Establish Rapport, Assess the Situation, Prioritize and Focus the Session (5-10 minutes)
“Establishing rapport” is what we call the brief exchange you have when a student first sits down to work with you, and it is an essential part of every session. When you first meet a student, introduce yourself and engage in some friendly chat to set up a congenial, relaxed environment. Sessions are short, so it’s important to quickly create a sense of shared responsibility for the work at hand and get a clearer sense of the student. Is she stressed or calm? Is he shy or gregarious? Even a few seconds of small talk can reveal a lot about a person.
The following are a few suggestions for some effective rapport-building questions. As you continue to tutor and meet more students, you will develop your own.
Sample Rapport-Building Questions
● How’s your semester going?
● What’s your major?
● Have you been to the Writing Center before?
● How are you enjoying this class?
● How are your midterms/finals coming along?
Assess the Situation on the Ground
Now turn your attention to the student’s assignment. Remember, you’re the writing expert here, so it’s your job to decide on a game plan for the session. Students will often have some idea of what they’d like to accomplish; however, they may not understand which elements of a paper are most important. They also may not grasp what can feasibly be accomplished in one tutoring hour (“I want to discuss my entire 20-page paper line by line!”). They may not even be aware of all the options available to them in a session, such as brainstorming from a blank page.
Your task is to quickly obtain as much information from the student as possible. The following is a partial list of questions to consider asking.
Sample Assessment Questions
● When is the assignment due? (ALWAYS ask this one right away!)
● Do you have the assignment sheet? (ALWAYS ask this one, too!)
● How much have you written so far?
● How long is it supposed to be?
● Do you have a thesis statement yet?
● What do you want to work on?
Begin your assessment by determining the due date for the assignment and the stage of the writing process: is it an outline, a first draft, or a revised draft? If the paper is due tomorrow and needs a lot of work, then you know you will need to focus on macro issues; if it’s almost complete or the student has a chunk of time before it’s due, then you can address micro details (see Figure 6).
If the student has access to it, review the assignment sheet carefully to make sure that you are clear about its type, purpose, and requirements. It may be useful to ask the student to explain the assignment to you so that you can be absolutely clear the student’s understanding aligns with yours. A student explanation may also be necessary where no written assignment sheet exists (this happens often, especially in upper level classes) or when the student has forgotten it. If there is no assignment sheet, you might wish to remind the student that your feedback is based on their interpretation of the assignment, but the professor will be the ultimate authority.
Prioritize and Focus the Session
Since our sessions are limited to 50 minutes, it is wise to focus on two or three rules, skills, or techniques; attempting more could dilute the lesson and hinder retention. With such limited time, it can be tricky to balance structural issues, sentence-level issues, and the student’s own goals – especially when the paper has many different problems. In order to quickly narrow the focus of your session, we recommend distinguishing between macro and micro issues, using the first paragraph to find patterns of error, and prioritizing accordingly.
Distinguish between Macro and Micro Issues
When identifying and categorizing issues in a student’s paper, it helps to first distinguish between structural issues and sentence-level issues, also referred to as macro and micro issues. Neither is of superior importance; each can confuse a writer’s message. Also, while some issues fall squarely into either the macro or micro camp, the two categories overlap and interrelate (see Figure 6).
Figure 6. Venn Diagram of Macro and Micro Issues
Use the First Paragraph
To quickly assess a paper and prioritize a session, review the first paragraph with the student. The first paragraph often contains problems that arise throughout the student’s paper. However, the first paragraph method is not infallible; some issues won’t arise or won’t appear as a pattern until later in the essay. Nonetheless, it is valuable to consider the first paragraph before moving forward. Specifically, look for the following features:
● A specific, debatable, and clear thesis statement
● Paragraphs of an appropriate length that focus on one main idea
● Vocabulary, word choice, and transitional phrases
● Correct citations
● Grammar and punctuation
Distinguish between one-off mistakes and patterns of errors. The latter often indicate learned errors (rather than momentary lapses by a writer who knows the rule), so use your valuable lesson time on these patterns of error.
“Triage” for Prioritizing Issues
Try to keep in mind the following order of operations. The issues in this hierarchy are ordered from most to least important:
1. Professor feedback, if any
2. Student preference, if reasonable
3. Plagiarism issues, if you catch them
4. Macro issues impeding clarity, e.g. no thesis statement, no paragraphs, no citations (if needed), no topic sentences, and misunderstanding of assignment instructions
5. Micro issues impeding clarity, e.g. misuse of a preposition or omission of commas, rendering the sentence incomprehensible
6. Macro issues NOT impeding clarity, e.g. room for improvement in topic sentences, thesis statement, paragraph organization, and formatting
7. Micro issues NOT impeding clarity, e.g. non-confusing grammatical, punctuation, and typographical errors
Remember, this hierarchy of issues is a guide, not a rigid protocol, so don’t be afraid to deviate from it when necessary to best serve your student’s needs.