For six years before I embarked on my Great TEFL Adventure, I worked as a tutor in the Kennesaw State University Writing Center. During the last few weeks I’ve been back in the States, I’ve been collaborating with some of my friends and former writing center colleagues on a presentation we’re preparing for the 2012 Southeastern Writing Center Association (SWCA) conference in Richmond, KY. Although our presentation is on a different topic altogether (more on that in a future post), working with them has gotten me thinking about the way writing is evaluated by writing center tutors.
The principal job of a writing center tutor is to help students increase their skills and abilities as writers. One important role a tutor with this this goal must assume is evaluator of writers’ work, and a corresponding role is guide to help writers learn to evaluate their own writing. These two goals are more easily stated than carried out, and tutors have to consider the challenges involved ahead of time in order to overcome them.
It’s important to note that it is beyond the responsibility of tutors to assign, or even suggest, grades for the papers they evaluate. The nature of the evaluation that takes place in a writing center is different from the evaluation done by teachers, who do grade student writers’ work. Although a writer’s skills are evaluated qualitatively by a writing center tutor, this evaluation is for the purpose of helping the writer learn from mistakes and build on strengths in order to improve.
To evaluate a writer’s paper, a tutor must first determine the nature of the assignment. Just as a freshman student seeking help with an essay for a composition class requires a different kind of help than an upperclassman working on a major research paper, the nature of the evaluation of the writing also changes. The tutor must evaluate the nature of the assignment itself before examining the writer’s response to the assignment for two reasons: first, it is necessary to make sure the writer has written a paper that meets the requirements of the assignment; second, the tutor must be in the right mindset and looking for fulfillment of the “right” criteria in order for his evaluation to be of use to the writer.
Tutors should always strive to foster an atmosphere of open, honest communication in order for the evaluation they do to be accepted by writers; if tutors’ comments are ignored or dismissed, whether because writers are apathetic (which is relatively rare in a writing center) or intimidated (a more common scenario), then the tutors’ evaluation will be wasted for all practical purposes. Writers must be made to feel comfortable asking and implementing the answers to whatever questions they may have.
Sincere praise, in addition to balancing out the criticism that is almost always necessary to some degree, should be specific so the writer knows exactly what he has done well. Also, the tutor should make it clear not only what “works” in a paper; he should also explain why he noticed it, how the writer himself can identify it, and how the writer can use the effective device as a model to do the same thing to make his writing stronger in the future. By helping a writer understand not only what he is doing well but also why it is good and how to repeat it, a tutor can ensure that his evaluation of the writer’s work serves as a motivational, rather than lifeless, lesson in writing well.
The evaluation that writing center tutors perform is complex in nature and dependent on many variables, from a writer’s ability to the genre of his paper. Tutors should be prepared to work with and effectively evaluate the writing of all writers who seek their assistance. A major goal of a writing center tutor is to evaluate writers’ work fairly while imparting the knowledge so that, in time, writers themselves will be able to confidently and effectively evaluate their own work.