Open thread: Do writing centers work?

I welcome any responses, anecdotal or data-driven, faculty or student experiences. My question is whether college writing centers demonstrably contribute to students’ mastery of writing. I can see how extra tutoring would help, and the cynical side of me can also see how it might be a matter of trying to outsource work that intrinsically can’t be outsourced or patching up a problem that can fundamentally only be solved through smaller class sizes and more direct attention from faculty. But I don’t have much direct experience or information to go on.

11 thoughts on “Open thread: Do writing centers work?

  1. I don’t have research on this (though I’m sure you could find it), so I have no idea if the results or impact are ultimately “demonstrable.” I think it depends on the writing center, and the person at the writing center who the student makes contact with. And it also depends on the scope and extent of the student’s motivation. I do suggest, from time to time, that students visit the writing center. But I always suggest to them that they should have concrete and specific questions and issues to bring with them. For instance, they should have an actual essay they’re planning to hand in, and they should be able to tell the person at the writing center which elements they would like help with (grammar, structure, etc…) I’ve had students report, to me, that this gets them better results. I think people working in the writing centers don’t always know where to begin. And, ultimately, it’s usually the students with issues in grammar and mechanics that I send to the writing center in the first place… when it comes to things like argumentation, I usually like to give more course-tailored feedback. All of that aside, however, I did have a student tell me just the other day that she will often go in to the writing center on campus before she starts writing papers, just to brainstorm ideas with them and she thinks that this has helped her academic progress.

  2. My anecdotal evidence is that when I had students prepare their drafts and go to the Writing Center to review them, and had the Writing Center report back to me what students went to receive help and how long they were there, the final drafts were much better than either having a draft be prepared and submitted to me earlier in the semester (so that it’s not a end-of-semester procrastination last minute essay) and having no earlier drafts required (papers written within three hours of deadline). By ‘much better’, I mean not only the grammatical and spelling issues, but overall clarity for how the essays argued. ESL students show benefits the most. The people in my Writing Center know me (it’s a small campus) and my pedantic demands, so they know what I’m going to look for and mark.

    This semester I have tried having fellow students in the class read, review, and comment upon one another’s papers prior to submission, submitting the feedback and their response to the feedback along with the final drafts. Peer review doesn’t seem to work as well as having specific tutors in the Writing Center: the students end up congratulating one another on a job well done, make little to no comments about structural or grammatical errors, and point out what they like without expressing why they like it (I don’t know if this is correlated with the use of a Like button for engaging with one’s Facebook peers or not, but who knows what habits we form so easily).

    I do give a lot of time to grading and marking and explaining errors and corrections on papers, but I have small classes to be able to do this. Many students are clearly not reading my comments, though, so a further informal experiment will be offering correction credit (revise & resubmit) for half the difference at most. This reinforces self-correction, but one unintended consequence is likely reinforcing the initial submission of poor papers, receiving my comments, and then resubmitting for more credit—at least for those cunning students who understand how their larger life choices do not always require perfection but passing well enough. Whether this is a good use of my time or the student’s time depends on whether or not our approach to pedagogy is mutual. However, working directly with a student myself has always resulted in better papers, with the next best being working directly with a tutor whom the students have already paid for through their tuition.

    I don’t entirely see it as outsourcing the work, since I consider the tutors to be peers and fellow workers. Working alongside one another in educating our students is what we’re doing, so it’s all in-house. But I see how formally it is distribution of labor that some hold should not be distributed.

  3. My experience comes from working in a writing center in a Canadian university in about 2005, when I was finishing my BA in English (now doing a PhD in the social sciences). I know it was immensely helpful to the people I worked with, most of whom really didn’t understand the basics of writing — they had been taught, but it hadn’t stuck. I would talk them through such basics as figuring out the subject of the sentence, listening to the flow of the sentence to identify run-ons or fragments, and the like. I’d also help more advanced students with more complex questions. At one point, I had several students coming to me who were in classes I was in, and their grades improved precipitously — the professor was duly pleased with the results. This is not easy work and on a few occasions I had to take over from other tutors who were so frustrated with the incompetence of their students that they and their student were both in tears. I’m fairly patient with such matters and found the emotional side fine, but it is painstaking work and not something that can be productively done by professors.

    I later did an MA at a different school (a low-ranked Australian school) and taught a number of classes. I immediately sent almost all of my students to the writing center, only to find out that it was understaffed and barely functioning. I then had to dedicate a lot of class time to basic writing issues. I’m now at an Ivy league school and have not had any comparable problems with students, who are uniformly well-prepared for their work.

    I’m all for writing centers. The fact of the matter in most universities is that there are many students who can barely write. That’s true of many adults with careers as well — it is something we can often avoid doing. Sure, students should have the wherewithal to figure this out themselves, but they don’t, and professors should certainly not be expected to pick up the slack. Charles R’s point about peer-review degenerating into mutual appreciation should be considered as well. And so I can see little reason to oppose writing centers and many reasons to support them. If it is a budgeting concern, there are other resources I would cut first.

  4. A couple of my friends who work at the writing center at my university say they have everyone from undergraduates to doctoral candidates stopping by, but that it’s the people who are already committed to their work and their craft who benefit most from the services the writing center offers. I’ve been told it’s hard sometimes, faced with poorly written papers, to do anything more than correct grammar mistakes and suggest less awkward constructions. At the same time, while it isn’t totally clear how much students are learning from the corrections and suggestions, they always hand in better papers for their having made an appointment with the writing center.

    Sometimes I make appointments just to get another perspective on what I’m writing. Usually I’ll ask questions like Does this transition make sense? Should this information come earlier or later? etc. And I’d imagine (as Beatrice said) it depends on the writing center, too. Ours happens to be quite good, and they employ a lot of smart, motivated undergrads.

    All in all, there’s usually benefits to working with the writing center, but perhaps “mastery of writing” isn’t one of them. (And from my perspective, concurring with Charles, I’d say it’s always better than classroom peer-review, because unless you get paired with a friend, it’s hard to be thorough or critical.)

  5. I work in Academic Skills in Australia and some students certainly benefit from writing advice. The most important work we do is actually around getting students to articulate their argument and then showing that in their writing. We would spend more time on the logic, because that is what substantively affects attainment and higher level learning. We would not correct grammar but teach students techniques to identify their recurrent patterns and self-correct.
    Both of these are quite specialised and high level pedagogical skills that a peer-reviewer is unlikely to be able to offer. Even our ‘Peer Writing Mentors’ are doctoral candidates with TA experience for this reason.

  6. In my experience writing centers often present a similar problem as plagiarism detection software like; it polices, but doesn’t really correct the behavior. All of the writing centers I’ve encountered at various institutions were staffed by peers (and at times, adjunct English faculty), which is fine. However, those tutors have often indicated that students are less interested in “getting it right” than they are in “getting it done.” For students that need remidiation with regards to grammar, mechanics etc, it’s unclear to me that the writing lab is going to do any good as those students need something more sustained and structured than a “drop in” center. For the student that has a vague idea about grammar, citation, organization etc, but can schlock together a paper the writing center is helpful, but for those students who have little understanding of such things, the writing center may just be frustrating and ultimately, counterproductive. This is, of course, going to vary by institutional context etc, but very often the problem isn’t necessarily writing, but rather, I often find that undergraduates haven’t been “socialized” into academic discourse at all. This, I think, may be addressed in a first year seminar type of thing. All in all, I think writing centers do more help than harm, for whatever that’s worth…

  7. Shahar makes a great point, and I think the fact that writing centers do more to “police” writing habits than to socialize students into academic discourse is clearly a significant issue. I’m certainly aware of the fact that I feed into this, when I send my students to the writing center. But my hope and intent, when I recommend that students visit the writing center with their work, is that they might begin to see it as a resource that will be available to them throughout the course of their academic career. Lamentably, perhaps, this is always going to depend both on the experience that the student has when she visits the center itself, as well as the motivation that the student has to improve her writing over the long term… and the time she’s willing and (perhaps more importantly) *able* to put in. If a student has a good experience, and realizes that the help she receives can actually mean marked improvements in grades, there may be a chance that this student will continue to seek feedback. And something like the writing center is really only going to be valuable if the student can build visits to the writing center into her plan for course work, over the following semesters. I’ve been teaching mainly introductory, gen-ed requirements at a large state school. As an adjunct. This means that I don’t have the same students in my class semester after semester. Any feedback I’m able to give them only lasts for the term. And I don’t think it’s possible to really help a student’s writing habits and practices transform, in such a short time period. When I talk to students about the writing center, I try to frame it as a resource that will be useful for a particular assignment… but remind them that it’s a resource they’ll probably want to make use of in the future too, if it’s going to lead to any significant improvements in writing. I think it’s great that students have access to writing help that’s not on offer simply on a more contingent semester-to-semester basis. But I suspect that the number of students who have both the time and motivation to use it in that way is limited. Nonetheless, I’m glad that I can at least tell students that longer-term help is available.

  8. If my students request it—and I make it known to them that the option exists—I’ll have a tutor from the writing centre come to class to do a workshop on essay writing basics. (I primarily teach first year social science [legal studies, criminology] in a small-ish seminar at a Canadian “comprehensive” university.) The tutors are usually MA students in linguistics/applied language studies and they are usually tutoring students with BA backgrounds similar to their own. Mostly the students find the workshop to be a pitch for the writing centre and not especially helpful. However, my students are also unable to say what they are looking for with respect to help other than, vaguely, “with writing.” While I can’t expect a tutor to diagnose an entire class, I’m not convinced my students come out much ahead of where they started. Some of the students go for additional help with the tutors, but I get the impression that the vast majority of them don’t think about the writing centre ever again. Because my courses tend to be comparatively small and because I usually get the same group of students for twenty-four weeks (i.e., two semesters), I make my courses writing intensive and I endeavour to provide detailed feedback. Most students seem to improve their writing during the course, but I’m not sure if that is attributable to my feedback, to them getting help elsewhere, or with them (passively?) learning how to do academic as opposed to high school writing.

    I have also tried peer review, both of drafts and of completed essays. This met with mixed results with some students taking it seriously and most just trying to get it done like any other assignment. I have also tried meeting with each student to discuss a draft of their first essay (I try to get them writing by the third week of September). This seems to have produced better results, although it is extremely time consuming—I usually devote the entire class period to this and usually end up staying a couple hours after the class is over.

  9. The failings of particular centers aside (understaffed, undertrained tutors, etc.) I don’t quite understand why the notion that writing is a specific skill and that there are people that have been specially trained in how to write and how to teach others to write is controversial. Given that most faculty (other than writing/language faculty) have not received special training in writing, I cannot see how they can be expected to be particularly good at helping students with basic writing problems (though of course individual instructors may have acquired this knowledge on their own). It’s not “outsourcing” if you don’t really have the skills to help the student — it’s sending him to a “specialist.” If the specialist is not particularly competent, that is obviously a problem, as is the lack of student motivation, but that does not mean the idea in itself if bad, just that its execution is.

  10. I’m a PhD (literature) student at a school with a strong writing center and long history of innovation in composition & rhetoric, and so I can answer with an unhesitating “yes!” I encourage all of my students to go, and many of them, once they’ve visited once, return when working on later papers.

    But so much depends upon definitions, resources, etc. The writing center at my school isn’t doing work that should or could be done in a classroom; it’s a different beast, in support of classroom work, but also providing a different lens on writing and any particular writer’s process. It’s not even quite tutoring, at least in a traditional sense — in some ways, their process is closer to counseling. Obviously, some sessions go badly, and student motivation matters a lot, but a writing center staffed with people who know something about composition can be a phenomenally valuable resource.

  11. My experience with writing centers both in undergrad and graduate school was not very positive. In both cases I had professors encourage me to go for grammar related things only to be told by the person I met with in the writing center that I just need to proof read better. (Nor did they seem very interested in providing instruction in how to proof read better or to better understand the grammar in question). I got the sense that if I had needed help structuring an argument they might have been more useful but that generally wasn’t my issue. If you are going to send your students to the writing center a lot its useful to have done some investigation about whether what you are referring them for comes under the mission your school’s writing center defines for itself.

Comments are closed.