Saturday, November 03, 2012

Overcoming Reluctance

Maybe I’ve just been extremely lucky, but I’ve never had a student come in “just for extra credit” or because “the teacher told me to” and refuse to actually make any corrections on the paper. Almost every one has come in and been very responsive to the idea that I, as a tutor, might be able to help them improve their writing, if not their ability to write. There was one tutee who came in and I thought might have that perception and a distant attitude, based on the introductions, but quickly became engaged in the session once we started going over the paper.

So, where does the “almost” come in?

While I haven’t had hostile reluctant, I have had embarrassed and “I’m just ready to give up” reluctant. With those tutees, I couldn’t blame them for being so. I really felt sympathetic for the student who brought in a paper that needed quite a bit of work, but he looked like just the thought of having to look at his paper for just one more second would break him. At one point in the session, he seemed close to tears and convinced that he was a terrible writer.

That was when I knew I had to turn on the encouragement. Nothing false, and not sugarcoating over any of the problems, but honestly searching for the positive aspects of his paper and how he could transform it into something better. What truly seemed to help though was telling him that everybody, at some point in their academic career, has struggled with academic writing. Knowing that he wasn’t “stupid” or a “hopelessly bad” writer brought him back from the edge. Explaining that the ability to write well took time and was more a function of practice than intelligence gave him the confidence to continue the session until we finished.

It seems like such a simple concept, that “bad” writers are merely inexperienced, but somehow many people have internalized it to such a negative degree that they can’t see past their own attempts. I’ve read several articles recently about methods of education and how they can be backwards in the United States. In Japan, students are praised for effort, and failure is seen as an attempt to succeed. The author observed a class where the students had to draw a 3D box on paper. One student struggled to draw it properly, and was made to stand in the front and draw it repeatedly until he got it right. According to the author, in a classroom in the United States such a prospect would likely be highly embarrassing and open the student up to ridicule from his peers. The opposite was true for this student, for whom the class applauded when he finally drew the box correctly.

I think it’s very important that, as tutors, we learn to phrase criticism so it is a reflection upon the writing, rather than the writer, even as we are attempting to help the tutee become a writer. Praise effort, not the results or intelligence. It should be our task to help tutees realize that mistakes are just errors, not lost IQ points.


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