Nurses in the Writing Center: A Study in the Dimensions of Resistance

Karen S. Kassebaum

The small research project described in this paper was initiated by a desire to learn more about how students evaluate the services offered by our writing center, particularly in an instance where the instructor is requiring the students to come for conferences. Student reactions to conferences obviously deserve a periodic investigation, but somewhat to our surprise, we discovered that little research on students' evaluation of peer tutoring had been done--or at least published. If we were to understand more clearly how our clients judged our services, we would have to create our own evaluation instrument.

In order to provide a manageable focus for our study, the Writing Center's faculty director and two undergraduate staff consultants decided to study a class of 32 nursing students enrolled in a Bachelor of Science in Nursing program at the small liberal arts college where our writing center is located. All the students were enrolled in a senior-level course which required them to bring their papers to the Writing Center for a conference at least five days before a finished copy of the paper was submitted to the instructor. The other staff member and I designed a two-page questionnaire to seek out problems that the students experienced in this arrangement for a required conference and to provide everyone with an opportunity for expressing any negative feelings they may have been harboring.

The following discussion of this project will suggest that three findings from the survey were consequential to our writing center. First, we compared the consultants' conference summaries with the students' evaluations of the conferences, discovering that the perceptions -of major issues discussed in the conferences were nearly identical. Second, students reported that their experiences in the writing center matched their expectations. Students believing that the conference would be a positive experience were most likely to report having a consultation that was beneficial to the development of their papers; students with a negative impression of the writing center were less likely to find their appointment worthwhile. Finally, the amount of time that the students had to wait for their appointment affected their opinion of what happened in the conference. For the conferences starting after the scheduled appointment time, there was a substantially increased likelihood that the consultation would not be successful. Now, to explore these findings in more detail.

Our survey was administered to a group of 32 senior, female nursing students whose professor required them to schedule an appointment in the writing center. Their assignment was to write a research paper on any contemporary nursing issue. The professor gave the students a specific format requiring the presentation of background information and the discussion of normative issues. Of the 32 nursing students, only nine had previously visited the writing center. The staff members who designed the project and the questionnaire thought surveying this group would reveal how our services would be evaluated by a group of students who had little prior experience with the writing center. Also, we anticipated that many of these students would be hostile or skeptical because the staff consultants' "expertise" was definitely not in nursing issues. The instructor recognized that many students were apprehensive about using the writing center, but she nonetheless required her students to schedule an appointment, arguing that good papers should be comprehensible to outside readers.

Since a large percentage of students had not previously consulted the writing center, the survey was designed to assess students' expectations prior to their conference and their assessment of what happened during the conference. We also asked the students to indicate the amount of time they had to wait for their appointments. The nurses responded to the survey one week after the conferences were held, and the surveys were filled out in their classrooms--away from the writing center environment. Ideally, a precise assessment of any shift in their attitudes would require questioning before their visit, but we did not want students to suspect that these sessions were "under investigation." The peer consultants designing the survey decided to rely on one questionnaire, asking for the students' appraisals concerning the ten-day period when the conferences were held and final drafts written.

Perhaps the most significant finding of the survey regards how students and consultants uniformly perceived their conferences. Staff consultants often feel that students who are required to come into the writing center have the "teflon" attitude--no matter what is said nothing sticks. To determine how accurate this perception is, we compared the students' evaluations of conferences with the staff consultants' "consultant response form," a form consultants fill out after each conference which provides a narrative summary of the primary issues explored in the conference. These forms are standard procedure, so most of the twelve consultants were unaware that these sessions were under study. With regard to the nursing students' conferences, we tabulated what issues the consultants recorded as most significant. Although consultants cited grammar as the most frequently mentioned issue, the summaries indicate the major focal points were not on grammar but on the issues of organization and clarification of ideas. One conference summary explained,

Discussion concentrated on ways to clarify organization of the normative issues section. Considered the possibility of presenting the pro side before looking at the con arguments. Also discussed the need to clarify the reasons why the pro side has the stronger argument.

The survey asked the nursing students to assess the help they received. Of the 34 students, 69% ranked clarification of ideas and 63% ranked improvements in organization as the two areas in which they received the most aid. Seven other issues addressed in the conferences are listed in the order of importance as identified by the students: grammar, style, punctuation, meeting requirements of the assignment, fuller development of ideas, thesis, and APA style and documentation. The close parallels in perceptions among students and consultants may have occurred because all students were required to leave the conference with a photocopy of the completed consultant response form. The form was then turned into their professor with the final draft of the paper. This procedure enabled the students to review what the consultants reported were the critical issues discussed in the conference.

Although the summaries of the conversations in the conferences were analogous, this does not suggest the conferences were all successful. Overall, only 47% of the students reported having an unequivocally positive experience during their conference. The students' responses indicate several factors were working against effective tutoring techniques. One factor restricting the opportunities for effective tutoring was the negative expectations students had prior to their conference. When constructing the survey, we hypothesized that most students' experiences would match their expectations. So one portion of the survey was designed to reveal their opinions of the writing center before arriving. Seven possible answers were provided, and each student marked which response(s) best fit her expectations. Additional space was provided at the end of the list for students wishing to write additional commentary. Two positive responses were available: "session with consultant would help me write a better paper" and "it is a valuable experience having one or more people read a paper before it is to be handed in and evaluated by an instructor." Five other answers, more negative in nature, ranged from "only people with a background in my field could help me write a better paper" to "session would be a waste of time."

Of the 32 students responding, fourteen had positive experiences, eight had mixed results--with both positive and negative answers being marked--and ten had endured an unrewarding ordeal. How the students anticipated the outcome of the conference almost identically matched their eventual appraisal of the appointment. Of those anticipating the conference to be a valuable experience, a majority ranked the help they received as substantial and 65% would voluntarily agree to using the writing center again. Most students with mixed reactions were indifferent about scheduling further appointments (63%). The students who were initially doubtful about their required conference either rejected the suggestion of visiting the writing center again (50%) or were neutral (40%). Nine of the 32 students agreed with the assertion that only people in their field could help them write a better paper.

The data we gathered supported our initial hypothesis that students' expectations would correspond to their experience in the writing center. Students who anticipated positive results had a worthwhile experience while a majority of students who entered with a skeptical attitude did not believe they received much help. The only exceptions to this pattern were four students who reported that they approached the conference with negative expectations but discovered that their conference went better than they had predicted. These students identified fears of sharing their writing, but cited supportive consultants as helping them alleviate these fears. One student stated, "It [my experience] did not match [my expectations] at all, I had a very positive experience. I am less apprehensive about turning my work into the writing center now. It does help to have an outsider critique the paper." Despite the gratification we can find from the "salvation" of these students, the fact remains that most students with pessimistic expectations did not think they had a valuable experience in the writing center. This finding suggests that either the consultants didn't offer the appropriate help, or these students entered with such a mental set against the writing center that they were unreceptive to anything beneficial possibly occurring.

Another factor adversely affecting the communication between consultant and student was any delay in the conference's starting time. In the survey we asked students the amount of time that they had to wait for their appointments. We divided the responses into two groups. The first group was comprised of those surveys indicating that the appointments began either early or on time. The other group was constructed from the responses identifying conferences which began late--including the conferences that were late but began within ten minutes of the scheduled time. The students whose conferences began early or on time showed no significant attitudinal change from their initial expectations regarding the writing center. Except for two students who shifted to more positive attitudes, the remaining students who had expressed negative expectations evaluated the help they received as moderate to minimal. All of the students who would voluntarily schedule another appointment initially felt their appointment would be useful and reported that their conference was a success.

Fourteen people indicated that their appointments began late. This unusually high percentage occurred because most of the group scheduled appointments on the same day due to conflicts with their schedules. This tardiness factor proved either to reinforce the beliefs of those who were skeptical or to affect adversely positive expectations. The students who had positive or mixed expectations of the writing center, but whose appointments were late, felt they received mostly minimal help and were neutral about using the writing center again. The others, already cynical about the value of these tutoring conferences, judged the assistance they received either moderate or minimal, 80% either disagreeing or remaining neutral about making future appointments. Only two students who had negative expectations and whose appointments were late reported a change of heart, indicating they would voluntarily take part in other conferences. In both cases, however, the conferences began within ten minutes. For the remaining twelve students, their opinions remained negative. This analysis suggests that waiting, even for a period less than ten minutes, can adversely affect the student's opinion of what happens in the conference. On the other hand, starting a conference on time tends to reinforce the students' positive expectations. The implications suggest that not being late can be critical in creating a receptive, productive atmosphere.

The nurses' responses to the our survey led us to reevaluate some of our program's assumptions and practices. First, is the energy put forth towards relatively hostile clients worth the effort? Since we have a fully staffed writing center at a small liberal arts college with fewer than 1,000 students, we rely on the traffic that required students bring us. During the past spring term, 69% of the freshmen who voluntarily scheduled a conference in our writing center came from the 30% of freshmen whose instructors had required an appointment in the fall term. We do have "converts," people originally coerced into scheduling appointments who now do so freely. Dealing with students who are initially hostile, while it does have its drawbacks, is worth our time. And with the nursing students, there were the four originally skeptical students whose opinion of the writing center radically changed in finding their conference unexpectedly helpful.

Another issue to be explored is whether consultants need more background knowledge of the papers they tutor. Many students in specialized disciplines enter the writing center with the attitude that only people in their field of expertise can help them. Can we be of assistance to these students or should we refrain from trying to assist them? Current debate in the field has persuasive arguments on both sides. Our writing center, however, has adopted the strategy that even tutors consulting on topics outside their discipline can assist writers in composing papers that should be at least partially accessible to non-specialized readers. Susan Hubbuch summarizes the principle we follow in the Spring/Summer 1988 Writing Center Journal, "So, if we accept the premise that, in academic writing, a paper sinks or swims on the coherence and completeness of the argument it makes, the ignorant tutor, by virtue of her ignorance, is just as likely--perhaps even more likely--than the expert to help the students recognize what must be stated in the text." (28) In the case of the nursing students, especially since the instructor felt that people outside the field should be able to comprehend the papers, the consultant response forms indicate that our tutors probably offered beneficial questions or comments, even if these remarks sometimes fell on deaf ears.

Our study does suggest that writing centers which frequently encounter "teflon-minded" attitudes need to work especially hard at educating faculty, students, and the writing center's staff concerning the possible benefits of talking with peers about their papers. Our survey's data, showing that consultants and students agreed on their summaries of main issues covered in the tutoring sessions, suggest that useful assistance was offered, but apprehensive students were unreceptive to the potentially constructive suggestions, and thus it is questionable how much good was really done. We concluded that our Writing Center would have to work harder at educating students and faculty about our services before students arrived for their first conference.

Since this survey was completed, our program for educating the campus about our services has focused on pursuing several objectives for educating faculty, students, and the writing center's staff about our practices. Strong support of writing centers by instructors can serve as a major factor in persuading reluctant students to at least give the writing center a try. Education of faculty includes helping them understand what typically occurs in a conference and what kinds of changes should (and should not!) be expected after one tutoring session. Our writing center published a biweekly information sheet, sent to all faculty and staff, which includes frequent articles on the subject of peer tutoring, conferencing techniques, and information about writing center policy and procedures. In an attempt to help students understand our operation, we now give a 30-minute presentation to all freshmen at their orientation weekend, introducing some of the ways that students can use a Writing Center. We also published a new brochure and initiated a newsletter that is sent to all students several times each year.

As for the staff consultants, our efforts have focused on helping them understand the fears and misunderstandings a student often has when required to expose her writing to a stranger. The consultants need to take an active role in reassuring the students and making the conference environment as comfortable as possible. Often our job is building the students' confidence, providing the encouraging comments during the conversation which can serve to alleviate the students' hesitancy and skepticism. While we don't know if having a photocopied conference summary always helped the nursing students in understanding the main issues of the session, the opportunity for students to see the consultants' impressions reinforced the session's main points and strengthened the students' perception concerning the practical and most useful results of the conference. Providing students a summary of the conference may give students a visual crutch for understanding what was covered. Starting conferences at their scheduled time is also important for conveying to students that the writing center is a professional, well-organized service that is ready to work with them when they arrive.

Even the best of efforts by instructors, consultants, and administrators will never guarantee the success of all tutoring sessions. We do believe, however, that as we continue to listen to what students tell us about our services (through informal discussions and formal surveys such as this one), we will increase the likelihood of educating future students about the benefits of our services. We do know that if students approach the writing center with a receptive attitude--and if we can manage to start our appointments on time--we have a good chance of conducting successful conferences, even when this meeting of minds was required by an instructor.

Works Cited

Hubbuch, Susan M. "A Tutor Needs to Know the Subject Matter to Help a Student with a Paper: __Agree __Disagree __Not Sure." The Writing Center Journal, 7 (Spring/Summer 1988): pg. 23-30.