Centre for English Language Communication, National University of Singapore
INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND
The Writing and Communication Hub (WCH) by the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC) is created to help students from any discipline improve and increase their confidence in their writing and oral communication abilities. It is clear to the Centre that there is a critical need to support some students in either or both written and spoken contexts. As faculty members usually lack time and expertise to advise students on these skills, the Hub has been filling in the gap. From 2015 to 2019, CELC was tutoring students in-person at the Central Library, CELC and UTown. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the provision moved completely online from 2020 to May 2022. At the end of 2021, WCH hired and trained 9 peer tutors (see three profiles below) across levels and disciplines to provide writing support, to reach a greater student population. NUS Student Work Scheme is the platform used in the hiring process.
The recruited peer tutors are not only highly proficient writers but also friendly, collaborative, and supportive individuals who can converse with others about their ideas and their writing. They also underwent three short sessions of tutors’ orientation and training prior to starting tutoring in January 2022. Using both their own writing experience and the training they receive; these tutors can help their peers develop new approaches to their writing. They can also serve as a neutral first audience for the writer’s work. Both the tutor and the tutee operate within the tertiary context. The tutors are trained to start each session by asking what the tutees’ needs are and to identify the writers’ positions (usually informed by the assignment prompts or requirements).
The approach by the tutors is facilitative, non-directive and conversational. Research has shown that the more dynamic these conversations are, the more the writer is apt to learn (Fitzgerald & Ianetta, 2016). The benefits include fostering a positive and collaborative environment. While tutoring can be a serious matter, it is suggested that through building interpersonal relationships, both parties are more likely to enjoy the process of teaching and learning. Instead of focusing on the errors made, tutors attempt to elicit and offer better word choice. According to Myers (2003), this method aids establishing connections between the language they had and the new language they acquire. This is also particularly useful for ESL and EFL users.
The tutors may not be familiar with the discipline or subject area the writing is on, but using this approach, it enables tutors to work with a range of tutees. In the same vein, both parties often find new ways of clarifying and deepening their ideas. In this reflection post, we, Doreen, Sarah and Amelyn, members of the WCH committee, who worked from AY2122, hope to examine the effectiveness of the online writing provision from the peer tutors’ and tutees’ perspectives.
Feedback from Peer Tutors
We considered several data sources. First, we retrieved data from Week 5 to Week 13 regarding frequency and duration of consultation sessions from Microsoft 365 Excel. In addition, tutees were given an optional survey to complete after participating in each session with a peer tutor. Finally, we checked in with all peer tutors in Week 6, followed up with semi-structured interviews in Week 13 conducted with three random peer tutors to gain a deeper understanding of their overall experience.
To make sense of the open-ended comments from the tutee surveys, as well as the field notes we took during conversations with the peer tutors, we adopted descriptive coding in the first cycle of coding. This allowed us to perceive patterns in the data, with the goal of understanding and evaluating the peer tutoring experience (Saldana, 2016). It also paved the way for content analysis in the second cycle of coding, which helped us to unearth prevalent themes (Krippendorff, 2019).
Consolidating this data was helpful in gaining an overview of the whole semester, in terms of the number of tutees and the hours of peer tutoring sessions fulfilled.
Figure 1. Overview of WCH (Undergraduate) booking system data [Infographic created on Canva.com]
In Week 6, after three weeks of tutoring sessions, we checked in with the nine peer tutors. Five mentioned all was well, and that they were either managing or enjoying their sessions. Five raised concerns that demand would drop in the coming weeks, as they had noticed a trend in bookings. For example, one tutor had four sign-ups in Week 5, but only one in Week 6; another had three in Week 5 and only two in Week 6. Lastly, two gave feedback about preferring the one-hour session to the thirty-minute session, as they were better able to address the tutees’ concerns.
In Week 13, the semi-structured interviews with three peer tutors yielded insights about their perception regarding successes, challenges, and feedback for future improvement. Regarding successes, tutors felt they had gained the ability to notice patterns in tutees’ writing; that enabled them to recognise common problems and give specific feedback in overcoming them. They also found the web resources provided during training helpful as they could choose relevant ones to send to tutees. For instance, they became familiar with citation conventions and knew how to explain the difference between using direct quotes and paraphrasing. However, they found it challenging when they met tutees from different disciplines, especially ones with technical content such as statistical methodology. Regarding feedback for future improvement, technical issues were pinpointed, as all sessions were held online. Specifically, they experienced lagging during MS Teams meetings, and some gave feedback that tutees had requested Zoom instead.
To address these concerns, we made it a point to reiterate in future training sessions that tutors were not expected to be subject experts. Rather, we aimed to equip them with questioning techniques to facilitate a collaborative and reflective experience, without editing or correcting for tutees. As for the technical issues, there was a move away from MS Teams in the next semester. As NUS returned to face-to-face classes, sessions were either held in-person or on Zoom.
Feedback from Tutees
64 survey responses were received in terms of feedback provided by tutees. Out of these responses, an overwhelming majority of the tutees (90%) were undergraduates and the remaining (10%) were postgraduate students. Out of the tutees who were undergraduates, 50% of them were in Year 1. Whilst a diverse group of students from various schools engaged the services of WCH online, most of the tutees are from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Tutees were also asked to provide the name of their tutors, how they found out about WCH services and if they benefitted from the writing services. About 40% of the tutees discovered WCH services through email, with the remaining 35% through their lecturers/professors and 25% through word of mouth. All respondents had positive feedback and highlighted the benefits and usefulness of their online peer tutoring writing sessions.
Figure 2: Tutees from the various faculties/colleges that utilized WCH services
As mentioned earlier, a descriptive coding lens is adopted to identify common themes. As a starting point, a word frequency analysis based on the textual data was conducted using a word cloud generator.
Figure 3: Word cloud based on survey responses of tutees
Based on the close reading of the responses, the peer mentoring sessions helped with the organization of their essays and improved their language, specifically with sentence structure and grammar. The suggestions from their peer mentors also helped to increase their understanding and confidence. Table 1 highlights some of the comments provided by tutees.
Table 1: Qualitative themes that emerged from survey responses
|Improving the flow and organization of ideas||
“She helped me identify gaps within my essay that might have affected the flow of ideas overall. She also gave me ideas on organising the points in my essay better so that it is easier to grasp the concepts that I am trying to bring up in the essay.”
“Through this fruitful consultation session, I gained valuable feedback on how to reorder my ideas, bolster the significance of my paper and improve the overall flow of my Honours Thesis Introduction…”
“…gave ideas on organizing my paragraphs better so that ideas flow and suggested some improvements in my sentence structures so that my points are clearer to the readers…”
” …understanding how to structure my essay better, to start my essay in a more interesting manner, and to observe the logical flow of my essay (which my peer tutor has been able to pick up and explain it to me)”
|Improving aspects of language||
“English expressions, learning different nuance of reporting verbs, the natural flow of English writing”
“The session was quite fruitful, she fixed the grammar issues of my essay and included ideas on how some parts may have lacked elaboration which linked the whole essay together.”
“Grammar, vocabulary or sentence structure, feedback about the effectiveness of your entire document”
” Great feedback regarding the grammar, use of words, and feedback to improve the clarity. Thank you!”
|Useful suggestions that helped with understanding and confidence||
“My tutor gave me feedback on my assignment which was extremely helpful as she highlighted many loopholes, I was not aware of. This gives me more confidence moving forward with my future essays.”
“…helped me to understand the issues in my essay and how I can further improve on it to make it more cohesive. The session was really insightful!”
“…. was really nice and helpful as she helped me to make my essay arguments flow clearer and in general, I was very comfortable in the session as well. I was also impressed by her ability to think on her feet and help me order and link my essay better”
“…was also a great help with improving my lab report. I am very grateful for her guidance.”
” The feedback tutor is very helpful! Many thanks…”
As a preliminary starting point to examine the peer tutoring process in terms of rendering online writing support, it is evident from the feedback that both groups – peer tutors and tutees – were positively impacted through this service. There is a need to flexibly include the online provision even as we return to in-person classes on campus. To build on this, we hope to investigate how we can further enhance the service as the WCH, both the writing and oral communication, and to serve a wider community, including more postgraduate students, faculty, and staff members.
Krippendorff, K. (2019). Content analysis: An introduction to its methodology (4th ed.). SAGE Publications.
Lanetta, M., & Fitzgerald, L. (2016). The Oxford guide for writing tutors: Practice and research. Oxford University Press.
Myers, S. A. (2003). Reassessing the ‘Proofreading Trap’: ESL tutoring and writing instruction. Writing Center Journal, 24(1), 51–70.
Saldana, J. M. (2016). The coding manual for qualitative researchers (3rd ed.). SAGE Publications.