Tutor Training: Technological approaches considered

By January 16, 2012Peer Writing Tutoring

As a new tutor with one quarter under my belt, it was interesting to see how much time and preparation is put into the reopening of the UCWbL after Winter break. On January 6, peer tutors, writing fellows, receptionists, and directors alike assembled in the Lincoln Park Student Center for the annual UCWbL staff retreat. Over the course of the day, we discussed our goals for Winter quarter and some of our past tutoring experiences.

This continuous ‘training’ and reflection is a practice that takes place in writing centers across the country. This is not to say that all writing centers share the same training methods; there are a wide variety of perspectives on tutor training which result in different approaches. In this post I will reflect on training at the UCWbL and discuss alternative training methods used by other writing centers.

To begin, it is important to note that there is not, nor should there be a universal approach to tutor training. In “Tutor Training Comes Full Circle: From E-mail to Practicum and Back Again,” Matthew D. Klauza from Auburn University explains that it is easy for a writing center to conceive and implement tutor training as a sort of “how-to program” which fails to consider two important realities: “one, all tutors are different; each arrives with a range of abilities, and two, tutors are people with emotional concerns about their new roles…” Klauza is touching on a difficult yet vital question: how can a single writing center create a comprehensive tutor training program when the tutors themselves exhibit such a diverse mix of abilities, experiences, and strengths?

Klauza describes an “e-mail-based mentor program” which the Auburn Writing Center uses to address the concerns of individual tutors. Mentors are paired with two to four new tutors based on their schedule and field of study. New tutors receive emails from their mentors once a week with feedback on individual performance and answers to questions.

In “Training on the Cutting Edge,” an article published by a group of writing center staff including Zachary Dobbins and Heidi Juel, tutor training approaches from universities across the country are compiled and discussed. For example, the University of Texas at Austin Undergraduate Writing Center provides its incoming tutors an online archive of training workshop and consultation videos. Because this writing center has such a large staff, the video archive provides a quick, convenient way for new tutors to expose themselves to the dynamics of a real appointment as well as to instructional material.

Sharon Estes and Alexis Martina discuss the benefits of an online tutor training at Ohio State University in “Taking Tutor Training Online.” The online program was created in response to scheduling difficulties with previous training programs and the inevitable mix of experience levels among tutors who attended them. With a website comprised of interactive modules that focus on specific aspects of tutoring, the program seeks to “individualize” tutor training. Tutors focus on specific modules assigned by administrators as well as on those that capture their interest. Each module requires the tutor to reflect on tutoring practices and experiences. Tutors are also prompted to complete additional training exercises online that are tailored to fit their individual strengths and weaknesses.

Each one of these programs considers some of the difficulties and questions related to tutor training and responds to it a bit differently. The UCWbL’s approach seems to be more traditional and labor intensive than those discussed above. The Writing Rhetoric and Discourse class that every new tutor or writing fellow takes during their first quarter of employment provides frequent opportunities for discussion, reflection, and practical instruction.

I have found my training as a new tutor to be both comprehensive and individualized primarily due to the focus on small group discussions. That said, an online or email-based training program could certainly be a helpful resource for UCWbL tutors and fellows of all experience levels; there are currently few online training resources available for UCWbLers aside from an electronic staff handbook and guides to style and grammar conventions. The UCWbL’s class-based approach takes important concerns and challenges into account, but as our work as tutors and fellows continues to be influenced by technology, it seems likely that more of our training operations will move online in the future.

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • lauridietz says:

    Great post! You point to many of the challenges–both pedagogical and logistical–for implementing meaningful, on-going staff training opportunities. I hope you consider following up on your post with some recommendations for how we might take more advantage of digital environs for supplementing tutor training. For example, I’d love to see some of our tutors who are computer gaming majors develop some tutor games. Are there any peer tutoring video games out there?

    • Thanks Lauri! I like the idea of a fun yet informative (and possibly addicting) peer tutoring video game. I conducted a bit of research, hoping that another writing center might have developed such a game, but didn’t find much, which means the ucwbl could be the first writing center to try something like this!
      As far as orientation and retreats go, I brainstormed potential online approaches to group-based activities; in my experience, group activities always provoke some engaging discourse related to tutoring.

      What if we could create a set of group-based online modules that would present each member with the same scenario, followed by a multiple choice question? The strength of such an activity would be in the multiple-choice responses for each question, which would all be equally valid, making the module a measure of tutoring style, approach, and practice rather than tutor ability or knowledge. Perhaps there would even be room for multiple answers with some questions? This activity would be similar to the group-based paper slip questions we had at winter retreat, but would encourage staff members to talk about the strengths and potential pitfalls for each multiple choice response.

      A similar program could be developed for training outside of all-staff gatherings, perhaps with an email or im chat element for discussion among designated groups of tutors.

      I am going to run this idea by Joe and Mark J. I’m working on a few sample questions—I’ll be sure to post them here when I have some solid material.

  • Mia Amélie says:

    You raise some intriguing points! I’m glad the Winter Retreat led you to considering how Writing Centers and, specifically, the UCWbL “do” training in an online environment. Echoing Lauri, shout out some ideas, create a vision! That said, some other online resources to keep in mind are available under “Resources for Tutors” on the UCWbL’s website, depaul.edu/writing, at http://condor.depaul.edu/writing/tutors/index.html. There are also a few resources for tutors and staff on our digication page, UCWbLcation. Feel free to come talk to Joe, Mark, or myself about how we might revamp these online resources. Maybe hunt down some of those video games Lauri mentioned 🙂

    • lauridietz says:

      I’m so glad you did some research on whether or not their are writing center video games out there as well as offered some ideas for how we might complement our training with more online opportunities. Because we have such a large staff spread across multiple campuses, I do think finding ways to create more professional development and community-building ideas online is become more and more important.

      I think we are poised at the right time to come up with something big and exciting. Conn made the beginnings of a computer simulation writing-based game when he took the Writing Center Theory and Pedagogy course. And, I know the Writing Groups are starting to collaborate with SNL to create some online modules that SNL students can access 24/7 while they are working on their Advanced Projects and Independent Learning Pursuits. I’m curious to see where that goes. And, I recently learned that D2L is getting Blackboard Collaborate, which is supposed to make real-time group-based online interactions much easier. And, the Website & Technology team is learning tons about html and general digital design principles.

      I’d love to set some goals for seeing some of these ideas through.

  • Mia Amélie says:

    Check this out 🙂
    http://www.smarttutor.com/home/