Should writing centres encourage students to sign up for group sessions, or should they focus on promoting one-to-one sessions? What are the benefits of working with multiple students, and what is negative about this work? In many disciplines, such as math and science, group sessions are quite common; why is this different for writing?
As a new writing tutor at the University of Winnipeg’s Writing Centre, I found myself asking these questions after a session working with two students at the same time. Despite the training that I received this past fall, which covered topics like working with ESL students or students with learning disabilities, I felt completely unprepared for this situation because we had never covered what to do in a session with multiple students. There is only so much that a training program can cover, and in a setting as dynamic as the writing centre, there will inevitably be situations that have not been discussed in class. However, without this specific training, I couldn't help but feel a little overwhelmed when two students dropped in to go over their first English papers for the term. Not only was this my second-ever tutoring session, but I was now expected to deal with two students at the same time.
At the University of Winnipeg’s Writing Centre, appointments are made on a one-to-one basis, with one peer assigned to one student. The Writing Centre operates in this manner as writing is a highly personal and focused task. As stated on the University of Winnipeg’s Writing Centre webpage, “Peer tutors aim to create a customized session for writers, focusing on writing concerns such as organization, argument development, supporting claims, specifics of working within an academic genre, audience awareness, and developing critical thinking." One-to-one sessions allow tutors to create a more personalized experience, which reflects the often highly personal nature of writing.
Because of our Writing Centre’s focus on one-to-one tutoring experiences, I felt very comfortable when working with an individual and dealing with the associated pros and cons that come with it. Unfortunately, when I was faced with working in a group session, I felt far less certain of how to proceed.
After spending a couple minutes with introductions and general questions regarding their assignment, I told the students that I believed the best way to work in this situation was to take turns working with each of them. I alternated reading though the student’s papers and working with them on specific sections. Whenever I could, I would try to engage the student whose paper I was not working on; for instance, if I noticed an issue that was present in both papers, I would address both students at the same time.
My biggest concern during the session was how to try and keep both students engaged; I didn’t want to work with only one student while the other was left with nothing to do. As a result, I tried to spend as much time going over common elements in both students’ papers as I could. However, sometimes the needs of one of the writers were very different than the other. In this situation, I found it best to spend some time working with one student individually.
Despite some apprehensions about working with more than one student at a time, the session proceeded in an efficient manner. Both students left satisfied with the help that they received, which prompted me to consider if our writing centre should encourage students to sign up for group writing sessions. What a group session lacks in personalization and intimacy could be supplemented by the ability to work with other students and learn in a group setting.
An example of this potential occurred in my group session. While I was explaining a grammatical rule to one student in a variety of ways, I noticed that they continued to struggle with the concept. As the second student listened in, they offered to explain it in a different way. I agreed, and the second student proceeded to explain the concept to the first student in their own words. This proved to be successful; after only a couple of minutes, the first student exclaimed, “I get it now!” and we were able to move on. This experience proved to be valuable for both students: the first student now understood the concept, and the second student reinforced their own understanding by teaching it to their friend.
It is this type of group learning and interaction that marks group sessions as valuable, and I believe that writing centres should strongly consider allowing groups of students to book a session with a tutor. While a group session may not be right for everyone, presenting students with another opportunity to receive assistance in a different way is always a positive thing to do.
Blake Carter is an undergraduate student at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to his studies as an English major, he works as a writing tutor at the University of Winnipeg's Writing Centre.