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Improving Your Students’ Writing Skills

How do I request an in-class presentation from the Writing Centre?

To request an in-class presentation, please use our ONLINE FORM. Book early to ensure availability.

An in-class presentation is an excellent way to prepare your students for an upcoming assignment. Each year, the Writing Centre delivers between 30-40 such presentations. Faculty can request presentations on various writing-related topics, including

  • Essay 101: The Fundamentals of Essay Writing
  • Finding and Using Sources
  • How to Construct a Thesis Statement
  • How to Plan to Write a Research Essay
  • Avoiding Plagiarism: Summarizing, Paraphrasing and Using Quotations
  • Grammar Refresh: Sentence Structure and Punctuation Basics
  • Writing Clearer Sentences/ Avoiding Common Sentence Errors
  • Citation Styles

Presentations run between 30-80 minutes. They can be created or adapted for your courses, and are most effective when designed and timed around particular assignments.

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What happens during a tutoring appointment at the Writing Centre?

Our tutors can assist students at any stage of the writing process, from understanding assignment instructions to brainstorming ideas, developing outlines, and revising drafts. We can teach students how to properly punctuate and structure a sentence; we also help students learn how to incorporate other sources into their own writing responsibly through paraphrasing, quoting, and citing.

Appointments are 50 minutes long. At the beginning of an appointment, the tutor will ask the student what they would like help with; the tutor will also ask to see any assignment guidelines the student has received. If the student has brought a draft to read through, the tutor will read a paragraph or two at a time, making notes on his or her printed copy, and then stop to discuss these notes with the student before moving on. If the student is at the planning stage, the tutor will ask the student a series of questions, often jotting down the student’s responses; together, they will then review these notes and develop a rough outline, research plan, and/or thesis statement. If the student is seeking general information on a writing topic (e.g. basic essay structure or APA style), the tutor will likely review the relevant handout with the student and answer any questions.

How can I be sure that the writing tutors won’t just rewrite my students work?

We understand that it’s important for students’ writing to reflect their own voice, abilities, and knowledge. For this reason, writing tutors are trained to edit and educate, rather than simply rewrite students’ work. Tutors are given clear guidelines regarding how to engage with students and the level of editorial intervention that’s appropriate.

Unacceptable tutoring activities include, but are not limited to:

  • influencing the ideas or opinions expressed in a student’s assignment
  • supplying alternate phrasing
  • making direct changes to a student’s print or electronic document
  • allowing a student to copy comments/corrections from a tutor’s own sheet.

If a passage in a student draft is unclear, the tutor will review that section with the student, ask them open-ended questions about their intended meaning, and have the student supply alternative wording. If there is an error or inconsistency, the tutor will point it out, explain why it is incorrect or inconsistent, and discuss ways to resolve it with the student. In all cases, the student is left to decide which changes to adopt, and how to implement those changes in their own draft.

In any given appointment at the Writing Centre, the following levels of editing may take place:

Developmental editing

…which is helping the student

  • select a topic
  • generate ideas by asking questions
  • decide which ideas to pursue and discard
  • develop an outline or proposal
  • locate sources

Substantive|structural editing

…which includes

  • pointing out problems in organization
  • querying gaps in logic or argument
  • suggesting the author add definitions or examples, expand explanations, or provide more background info
  • drawing attention to internal inconsistencies (inconsistencies within the paper)
    • e.g. factual inconsistencies
    • e.g. inconsistencies between evidence provided and the author’s interpretation of evidence
    • e.g. inconsistencies in tone
  • looking for incomplete or missing references (i.e. plagiarism)

Language|line|stylistic editing

…which entails

  • identifying and helping the author understand and correct errors in grammar, syntax, usage, and diction
  • pruning redundant or indirect phrasing
  • substituting stronger words for weaker ones
  • removing unintentionally biased language

Mechanical editing

…which encompasses

  • catching typos and spacing errors
  • checking format of in-text citations and bibliographies
  • noting inconsistencies in spelling, capitalization, hyphenation, and punctuation
  • standardizing treatment of numbers and use of abbreviations or acronyms
  • applying consistent styling of special elements (e.g. headings, lists, tables, charts, and graphs, use of bold or italics)

In this sense, the students at our Writing Centre receive the same types of editorial assistance that many faculty authors receive from their peers, reviewers and press staff during the publication process: the only difference is that writing tutors have the added goal of helping student authors develop long-term strategies for preventing and fixing common writing problems.

Can a writing tutor help my student understand readings or concepts from class?

No. Although they excel in their own studies, writing tutors are not content experts; to prevent plagiarism, they are also prohibited from influencing a student’s opinion, correcting inaccuracies, or significantly altering the ideas in an assignment (see above).

Students struggling with course content should instead seek help from peer tutors. STU students can receive up to 2 hours of free peer tutoring per week in any subject.  Peer tutors are successful upper-level undergraduate tutors who are either honouring or majoring in the subject they tutor for. They have already completed the courses they tutor for and received an A- or higher in those classes; their applications for peer tutoring have also been endorsed by at least two faculty within the department.

The Peer Tutor Contact List is posted to the STU website in late September (stu.ca/peertutors). This list identifies the tutors assigned to each subject along with their email addresses. Students who need a tutor should consult this list and contact a peer tutor directly to set up an appointment. Because peer tutors are students too, they may be very busy during certain weeks of the semester. For this reason, students should not wait until the last minute to seek help.

Possible tutoring activities include

  • reviewing class readings and concepts
  • helping a student review and organize his/her notes
  • completing not-for-credit practice exercises.

In order to ensure that a student’s work reflects his/her own knowledge and abilities, peer tutors are not permitted to help students complete graded assignments, nor are they qualified to edit or proofread student essays. (Students who need help with written assignments will be directed to the Writing Centre.)

If the tutoring needs for a particular course are not being met, the student or faculty member can contact the Writing Centre Coordinator at writingcentre@stu.ca or 452-0480.

What kind of training do the writing tutors have?

The Writing Centre hires upper-year undergraduates, as well as graduate students or those completing a post-degree program (e.g. BSW, BEd). At the time of hiring, our tutors must have a grade A average in the subject they are majoring or honouring in; a firm understanding of the conventions of academic writing, including essay structure, vocabulary, and grammar; working knowledge of academic citation (MLA, APA, and/or Chicago style); and excellent written and spoken communication skills. Applicants undergo an interview as well as two diagnostic tests during the hiring process.

Once hired, our tutors take part in an initial 2-hour orientation that outlines relevant university policies (especially Section 7.E.1.I on Academic Misconduct), office procedures, and the ethics of editing. Throughout the year, they also receive an additional 10 hours of training, which can include group benchmarking sessions, grammar and punctuation refreshers, and guest-led presentations on non-academic writing genres (e.g. writing for journalism, résumés and cover letters, personal statements).

Should I make it mandatory for my students to attend the Writing Centre for a particular course or assignment?

No. At our current capacity, the Writing Centre offers between 35-45 appointments per week. In the interest of serving as much of the student body as possible and preventing blackout periods, we ask that instructors not make it mandatory for their students to attend the Writing Centre. We have also found that students are more receptive to feedback when they seek help voluntarily. However, word of mouth and direct referrals from professors have proven to be quite effective in motivating students to use our services: see below for other ways to encourage them to see us.

If you are concerned about preparing your class for a particular assignment, you can meet with the Writing Centre Coordinator to discuss the assignment guidelines in advance and ensure that you’re communicating your expectations clearly. You can also request an in-class presentation, which can provide an opportunity for mediated discussion of these instructions and advice on how students can approach the writing process for this particular assignment.  Because they are preventative and wider-reaching, these strategies tend to be more effective — and they often lead students to book follow-up appointments with us voluntarily.

How can I encourage my students to attend the Writing Centre?

Despite our best efforts at advertising our services directly to students, a whopping 52% of survey respondents who attended the Centre in 2015-2016 had heard of us from their professors. Faculty referrals can therefore make all the difference.

If you don’t mind extra padding in your syllabus, you can include these blurbs about the academic support services at the beginning of term.

You can also mention the Writing Centre in your assignment guidelines and/or add a link to our site (writingcentre.stu.ca) on your course Moodle page.

Referring struggling students to us in your written feedback on assignments, or mentioning us during student conferences, can also be very effective.

How can I confirm that a student has attended the Writing Centre?

The Writing Centre tracks appointment data for internal purposes. However, if you would like proof of attendance (e.g. for extra course credit, participation marks, or as a condition for a re-write), please notify your students of this in advance. At the beginning of the appointment, the student will fill in an appointment form in duplicate and receive a hard copy that they can submit to you.

Appointment forms list date and time of the appointment; the student’s name, ID number, email, and year of study; the course the student is seeking help in; the reasons for seeking help; as well as the tutor’s name and the writing topics covered during the appointment.

Are there any other writing resources available that I can use in class?

We are slowly migrating all resources to this web page.  For now, the Writing Centre Resources Moodle page hosts all 50+ handouts on a variety of writing-related topics. Faculty are welcome to repost these in PDF form or print and distribute them to students in class. Online grammar lessons and how-to videos can also be found on that site.

Why doesn’t the Writing Centre assist with take-home exams?

We don’t assist with take-home exams for several reasons. Some of these reasons are practical; others are based on existing policies.

Due to restrictions on JOBS grants, our undergraduate tutors are unable to work after the last day of classes each term, which means our tutoring hours are reduced by 50% during exam week. During this time when we’re short-staffed, we feel our priority should be serving those students who are working on final papers that follow an essay or research paper format (which is what we specialize in), rather than take-home exams that tend to follow a short-answer format.

Furthermore, exams usually test comprehension of course material (rather than composition, argument, or research skills), and since the Writing Centre doesn’t provide assistance with content per se, we aren’t able to help students significantly improve their performance on exams. Exams also provide faculty with a rare opportunity to test a student’s understanding of course material, unaided. We don’t provide assistance on seated exams, as this would violate STU’s policy on cheating and plagiarism; for the same reason, we don’t feel we should be providing assistance on take-homes.

To avoid confusion on which assignments are or are not eligible for Writing Centre help, reserve the term “take-home” for final assignments that follow and exam-style format (e.g. multiple questions with shorter answers) and that are designed with the purpose of providing a comprehensive review of course material.