L2 Student Satisfaction in the Writing Center: A Cross-Institutional Study of L1 and L2 Students 

Pam Bromley
Pomona College

Kara Northway
Kansas State University

Eliana Schonberg
Duke University


International and multilingual student enrollments are growing around the world. Because 73% of international students in the United States come from countries where English is not an official language, the number of L2 students is likewise growing. Writing centers are on the frontlines in academically supporting L2 students, but tutor anxiety in sessions with L2 students is apparent. Empirical research on L2 student satisfaction with writing centers is only slowly emerging. Our quantitative study compares satisfaction of English-L2 students to those of English-L1 students through a common exit survey of student perceptions of writing center visits; perceptions are essential as they connect to achievement and learning outcomes. Overall, we find both groups are equally satisfied with their writing center visits, equally likely to return to the writing center, and have equally intellectually engaging sessions. Adding greater resonance, this study was conducted at three different types of institutions in the United States—a small liberal arts college; a medium, private, doctoral university; and a large, public land-grant university. Our study directly points to tutor-training strategies, including sharing empirical studies about satisfaction, increasing a focus on intellectual engagement for students and tutors, and incorporating global English strategies into sessions.

Despite 2018 headlines about new government immigration policies affecting international students in the United States, universities worldwide continue to experience ever-increasing enrollments of international students. Around the world, four million students studied outside their home countries in 2012, up from two million in 2000 (UNESCO). The United States hosts the largest number of international students (UNESCO), with well over a million in 2016-17, an almost 100% increase since 2000; international students currently comprise over 5% of all US enrolled students (Institute of International Education, “International Student Enrollment”).1 Multilingual student enrollments are also growing, as more students from diverse backgrounds attend university, both in the United States and around the world (Rafoth 20; Altbach et al. 47-49). International and multilingual students often pursue higher education in non-native languages, most notably in English.2 For decades, scholars and administrators have identified university writing centers as important sites for international and multilingual students to learn about and be supported in writing (e.g., Bruce and Rafoth 7; Lape 1; Powers and Nelson 113; Rafoth 39; Williams and Severino 165-66)—and, furthermore, increasing numbers of L2 students visit these centers (e.g., Hall 5; Nakamaru 96).

It is important, then, to learn more about these students’ experiences. Two types of studies have been done about L2 students who visit writing centers: one type focusing on L2 students exclusively and one comparing them to L1 students. While single-population studies allow for a deeper interrogation of L2 students’ experiences, comparative studies can usefully pinpoint potential disparities between L1 and L2 student experiences and can suggest solutions. Of the non-comparative studies, several provide useful guidelines for working productively with L2 students (e.g., Min 24-27; Williams and Severino).

Only a handful of studies explicitly make comparisons between L1 and L2 students. Using linguistic methodologies in a series of studies, Terese Thonus has done the most comprehensive—and significant—comparisons, with fewer than sixty participants and hundreds of interactions per session. She found that L2 students laugh and speak less (“Tutor” 122); tutors were more uncertain with L2 tutees, who consider their tutors to be authority figures (“What” 235); and L2 students had fewer complete closings (i.e., dropped conversational turn-taking), an important feature of appointments (“Time” 51). Jessica Williams’ linguistic study, with ten sessions and hundreds of utterances per session, found that with L2 students, the diagnosis phase was longer (44) and tutors took longer turns (45), made fewer but more direct suggestions (58), and took on authority more readily (59). Exploring student expectations, Carol Severino et al. examined 170 student requests for feedback, determining that although most requests by L1 and L2 students were similar, L2 students were statistically more likely to request feedback on grammar and punctuation, whereas L1 students were more likely to request feedback on argument and ideas (119-20). Grant Eckstein’s survey of 487 students, which examined their expectations and experiences with grammar feedback in sessions, found that although all students wanted grammar assistance, L1 writers reported that they received more grammar support than they expected whereas L2 writers sought—and received—as much support as they expected (376-77). Mary Gallagher et al.’s survey of over four hundred students working with writing fellows in twenty-three writing-intensive courses found that L2 writers were statistically more likely to begin with positive writing-related attitudes (9) and achieved greater overall gains in writing processes and purpose than their L1 peers (11-12). Together, these comparative studies uncover some important differences both in L1 and L2 writers’ experiences and the ways tutors interact with these writers—particularly with respect to authority, attitudes, and grammar—and they also indicate that L2 students’ experiences can sometimes be more positive than those of their L1 peers.

Although the scholarly conversation has examined how to work more effectively with L2 students, these students’ perceptions have been under-theorized and under-researched, and L2 satisfaction has not been studied on its own (Carino and Enders 101, 86-87). As we’ll discuss in our conclusion, we believe that this lack of scholarly work on L2 perceptions has enabled lore-based thinking to persist among student-tutors, a phenomenon that is especially reflected in writing center tutor-training handbooks.3 Research on the perceptions of L2 students can expose and change lore-based approaches in tutor pedagogy and thereby reduce tutor anxiety. Although some might argue that students’ perceptions alone cannot demonstrate much, if anything, about what students are actually learning, researchers have determined that student perceptions are connected to achievement (Pajares 141); this connection was also demonstrated by a 2016 study about L2 students’ positive perceptions of writing-fellow meetings and improved grades (O’Meara 77). Perhaps more important for our study, student perceptions of satisfaction have been shown to be an important predictor of learning outcomes (Abdous and Yen 248-49). Even though student satisfaction is connected to achievement and learning outcomes, we believe that tutor training should be aimed towards not only student-writer satisfaction, but also other essential questions of writing center work, such as intellectual engagement (Bromley et al.).

Our multi-institution, quantitative study relies on a shared exit survey comparing L1 and L2 student perceptions of satisfaction and intellectual engagement. Our study was conducted on three campuses in the United States—a large public university, a medium private university, and a small liberal arts college (SLAC). A multi-institution project like ours aligns with the recommendation of research methodologists, who note that cross-institutional studies are “valuable on the ground that this [approach] would decrease the likelihood that findings were idiosyncratic to a particular institution” (Raidal and Volet 579). Our large and diverse study determined that

  • L1 and L2 students were equally satisfied with their writing center visits;

  • L1 and L2 students had equally intellectually engaging sessions; and

  • L2 students tended to return more frequently than their L1 peers.

Despite our findings that L1 and L2 students have similar, positive experiences in the writing center, studies report that tutors are often more uncertain in their work with L2 students (e.g., Bell and Elledge 17-18; Powers and Nelson 124; Thonus, “What” 227), even as a large majority of writing tutoring programs provide support for ELL students.4 If we know more about L1 and L2 student experiences, particularly about satisfaction and intellectual engagement, then we can make research-based suggestions about writing center practices, pointing to the importance of reorienting scholarly conversations about tutor pedagogy.


Our cross-institutional, IRB-approved survey asked students about what they believe they took away from their writing center sessions (see Appendix B). The researchers spent several weeks drafting the survey questions after meeting at the 2009 IWCA Summer Institute and discovering a shared interest in learning more about what makes writing center sessions successful. Although we did not pre-test the survey to assure validity, we did ask our staffs informally about the questions, and student-tutors thought that the questions were addressing the issues being investigated. Most questions were quantitative; several were yes/no questions, whereas others were answered on a 5-point Likert scale, with “5” being strongly agree and “1” being strongly disagree. During the 2009-10 academic year, we placed online survey links in all three centers, asking every consultant to invite every student after each appointment to complete the survey. We note potential selection bias resulting from the initiative of the tutor and the desire of the student to take the survey. Because students generally signed up for appointments online without any information about their tutor, we believe that students were selected more or less at random to complete the survey. The nature of the appointment might have influenced whether or not a tutor asked a student to complete the survey; from conversations with our tutors, we know that some tutors asked all students to complete the survey, yet some tutors never asked any.

We recorded 2262 responses to the survey. Of respondents, 58% (n=1309) responded that English was their only first language (L1), 35% (n=785) responded that English was not their first language (L2), and 7% (n=168) responded that English was one of their first languages. We look here at the responses to four quantitative exit-survey questions, comparing the answers of students who reported that English was their only first language (L1) to those from students who reported that English was not one of their first languages (L2). Because students were not required to answer all questions, there is some variability in the number of responses to each survey question. We evaluated differences in L1 and L2 student survey responses at each institution using paired t-tests, a statistical test that evaluates whether responses differ by group. We examined our data at the 0.05 level of significance. By comparing L1 and L2 student responses at three diverse institutions, we are more likely to see if a pattern exists. If responses at all three schools are different, that indicates that the situation may be more complicated. However, if responses at all three schools are the same, that possibly indicates a more common trend.

Results and Discussion

Our study compares L1 and L2 student responses to a quantitative exit survey. Below, we compare these responses to questions about overall satisfaction and intellectual engagement. The prompts we examined were the following:

  • Would you recommend the writing center to a friend?

  • During the consultation, I felt intellectually engaged.

  • Do you plan to return to the writing center?

  • Have you visited the writing center before?

For each question, we compared the responses of L1 and L2 students at each school. We found that L1 and L2 students are equally satisfied with their writing center visits, as shown by their recommendations to friends and plans for return visits, with L2 students at one school even more likely to recommend and plan to return. In addition, we determined that L1 and L2 students at all three campuses perceive equal intellectual engagement. We also observed that although L1 and L2 students were equally likely to report that they plan to return to the writing center, L2 students at two campuses were statistically more likely, in fact, to return than their L1 peers. Therefore, we can state with confidence that L1 and L2 students’ responses at all three schools were the same, and L2 students, at two campuses, were even more likely to return to their campus writing centers.


We focus first on students’ overall satisfaction with their writing center sessions, examining L1 and L2 student responses to this question: would you recommend the writing center to a friend? We used recommendations to friends as indicators of satisfaction; willingness to recommend is a key marker of loyalty and potential impact on others (Farris et al. 57). We determined, across all three institutions, that L1 and L2 students were strongly and equally satisfied with their writing center visits (see Table 1 in Appendix A).

Over 97% of L1 students at all schools would recommend the writing center to a friend, and over 98% of L2 students at all schools would recommend the writing center to a friend. We investigated statistically whether or not there were differences between L1 and L2 students at each school using paired t-tests. At the Large Public and the SLAC, we saw no difference between L1 and L2 students’ responses. At the Medium Private, we did see a statistically significant difference, with L2 students more likely to recommend the writing center to a friend than L1 students (p≤0.05). From our study, then, we can demonstrate statistically that L1 and L2 students were equally likely to recommend the writing center to a friend, and L2 students at one school were even more likely to recommend.

Intellectual Engagement

We asked another, more pointed question strongly connected to overall satisfaction: whether students felt intellectually engaged in their sessions. Our earlier mixed-method study at these same three institutions found that the vast majority of students are intellectually engaged in their sessions (Bromley et al. 3), and we wondered whether this relationship would still hold if we drilled deeper into the quantitative data on this important issue. From this previous study, we know that, when completing the exit survey, students understood “intellectual engagement” as cognitive challenge and tutor involvement with students’ concerns (Bromley et al. 3). This understanding is quite similar to the definition of intellectual engagement used by the National Survey of Student Engagement. Intellectual engagement is both central to learning (NSSE 14-15) and connected to student satisfaction in higher education (Krause and Coates 502).

The majority (at least 80%) of L2 students at all three schools agreed that they were intellectually engaged in their sessions (see Table 2 in Appendix A). Although we did see a difference in responses to this question across our campuses, t-tests showed no statistically significant difference in students’ responses to the question of intellectual engagement based on language background. That we did not see a statistically significant difference here is intriguing, as it demonstrates that students were equally intellectually engaged regardless of their language background.

Return Visits

Return visits are another indication of satisfaction, but one with more diverse responses. Two survey questions asked students about plans to return and about past visits; the first question asked whether students planned to return to the writing center, and the second asked whether students were actually returning visitors. We first examine students’ responses about planning to return (see Table 3 in Appendix A). We observed that over 99% of L2 students at all three schools reported that they plan to return to the writing center. When comparing L2 and L1 students’ responses at each school, we found a statistically significant difference at the Medium Private, with L2 writers more likely than L1 writers to note that they plan to return (p≤0.005). Results from the Large Public and the SLAC showed no statistically significant difference. These data demonstrate that, compared to their L1 peers, L2 students were as likely, and at the Medium Private more likely, to report they plan to return to the writing center.

In addition to anticipating future visits, students were also asked about previous visits. Over 71% of L2 students reported that they had already visited their writing center (see Table 4 in Appendix A). Looking at whether students were repeat writing center visitors, we found that L2 students were, indeed, more likely to return to the writing center than L1 students, with this difference statistically significant at two schools, the Large Public and the Medium Private (p≤0.001). This trend was present at the SLAC but was not statistically significant. This finding is intriguing, as it means that the writing center may be an even more important location for L2 students improving writing processes than for L1 students, as scholars have suggested (Fitzgerald and Ianetta 119; Moussu 64).


The foreword to the most recent writing center L2 tutoring handbook celebrates “how far writing center scholarship on second language writing has come . . . even in the last decade,” noting in particular “less and less do we regard them [L2 students] as a challenge” (Severino vii). We agree and support this optimistic stance. Our study provides empirical, independent evidence demonstrating that L1 and L2 students, in their writing center visits, were equally satisfied, likely to return, and intellectually engaged—and even at some institutions, more likely to return—thus perhaps manifesting the benefits of the writing center field’s sustained attention to L2 issues.

Yet we find other evidence that the changes Severino observes are only slowly taking root in the writing center field’s discourse about practice. The overarching narrative of the L2 sections of recent general tutoring handbooks is one of director and tutor anxiety. For example, the 2011 St. Martin’s Guide encourages tutors to be “nonjudgmental and nonthreatening” (Murphy and Sherwood 14). The 2008 Longman Guide comments on tutors’ inexperience, noting that “a large source of anxiety of new tutors surrounds the work that they will do with ESL writers” (Gillespie and Lerner 117). The 2015 Oxford Guide, while noting that tutors might also be multilingual and “aware of language diversity,”  explicitly says, “[Y]ou might be nervous about the prospect of working with someone with a different cultural background from your own who is still learning English. But there’s little reason to worry, because . . . .” (Fitzgerald and Ianetta 119). The most recent general handbook, the 2016 Bedford Guide, seems to anticipate and counter this narrative when it refers to working with multilingual writers as a “privilege” and in its eager imperative for tutors to “Learn from them and enjoy doing so!” (Ryan and Zimmerelli 60, 64). The latest L2 guidebook, published in 2016, likewise “highlight[s] the excitement and challenge” of working with L2 students (Bruce and Rafoth 3).

Of course, we endorse the idea that tutors should be well-informed culturally, linguistically, and rhetorically, especially considering the power dynamics inherent in and around sessions (Lape 5; Condon and Olson 31; Hutchinson and Gillespie 135). In addition, as other scholars have well established, writing center staffs should represent the diversity of the campuses on which centers are located, including hiring tutors who themselves are multilingual and/or L2 (Diab et al.; Grimm 17-18; Rafoth 123). Multilingual tutors “add value to our ongoing tutor education . . . as they contribute insights unique to them as language learners” (Hutchinson and Gillespie 132).

We also believe that tutors’ anxiety about working with L2 students is not a fiction. Thonus, as we noted above, has empirically demonstrated that tutors are uncertain in sessions with L2 students. However, we think that tutors may base this real anxiety in lore. We argue that handbooks’ combinations of cautions and self-conscious enthusiasm, although well-intentioned, might actually be reinforcing these lore-based beliefs. In other words, student-tutors may believe that working with L2 students is harder than working with L1 students because of handed-down practice (Thompson et al. 79) and assumptions of one-way learning. This anxiety may also add to tutors’ fears about tutors’ own limited knowledge about the English language; when engaging with students on a topic like grammar, tutors’ anxieties may move to the foreground. However, our research shows that even as tutors may lack formal training in certain areas, student-tutors’ concerns are unnecessary because L2 students, as we have shown, are actually just as satisfied with, and intellectually engaged in, their sessions as L1 students. One of our study’s applications is that our empirical findings and those of other researchers be used in tutor training to counter these L2 anxiety narratives—ideally alongside data from writing center administrators’ own exit surveys.

Administrators can also help tutors develop strategies for becoming aware of and for increasing intellectual engagement in students—and in tutors themselves—through questioning and challenging ideas, rather than relying on lore. A recent approach to addressing this issue in tutor pedagogy is integrating concepts from the growing work on global Englishes. Suresh Canagarajah has argued that “the dominant approaches to studying multilingual writing have been hampered by monolingualist assumptions that conceive of literacy as unidirectional acquisition of competence, preventing us from fully understanding the resources multilinguals bring to their texts” (“Toward” 589; see also Canagarajah, “Translingual Writing” 270). Writing centers have just begun to experiment with such training, aligning with the movement in composition studies toward codemeshing (Young) and translingualism (Lu and Horner). This shift is exemplified by Kevin Dvorak’s 2016 handbook chapter, in which Spanish-speaking students in one writing center found social and learning benefits through tutor-prompted codemeshing—a type of study we would like to see more of.

Our study has been framed by observing two related phenomena that stand in tension with one another in existing literature: increased numbers of L2 students on campus and high levels of tutor anxiety about working with L2 students. We find these trends especially curious in relation to our own findings that L1 and L2 students are equally highly satisfied and intellectually engaged during writing center sessions. Based on our study we make three suggestions for tutor training: share empirical satisfaction data; encourage and teach strategies for sustained, focused, two-way intellectual engagement; and incorporate global English concepts. We hope these changes will help address tutor anxiety and promote deeper engagement with the growing numbers of L2 and multilingual student-writers visiting writing centers.


We thank the International Writing Centers Association for two research grants that supported some of the statistical analysis in this piece. We also thank attendees at the European Association for the Teaching of Academic Writing conference in Budapest in 2013 and the NYU Abu Dhabi Writing Studies Working Group in 2016 for their feedback on this project.


  1. In its annual Open Doors report, the Institute of International Education compiles information on the countries of origin of international students in the United States. The CIA World Factbook gathers information on countries’ official and most commonly used languages. Merging this data together, we find that 73% of international students in the US come from countries where English is neither typically used nor one of the official languages (Central Intelligence Agency; Institute of International Education, “International Students by Place of Origin”). We note that English is either an official or typically used language in 68 of 219 countries, although the percentages of English “first language” speakers in countries where English is an official language vary radically (e.g., Belize, 62.9%; Canada, 58.7%; Hong Kong, 4.3%; Liberia, 20%; Malta, 6%; Namibia, 3.4%; Singapore, 36.9%: Central Intelligence Agency), so the percentage of international students for whom English is not a first language may be higher than 73%. We note that although international student enrollment in the US in 2016-17 continued to grow, data from the International Institute of Education showed this was the smallest percentage increase since 2006-07, and enrollments of new international students have decreased (“International Student Enrollment”), due both to tighter governmental evaluation of student visa applications and increased student concern stemming from stronger rhetoric and stricter, changing governmental policies (Saul).

  2. Students may be pursuing studies in English in a non-English speaking country (e.g., Han and Hyland 33; Reichelt et al. 278). However, English is by no means the only non-native language in which students study (Voigt and Girgensohn 65; Heinonen and Lennartson-Hokkanen 42). Our work here focuses on students studying in English and for whom English is not a home or native language. There is debate about the appropriate terms used to describe these diverse students: multilingual writers, translingual writers, English as a Second Language (ESL), English as a Foreign Language (EFL), English as an Additional Language (EAL), English-Language Learners (ELL), English-L2 writers, and non-native English speakers (NNES). Throughout this piece, we use L2 students to refer to students for whom English is not a first or home language and L1 students to refer to students for whom English is their only first or home language.

  3. Scholarly work should—and often does—inform handbooks. The conventional wisdom expressed in handbooks notes that tutors should work with L2 students in the following ways: consider the writer and the whole text; focus on higher-order concerns, not grammar; and treat L2 students as individuals, being sensitive to cultural differences.

  4. Eighty-six percent of four-year institutions provide support for English Language Learners, with 63% of institutions offering peer tutoring and 30% of institutions offering tutoring by professional staff (National Census of Writing; see also Canavan 2).

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UNESCO Institute for Statistics. “Global Flow of Tertiary-Level Students.” UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2016, uis.unesco.org/en/uis-student-flow. Accessed 2 August 2018.

Voigt, Anja, and Katrin Girgensohn. “Peer Tutoring in Academic Writing with Non-Native Writers in a German Writing Center–Results of an Empirical Study.” Journal of Academic Writing,  vol. 5, no. 1, 2015, pp. 65-73, dx.doi.org/10.18552/joaw.v5i1.152. Accessed 3 August 2018. 

Young, Vershawn Ashanti. “Code-Meshing: The New Way to Do English.” Other People’s English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy, edited by Vershawn Ashanti Young et al., Teachers College P, 2014, pp. 76-83.

Williams, Jessica, and Carol Severino. “The Writing Center and Second Language Writers.” Journal of Second Language Writing, vol. 13, no. 3, 2004, pp. 165-172.

Williams, Jessica. “Writing Center Interaction: Institutional Discourse and the Role of Peer Tutors.” Interlanguage Pragmatics: Exploring Institutional Talk, edited by Kathleen Bardovi-Harlig and Beverly S. Hartford, CRC P, 2005, pp. 37-65.

Appendix A: Tables

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Appendix B: Writing Center Student Exit Survey

  1. What was the name of your consultant today? (for internal use)

  2. Have you visited the Writing Center before?

    • Yes

    • No

  3. How did you originally learn about the Writing Center? Check all that apply.

    • From an instructor

    • From another student

    • From a class visit by a Writing Center Representative

    • From a brochure (for those institutions that have them)

    • From a resource fair or other student event

    • From our web site or online schedule

    • Other (please specify)

  4. Why did you decide to come to the Writing Center for feedback on this particular assignment? Check all that apply.

  • My instructor recommended it for this assignment

  • A friend recommended it for this assignment

  • It is a particularly challenging assignment and I thought I could use additional feedback

  • I thought visiting the writing center might help me get a better grade

  • I thought visiting the writing center might help me improve my writing in general

  • I just wanted someone to read through what I had to make sure I am on the right track

  • Visiting the Writing Center is a regular part of my writing process/routine

  • Other (please specify)

The following questions ask students whether they strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with each of these statements, or if the question does not apply.

  1. The consultant made me feel welcome.

  2. During the consultation, the consultant acknowledged and focused on my concerns.

  3. My consultant and I worked well together.

  4. I feel that my consultation was productive.

  5. During the consultation, I felt intellectually engaged.

  6. During the consultation, I made a significant discovery or felt I had a breakthrough about my text.

  7. During the consultation, I made a significant discovery or felt I had a breakthrough about myself as a writer.

  8. During the consultation, the consultant and I shared equally our perspectives and experience as writers and students.

  9. After hearing the consultant's feedback or questions, my writing priorities for this project changed.

  10. Because of the consultation, I have a clearer sense of the next steps for my current writing project than I did before I came.

  11. Because of the consultation, I feel better prepared to handle a similar assignment in the future.

  12. Because of the consultation, I feel like my writing project better reflect my identity as a writer.

The following questions have different possible responses.

  1. I plan to return to the writing center.

  • Yes

  • No

  1. I would recommend the writing center to a friend.

  • Yes

  • No

  1. Please comment on any aspect of your consultation. If you found anything particularly helpful or unhelpful, please let us know. (Students were able to type a personal comment.)

  2. What is your class year?

  • First year

  • Sophomore

  • Junior

  • Senior

  • Graduate student (for those institutions with graduate students who use their writing center)

  • Other

  • Prefer not to specify

5. What is your ethnic origin? Check all that apply.

  • White/Caucasian

  • Black/African-American

  • Hispanic/Latino(a)

  • Asian/Pacific Islander

  • Arab/Middle Eastern or American Indian/Alaskan Native (depending on institutional demographics)

  • Other

  • Prefer not to specify

6. Is English your first or home language? (Students selected one response.)

  • Yes, English is my only first language

  • Yes, English is one of my first languages

  • No, English is not one of my first language

  • Prefer not to specify