by Erin Vieira, WIC Intern
Thursday, April 2nd, 2020. 4:58pm.
My Zoom screen is already pulled up—it has been for about eight minutes now in anticipation of my upcoming student appointment. Normally, this would be an easy thing for me. I’ve been working at the Writing Studio for well over a year at this point and I’m always looking forward to learning more about what I can do to support student writers. It should be the engaging experience I’m always looking forward to.
But it’s different this time because the Writing Studio services have shifted onto Zoom and it’s my first online session with a student. My anxieties only seem to grow as I see the student pop into the waiting room, right on the dot at 5:00—back then, the ‘your student is waiting for you’ notification in the corner of my laptop screen was unfamiliar. Steeling myself with a deep breath, I accept their request to join and put on my game face, ready to help the student however I can in this new and difficult time.
To put it bluntly it wasn’t my greatest session, as brief as it was.
Our time was filled with awkward pauses and the occasional moment of speaking over one another, with lapses where neither of us knew quite what to say. When the student shared their paper with me on the screen, I found myself staring at it too long, and the silence only seemed to stretch on and on. Compared to our usual studio pedagogy, this approach felt like a whole new beast. I was used to flitting between the students, offering advice where I could give it or sitting down to brainstorm deeper concepts, but now, knowing that an entire hour of my time was dedicated to a single student without being able to step away and return—it was daunting. And, yes, even that classic internet lag seemed to be getting in the way too.
This experience isn’t individualized to just me. Many educators often find themselves attempting to overcome these Zoom silences now that everything’s online. Zoom etiquette takes time to learn, and I’d like to think I’ve improved over the almost three terms we’ve spent using it as our main platform for student assistance. Even so, there is still much we as educators can learn to do for the sake of our students. In our weekly Thursday meetings, the Writing Center staff has spent time strategizing how to better support the student writers via Zoom, with one strategy being a focus on how to better prioritize the student. Thus, I’ve taken the strategy of student prioritization and showcased a few different techniques that I use in order to ensure student needs and goals are prioritized and helping create an active conversation with them.
Techniques for Student Prioritization
We must ask ourselves about the importance of priority. What does it mean to prioritize the student during a consultation? What does that look like?
- Listen to the student
I am not the main speaker in the sessions, the student is. Although this may take some gentle guiding, it is important to encourage the student speak about their experiences and what they find important about their paper. When you’re actively encouraging the student to do so, you’re showing them that you want to actively listen to them and understand where they’re coming from. This also nods towards myself as a writing consultant, as I must recognize the student writer brings disciplinary expertise to the table. Being open about wanting to understand where their expertise lies creates an open channel of communication between the two of us.
Secondly, it can be very easy to talk over others during a Zoom session, which is why I must remind myself to stay quiet when the student is speaking and wait for signals to see if they’re done. I don’t want to dominate the conversation; I want students to speak for themselves. Listening to what the student has to say without interruption shows openness and availability to understand them.
Take these questions in for consideration that I typically ask I student:
Hello, welcome to the Writing Studio [your name]! Can you tell me a little bit about what you’re working on today? “Hi, I’m working on [my paper] today. Let me tell you a bit about that.”
- Ask questions about the student’s goals
Students often tell me that they feel as though they are struggling “in general” with their paper and don’t quite know where to start. It can be difficult to understand where they should start, where their weaknesses lie, or where their focused goal need to be, which is why it’s important to ask some opening questions. Where in the paper do you feel like you are having difficulties? Are there any particular spots you have already received feedback on that you believe need more work? What stands out to you in this paper that you feel like you could work on?
“I’m having trouble with [a certain aspect] of my paper and I just don’t know if it’s good enough.” What is the main goal of the paper? What are you striving to achieve in writing it?
“I don’t know where to start.” Are there any recurring issues you’ve noticed when you write papers? Is it possible this paper has those same problems you’ve had before?
Oftentimes, these questions will bring results, and the student and I can work from there. Other times, they still don’t seem to know where to go and still feel they are stuck on the “in general” problem, which is what leads me to my next point.
- Ask the student to explain their thought process
Not everyone processes information in the same way. I’ve had quite a few sessions where students find themselves being better “talkers” than “writers”, and they claim they have no idea where to start. Even the simplest question, such as “what is your paper about?” or “what are the main points of your paper?” can prompt a train of thought that allows the student to talk their way into realizing the problem they have. In such moments, students will often go on a long spiel about the topic they’re interested in talking about, but they ‘don’t know where to start’. The ideas are in there, they just need to be nudged towards talking about them.
“I guess if I had to pick one, this body paragraph could use some work, but I don’t know what’s wrong with it.” Let’s focus on this section in particular, then. Can you explain to me what the purpose of this paragraph is? Do you feel like you discuss those points well?
- Take notes
While a student is talking their way through an idea, I like to keep a notepad opened on my screen or have a physical one to jot notes down on. Once the student has talked their way through the issue that was brimming in their brain, they’ll often pause and go ‘but I still don’t know where to start’, which is my cue to raise my notepad in success and show that they may already have an entire essay sitting on the tip of their tongue. Then, I go through the notes with the student, help them make more explicit connections between the content they were just discussing, and how to organize it properly. Doing so helps highlight their ideas when they’re struggling and reveals the active ideas they’re sitting on that we can now bring our attention to.
I noticed you mentioned this point when you were talking about the topic. Why don’t we add it to your outline to make sure you touch on everything you want to talk about? Could this help better organize your ideas?
- Acknowledge the strengths and skills of the student
It can be easy for a student to get tangled in what they’re doing wrong. They feel their grammar is lacking, or they never have clean transitions and nothing about the paper feels right. Recognizing where the students’ strengths lie can help them come to understand how to continue using their personal strengths. If I continue to point out all of their weak spots without ever drawing attention to what they do well, they may not even notice their strengths. Taking these strong points and explaining why it works well allows them to continue using techniques they may not have realized they already have.
Although you mentioned you were concerned about your transition sentences, I actually found they were quite strong. The reason they are strong is because you [list the techniques the student uses], which you should continue to do in the future.
- Ask questions about writing choices
On many occasions, students don’t notice why they make certain choices, leading me to questions like “Why did you decide to make this statement?” and “Do you feel as though this is proper analysis?” This reminds the student to take a closer look at their work and dig into their own analysis—an analysis of their analysis, if you will. Question the reasons they decided to portray certain information or how they organized their essay. “Is there a paragraph you feel is more important than the other?” “Which order should these paragraphs go in because of that?”
- Seek weaknesses together, but don’t override their perspective
Students put a lot of trust in me as a writing consultant. Because I am in this position, they are inclined to take the suggestions I give them. This requires a careful balance, as I don’t want to take over the conversation or assume ownership of the paper. It is key to recall that when I suggest something, the writing in front of me is the student’s paper, not my own.
I have a suggestion for adding some information to this paragraph. Do you think this is something that would work well with the topic we’re discussing? Are there any ways you could improve on this idea? Can we consider these options together?
Ultimately, the student makes the final choices in the paper, and I want to highlight their agency, as they have the expertise on the topic. If I am sharing something from my perspective, I need to be clear why it is that I have that perspective and to brainstorm with them to promote their own ideas rather than having them just write down my own. Ask for the student’s opinion on what I’ve offered and be open to change. Empathize with the student’s perspective.
I know you said this feels like your thesis statement is right here, but I actually felt like it was more of a summary. The reason I feel like you’re summarizing rather than making a claim is because of these reasons. How could we adjust this to make it feel more like a claim?
Looking to Future Sessions
Thursday, February 11th, 2021. 4:58.
With my Zoom screen pulled up, the cold feeling of anxiety has all but left in favor of anticipation as I see the student join my waiting room. This time when I welcome them into the studio, I’m not bracing for impact—I’m opening up my mind to a new experience that the student will be carrying with them in their future writing career.
In the end, making the student feel heard is my main priority. By trusting our service and choosing to get assistance with their writing, students are allowing themselves to be very vulnerable. It is crucial that I am constantly reassessing the way I choose to go about my consultations to ensure that I am helping the student to the best of my ability. Despite the added challenge of Zoom, using the techniques for prioritizing the student, such as listening to the student, asking about their writing process, etc., has allowed me to better my consultation strategies to give my students something that’s worth their time and allows them to take away strategies from the consultation to use in their future writing.
And there are fewer awkward pauses, too.