Thinking about the questions we ask students in writing tutorials

As peer writing tutors, we make use of different questioning techniques during tutorials to generate interesting discussions and assist students who come to us at different stages of the writing process to improve their writing. These techniques often vary depending on the student who needs help and the task being examined.  Although we always ask questions, we are seldom conscious of why we ask different types of questions and how useful these questions are in attaining the outcomes of a set tutorial. In this post, we will reflect on the extent to which our questioning techniques have evolved so far this year, or since we started tutoring at the Writing Centre in an attempt to understand the kinds of questions we ask and why as well as how we ask them. Our interest in the approaches to questioning in the context of writing tutoring was sparked by discussions following observations that were conducted as part of a mentorship programme that is ongoing at the UWC Writing Centre.

In terms of starting a discussion with students, we make use of introductory questions to build rapport, glean information on students’ socio-cultural and linguistic background, ease tension, understand and also manage students’ expectations. These types of questions are important in opening up space for conversation and learning to take place. When we meet students for the first time, in order to make them feel comfortable, we ask questions that help us ‘break the ice’ and ‘kickstart’ the tutoring process for both student and tutor. Students respond to us better when we indicate to them that we are interested in their wellbeing as writers and not just in their writing. The focus of such questions is more on getting to know the student as a writer. This gives us an opportunity to understand the emotions that students experience when faced with academic writing tasks. Beard, Clegg & Smith (2005: 235) concur by highlighting the importance of understanding ‘…the affective dimension in pedagogic encounters and the life world of students, and that it is possible to do so without a collapse into therapeutic discourses’. Writing tutorials provide a unique space for students to talk about how they feel about what they are reading and writing about and we encourage them to do that by asking the right questions. These introductory questions also help us to understand student’s own purpose for visiting the Writing Centre and to find out the help that students need in order to improve their writing. For instance, these sorts of questions help tutors distinguish between initial and follow-up tutorials, as well as students who come to us on their own volition and those that are compelled by lecturers and/or tutors to do so. Such information is very useful in informing the strategies that we use to help students understand the process approach to writing which informs our practice.

Introductory questions are usually followed by task and assignment related questions. These include questions that are intended to probe students’ knowledge about academic writing within a specific discourse, as well as their knowledge of the subject matter or content of a specific topic. More open questions are asked to get general information about a topic. Open questions here refer to questions that perform the dual function of encouraging students to talk generally about their writing in order to provide information to the tutor, while also leading the discussion in a specific direction as the tutor can identify gaps or areas for further discussion based on the information provided. Juxtaposing discussions about the task provided and what a student has written in a draft offers a way forward by giving us a sense as to where students need to make revisions. One way in which this can be done is by starting with smaller questions to scaffold into task analysis, always keeping in mind where we want the student to end up in terms of understanding the task at hand. Examples of these would include why, what and how questions. We more often use why and how questions rather than what questions,because these why and how questions shift the discussion from the tutor to the student,  increase the level of engagement between the student and the tutor, and help the tutor to guide the student towards productive answers. Therefore, we ask questions that are carefully crafted to encourage reflection and ultimately to push students’ thinking forward in a process of engaging with and improving their writing. An emphasis on process here indicates we perceive the students who come to us as being on a journey and we help make explicit to them the ways to get to where they need to go through questioning.

For tutors working at the UWC Writing Centre, questioning techniques are negotiated based on the draft received and the student or group of students who sit(s) in front of us during a tutorial. We tend to lean on our intuition instead of having pre-planned questions. However, our intuition is guided by theoretical and practical knowledge of the academic writing process and academic literacies. Therefore, as our conceptual understanding of academic writing has shifted and our confidence has grown, we tend to ask more questions and do less telling during writing tutorials. This approach provides more space for student-centred and learning-centred writing tutorials. What do you think about our approaches to questioning during writing tutorials? What can you relate to and what strategies do you use that are different? We would love to hear from you.

**This post was authored by Thecla Mulu and Lovertte Esambe (peer writing tutors)**

Reference

Beard, C., Clegg, S., and Smith, K. 2005. Acknowledging the affective in higher education, British Educational Research Journal, 33(2), 235–252

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