses for which you may not have been ideally prepared or qualified? How did you navigate this (delightful) challenge?

“Research” as Synecdoche: In Defense of First-year Writers

The research paper is perhaps the most familiar genre, competing with the five-paragraph essay (which occasionally might serve as a research paper).  And as the Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson argue, the genre deserves a place in writing provided a change in emphasis from “rote performance of pre-established conventions of research writing” to assignments that “value knowledge production and critical thinking” (243).  Perhaps the emergent idea is that research serves as a synecdoche.  In this regard, I like the discussion of Helen Foster’s information retrieval scaffold “that both ‘foregrounds the importance’ of information retrieval and reveals the ‘multiple embedded tasks’ with the process” (Howard and Jamieson, 236).  The scaffold acknowledges the process yet points to the complexities of the process.  This acknowledgement helps to re-frame an assignment as a “research project” (Howard and Jamieson, 236).  The assignment becomes a series of activities, a clutch of genres rather than a single monolithic paper.

However, while I find the discussion much welcomed, I also return to our discussion about what is composition studies and the associated topic of what happens in the composition classroom.  many of the activities are recognizable – paraphrase, summary, engaged reading (a nice change from critical reading), and of course citing sources.  On the one hand, the chapter invites enthusiasm.  Images of a life of the mind swirl amid the discussion of information literacy and tracing “trails writers lay out for others who might wish to find and read the same sources and thereby join the conversation” (Howard and Jamieson, 239).  It is invigorating.  I enrolled in a doctorate program to perform these activities.  On the other hand, the chapter poses paradoxes.  Students need to engage with material yet exhibit reluctance. The Citation Project findings offer disheartening statistics that “46 percent of the 1,911 citations were to material from the first page of the source—and a total of 77 percent of the citation were to material no deeper than page 3 of the source” (Howard and Jamieson, 234).  I want changing the emphasis toward information literacy to serve a purpose, but I wonder how I might more effectively achieve improved learning if students evidently are not engaged.

Engagement for me is proving to a nebulous and persistent concept.  Engagement, I think, presses the question of what happens in the composition classroom and perhaps alludes to what is composition studies. That is, in reading Howard and Jamieson and in reflecting on previous readings, I find myself at a point of irresolution – a great place for a theory class but not the best for pedagogy development.  The chapter by Howard and Jamieson returns me to the discussion of Greg Myers about reforming education.  Does the introduction of information literacy unburden research from the ideologies of the research paper?  The chapter sent my mind to David Bartholomae and student writers navigating through the finding of authority and the need to mimic conventions.  Maybe students need some activities in rote memory in order to engage in more complex information literacy activities – but which ones to commit to memory?  I would argue the most recursive activities might serve as excellent candidates for rote memorization.  Of course, this discussion segues into process as well – even in the plural, process looms in much of the discussion of juggling the complexities of research.

As a parting thought, I offer an apology for first-year students. I have spent part of my time as a graduate writing consultant helping graduate-level students find and work with sources; in anticipation of a statement, no, they are not all international students.  I have spent periods in my own academic pursuits in perplexity about how to find and use research.  The world is endlessly beautiful in its complexities, and I often find myself mustering ideas as a statement of my confusion than a cogent argument.  Confession: I find the certitude encouraged in some academic writing disturbing.  And my stint among the sciences and mathematics has raised further disturbances on that issue.  Where is the space to explore – really explore, in the sense of I did not know about this topic but here is what I found, what it means is unclear, but clarity could occur in time.  Inadvertently, first-year students perhaps find themselves with no such space.  College is expensive so the impulse to derive a “tangible utility” is strong.  Am I needlessly fretting over the idea of research projects functioning as a gesture to pragmatism yet circumventing the learning that might occur in writing a research paper?  I do not know. But I think that research irrespective of the noun it modifies — paper, project, task, skill — is difficult for first-year writers, graduate students, faculty — and me.

Writing Centers, Research, and Junior High

I originally thought to write under the title: “Eulogy [or Obituary] for the Research Paper.” However, any paper that contains research could be labeled “research paper.” I never quite know what to do with that term. So, I went with that perhaps now cliched “three main thoughts” title.

In the chapter on Researched Writing, Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson make a compelling argument for the end of the traditional research paper, instead focusing on the process of writing the research paper. The idea of research is of vital importance for today’s information-flooded students, and it is one that I personally attach much significance to. Why? NDSU’s Center for Writers.

I only worked one semester at the Center for Writers–the fall semester before I student taught in the fall; however, working there that one semester led me to a firm resolution: the students walking out of my classroom (whatever level that was) would not be one of those students who had never had to do research before. I had been shocked at how many students (in 2007) came in because they had never written a research paper (or at least they claimed) and had never had to use MLA or APA in their high school careers.

Working at the Center for Writers helped me to have a vision for what my students might be struggling with and how I could better help them as writers. My one semester at the Center for Writers was beyond helpful in shaping my teaching philosophy, especially when it came to teaching research.

The next fall I found myself teaching juniors and junior highers. I saw research as one of the most important skills to teach.

The skills needed to do research well are vast. Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson put forth the “component research practices” as “finding, evaluating, reading, comprehending, synthesizing, and talking about (not just quoting from) complex, lengthy sources” (235).

It is not just about the skills, but about having the right research “mindset” as well. In my mind, research is about thinking critically. Also, thinking about it as a “mindset” rather than a set of fixed conventions is helpful because those conventions shift from discourse community to discourse community.

What is the “mindset” of research? Asking questions and knowing where to look for the answers.

Too often students get in the mindset of “what do I need to do on this paper to get an A?”

Use three secondary sources? Check.

Use MLA format? Check.

Have a thesis statement? Check.

And it quickly becomes not a parody but reality of what research can be.

I’ve always maintained that the process of using the correct research style guide is easy, but it is in the working with ideas that is hard. So why is there so much conversation about students not doing citations correctly? Is it because those are the “easy questions” to ask and answer?

Helping students understand the “why” of research and research conventions is an important piece. (There it is again: A return to that “meta” strand that keeps coming up throughout this course.)

The idea of the research paper being a dying practice first arrived upon my brain when I did the Northern Plains Writing Project Summer Institute. There I was introduced to the idea of the iSearch paper.

At first I did not like the idea, but when I tried it with my eighth graders the next school year I was sold.

There is this paralysis–this fear–of the term “research paper”, but not of an “iSearch paper”. The premise is students choose something that they really are interested in and want to learn more about; then they follow a guided writing process to help them think through it and eventually produce a synthesis (One version can be found here: http://www.readwritethink.org/professional-development/strategy-guides/promoting-student-directed-inquiry-30783.html)

The atmosphere of the class, since they were all really interested in the topics, was really positive and my students seemed to learn a lot about not only their topics but the process.

One other successful moment with research in the junior high classroom involved a tow rope.  (I use this same analogy in my 120 classes, but I do not have my tow rope any more…)

Before starting the tow rope activity, I would display a “kidnapped” sentence and tell them it was somewhere in the room. I would have purposefully scattered more books around the classroom so that they were not all crowded around the bookcase. Little by little I gave them more clues that someone would have written in a works cited entry. Eventually, someone found the book and then I would have to give them the page number.

We would then write a works cited for the book and the tow rope entered the scene. One student would come and hold the book at the end of the tow rope, and another student would come and hold the works cited entry in the middle of the tow rope.

Next I would have (for the sake of time) someone write a direct quote with a parenthetical citation. That person would hold the opposite side of the tow rope.  I would then have them move about the room, demonstrating that they were all connected.

Then I would have a “Writer” come up and talk through the process of how to cite a source

Then I would have a “Reader” come up and be interested in the information and want to find the book and talk through the process of finding the book.

Then we would talk more about research conventions.

It was my favorite day of all year.

One final thought:

I know that these conversations are happening within the context of what can composition classes in higher education accomplish; however, I am continually struck by the fact that I firmly believe that students should already be coming to college with these skills. I know that a lot depends on the quality of the teachers and schools from where these university students arrived from. But my seventh graders were able to understand and use MLA formatting with guidance (and a tow rope) and they were able to transfer it to my classroom the next year as eighth graders.

Question: If you were able to communicate one thing to secondary English teachers and it was guaranteed to change, what one thing would you communicate?

Question: What other metaphors/analogies/strategies do you use to help students understand the research process?