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Students' Writing in Transition, September 2010
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Supporting Students’ Transition to
University Writing
The role of peer writing mentors
Kathy Harrington and Peter O’Neill
Write Now Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning
London Metropolitan University
3rd Annual Students Writing in Transition Symposium
Nottingham Trent University
September 2010
London Met Writing Centre
• established in October 2006 with CETL grant funding
• objectives:
– avoid institutional duplication (existing Learning
Development Unit)
– offer something innovative in context of UK
writing support
– conduct research into effectiveness
– evaluate a model of student-led writing support
that might be implemented in other HEIs
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More specifically...
• We wanted to:
– support students’ transitions to the next step in
their academic and disciplinary writing journeys,
whatever their starting point
– help students feel more confident and competent
as writers in a university context
– facilitate students’ learning and engagement with
the subject matter of their studies
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Welcome to the
Writing Centre at London Met
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZnZ0Yn5OuZs
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Origin of Writing Mentor schemes
• US experience: writing centres served by
“peer tutors” – up to 20000 tutorials per
semester.
• Relationship to US Comp programmes and
“Rhetoric and Composition” theorising
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US responses to “student writing”
• US “Freshman Composition” (Harvard 1874)
and Writing Labs (Writing Centres)
• WAC / WID / CAC
US response assumes that attention to writing is
for all students and integral to the curriculum.
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Supplementary writing support
• Writing Centres and peer tutors
• Bruffee: “near desperate response” of US institutions in 1970s to nontraditional/under-prepared students (open admissions etc).
• “Why Johnny can’t write”… (Newsweek, 1975)
• “The common denominator among both the poorly prepared and the
seemingly well-prepared was that, for cultural reasons we may not yet
fully understand, all these students seemed to have difficulty adapting to
the traditional or ‘normal’ conventions of the college classroom” (1984
p.637)
– “it was the traditional classroom learning that seemed to have left
these students unprepared in the first place. What they needed… was
help of a sort that was not an extension but an alternative to the
traditional classroom” (1984, p.637)
• Alternative to traditional classroom needed
• Peer tutoring and collaborative learning, influenced by British school
education in 1960s (1984, p.636-37)
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Widening participation
• Cf. UK context 1990s and 2000s – expansion of
HE/WP has parallels to US 1970s experience.
• Lamentations about writing: psychology lecturers in
THES bemoaning “appallingly bad” written English
(Newman 2007)
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Writing Matters
• No optimistic gloss can be put on it. No artfully crafted
explanation will work. Large numbers of contemporary British
undergraduates lack the basic ability to express themselves in
writing. Many students are simply not ready for the demands
that higher education is making – or should be making – of
them… There may be debate about the causes, and about the
prognosis, but there is unanimity about what the fellows have
seen. The single word that crops up more than any other in
describing what they have found on entering higher
education institutions is “shock” (Murray and Kirton, 2006
p.7)
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Using peer writing mentors
• St Mary’s University College, Belfast (number
two in recent national student satisfaction
survey)
• UCL postgraduate scheme
• More recent schemes being implemented
• But not without some controversies…
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Responsibility for writing instruction
• LDU: cf. Devet and Orr (2006) – LDU: more life experience;
less “middle-class” and “mono-lingual”; do not see
themselves as “better” than students they are working with;
equally capable of non-directive pedagogies (n.b. may reflect
unique context of an elite art school)
• RLF Writing Matters: “Writers themselves, however, are the
best teachers of writing…” (Angier and Palmer, 2006, p23)
• Role of peer tutors
• Role of lecturers
Complementary role of these?
Need to know more about what happens in an LDU tutorial, an
RLF tutorial, a writing centre peer tutorial.
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Adapting the US experience: discipline
specific
• Cf. US experience
• UK disciplinary degrees
• WC online booking (screenshot)
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Towards “Writing Mentors”
• “It should be careful noted that in forming a
mentoring relationship the point is not to
create dependency but to promote selfdirection. A mentor may serve as a catalyst for
change – but when a goal is achieved or a skill
accomplished the partner must be able to
own the achievement as their own” (Ender
and Newton 2000, 16-17)
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Rationale for Writing Mentors
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Rationale 1: London Met and
retention/widening participation
• Vincent Tinto (drawing on Durkheim's work on suicide - which
he considered to be analogous) argues that it is above all
successful integration into the academic and social culture
that brings about what he calls "student persistence". By
contrast, failure of students to integrate academically and
socially is the main predictor of withdrawal.
• Academic component alongside traditional mentoring
programmes.
• Yorke and Longden on student retention: poor choice of
course; financial difficulties; unsatisfactory learning
experiences.
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Rationale 2: AcLits
• Need “to move away from a skills-based, deficit model of
student writing and to consider the complexity of writing
practices that are taking place at degree level in universities”
(Lea and Steet, 1998, p157)
• Writing not a skill to be mastered but an issue “at the level of
epistemology and identities” (159) and literacies as “social
practices” (159)
• AcLits pedagogies: Lillis – likely to involve dialogues between
student-writers and tutor-readers which “enable participation
in dominant academic literacy practices as well as provide
opportunities for challenging aspects of such practices” (Lillis,
2006 p33)
• Role of lecturers
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Social constructionism/AcLits
• Lecturer should help students understand
complexities of discipline and enable them to
become better disciplinary writers
– addressing “epistemological assumptions”
– demonstrating “how knowledge is constructed in the specific
discipline”
– making “it explicit that students are not recipients of, but active
contributors to knowledge”
– demonstrating “rhetorical processes in academic writing, for instance
ways of integrating one’s own voice with existing knowledge”
(Wingate, 2006, p464)
• Role of peers – informal space to negotiate dominant
literacy practices expected of students
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Rationale 3: Cognition
• Reflective thinking emerges out of internalisation of
public/social talk/conversation (Vygotsky)
• Bruffee: “If thought is internalised public and social
talk, then writing of all kinds is internalised social talk
made public and social again. If thought is
internalised conversation, then writing is internalised
conversation re-externalised” (p641).
• Need for good talk around writing: role of talk in
clarifying thought as well as in allowing participation
in and contestation of academy (AcLits)
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Rationale 4: Collaborative learning
• Move to collaboration reflects an epistemological shift away
from seeing reality and knowledge as exterior, immediately
accessible and unproblematically knowable. Instead, we now
view “knowledge and reality as mediated or constructed
through language in social use, as socially constructed,
contextualised, as, in short, the product of collaboration”
(Lunsford, 1999 p.4)
• For real collaboration, hierarchies inherent in traditional
university serve as obstacle: hence peer tutors as ideal
collaborators for student writers
• Zone of proximal development (Vygotsky)
• “I’m very pleased. This mentor is great. We had a long session
today, probably longer than either of us expected but we
made it through and I’m well on my way with my essay”
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Rationale 5: Voice / confidence
• Role of informal encouragement and feedback
“We talked a lot about writing in German and in English, as she is a native
speaker of German … and Hanna felt she eventually reconnected with the
ability to say what she wanted to say.”
“I felt that my session went very well and am very pleased. Before attending
the tutorial I didn’t believe that I could write a coherent conclusion. By the
end of the tutorial I have a new found confidence in my ability. I also
found that I understood more about the module than I did initially”
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James Berlin: four theoretical
paradigms for teaching composition
•
•
•
•
Current-traditional (writing as product/correctness/form)
Cognitive (thinking process). Cf. Vygotsky/Bruffee
Expressionist (developing voice/identity/argument)
Social constructionist
(Carino 2008, p. 125f)
Devet: peer tutoring encompasses all these approaches except
current-traditional (but might it not in fact also encompass
this?)
“It was very useful. It really helped me specifically for
references and bibliography. I now know how to write an
introduction. I have some examples of bibliography, as it is
important for the reference and bibliography system.”
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From rationale to reality...
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Number of tutorials conducted
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Who comes for a tutorial?
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Students’ first language
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Students’ areas of study
4 (2009-10)
95
3 (2008-09)
109
87
60
99
77
Year
80
99
2 (2007-08)
52
1 (2006-07)
39
87
0
100
50
98
70
200
Applied Social Sciences
Humanities, Arts, Languages & Education
Law, Governance & IR
Art, Media & Design
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101
300
25
400
500
600
Computing
Life Sciences (includes Psychology)
Business School
Not stated
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London Met and the Writing Centre
1st
year - 2006-07
• approximately 400
students
• approximately 675
tutorials
A comparison of gender distribution of students at
London Metropolitan University and the Writing
Centre in 2006-07
Females
London Met
Males
0
The ethnic group distribution of students who visited
the Writing Centre in 2006-07
35%
20
60
80
White
Asian
3%
40
The ethnic group distribution of students at London
Metropolitan University in 2006-07
21%
2%
Writing
Centre
45%
Black
White
Mixed
Other
55%
Non-White
Not Stated
22%
17%
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Research into scheme
• importance of evaluating effectiveness
• need for an evidence-based approach
• dissemination and impact
– lecturers
– students
– senior managers
• informing ongoing practice
• since 2006, engaged in multi-phase study
investigating effectiveness of peer writing tutorials in
context of UK Higher Education
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Aspects of research
• Phase 1: mentors’ experiences
• Phase 2: students’ experiences
• Phase 3 (ongoing): relationship between peer writing
tutorials and student learning, achievement and
retention
– “Mentoring for Success” project (Aston University)
• includes focus on specific students who may be at a higher risk of
dropping out (mature, disabled, first generation)
– Tutorial recordings archive
– Göttingen exchange: international students’ experiences
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Phase 1: mentors’ experiences
What did mentors’ comments reveal about what
was taking place in the process of a peer writing
tutorial?
• qualitative study, Oct 06 – Dec 07
• thematic analysis of open-ended comments
following 674 hour-long tutorials, with 400 students
– Informed by Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis
(IPA) (Smith & Osborn, 2003)
– Prompt: “Please reflect on your session. (E.g. How do you
feel you were able to help the student? What could have
gone better?)”
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Phase 1 - findings
What makes for a successful tutorial from the
Writing Mentors’ perspective?
• Four broad themes emerged from analysis of mentors’
reflections
• Theme 1: Interpersonal relationship between student and
mentor
–
–
–
–
Building a rapport
Encouragement/emotional support
Setting expectations
Non-directive enabling
• Theme 2: Student’s relationship to own writing
– Confidence/anxiety
– Finding own voice
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Phase 1 – findings continued
Theme 3: Student and mentor working together
– Collaborating/writing together
– Informal talk
Theme 4: Mentor self-reflections
– Challenges
– Satisfaction
• Overarching importance of relational and collaborative
aspects of learning, affective and practical dimensions
– between mentor and student
– between student and writing self
– between mentor and reflective self
Findings informed training for year two of Scheme, 2007-08
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Phase 2: students’ experiences
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Phase 2: Students’ experiences
To what degree did students feel that the mentors
provided an environment supportive of their own
writing development?
•
•
•
•
motivations for attending tutorials
specific writing concerns and degree addressed
students’ attitudes to own writing before and after tutorials
nature of relationship between student and mentor
• qualitative and quantitative study, Oct-Dec 07
• cross-sectional survey via online questionnaire (n=99;
representative of Writing Centre users)
• descriptive statistics and inferential tests
• thematic analysis of open-ended responses
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Students’ satisfaction
Students' degree of overall satisfaction with
the tutorials they have had (n=67)
2%
7%
Very
satisfied or
satisfied
91%
Neither
satisfied nor
dissatisfied
Dissatisfied
or very
dissatisfied
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Motivations for attending
Importance of factors influencing
students' decisions to book their first
tutorial (n=77)
0
20
40
60
80
100
Wanting
encouragement to help
me stay motivated
Being able to talk about
my writing with
someone else
Wanting assurance that
I'm on the right track
A lecturer's
recommendation
Very or fairly important
Neither important nor unimportant
Only a little important or not important at all
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Specific writing concerns
Students' reasons for booking their first tutorial (n=78)
[multiple answers per student possible]
A d d r e s s i ng t he q ue s t i o n
C r i t i c a l e v a l ua t i o n/ a na l y s i s
D e v e l o p i ng a n a r g ume nt
M o t i vat i o n t o w r i t e
W r i t i ng p a r a g r a p hs
R e f e r e nc i ng
S p e l l i ng , p unc t ua t i o n a nd g r a mma r
C o nt e nt
S t r uc t ur e
U s i ng e v i d e nc e
W r i t i ng i n a n a c a d e mi c s t y l e
S ub j e c t - s p e c i f i c w r i t i ng
O t he r
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
%
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Specific concerns met?
Degree to which students' felt that the reasons for
booking their first tutorial were addressed (n=77)
11%
6%
Very or
fairly well
Not sure
83%
Not very
well or not
at all
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Students’ confidence as writers
Students' self-ratings of confidence about their own writing
BEFORE/AFTER coming to the Writing Centre? (n= 68/69)
20
AFTER
BEFORE
15
10
5
Ex
tr
Ex
tr
em
em
el
y
el
y
un
co
co
n
nf
id
f id
en
en
t
t
0
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Students asked: What did you like most
about your tutorials?
Thematic analysis of open-ended comments (n=66)
1.
Mentor’s approach/process of sessions
–
“laughed about things like bibliographies, and learnt
about it together, as she was not sure how it worked either”
25.8% (17)
2.
Received “help” or “feedback”
25.8% (17)
3.
Non-judgemental atmosphere/tone of sessions
18.2% (12)
4.
Learnt an aspect of academic writing
–
“building argument and critical analysis”, “how to structure”
10.6% (7)
5.
Attitude to self/writing as a result of session
–
“got more confident about my writing”
7.6% (5)
6.
One-to-one nature of sessions
6.0% (4)
7.
N/A
3.0% (2)
8.
“don’t know”/”one-off”/other
3.0% (2)
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Disciplinarity of tutorials
80
Degree to which students found it helpful to have a
Writing Mentor from A DIFFERENT/THE SAME subject
area (n=66)
68.8
70
60
50
40
30.6
30
25.4
23.8
20.3
20
16.4
13.1
10
1.6
0
Very or fairly helpful
Neither helpful nor
unhelpful
different subject
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Only a little helpful or not
helpful at all
N/A
same subject
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Students’ comments
On improved confidence in own writing
•
It was fantastic when I found my personal abilities for writing during the tutorial.
•
The session has really helped me. My mentor…helped me understand how to structure
an essay properly…and identify strengths of mine, as I’d only been able to identify
weaknesses. The session has given me the confidence to believe that I can get a good
mark on this module assignment.
On benefits of peer discussion around writing
•
The session was very helpful. I really enjoyed discussing my paper and finding ways to
improve it.
•
The discussion between my mentor and me is motivating me to get better in my
writing style.
•
With her help, I locate my problem and find the solution. I really enjoy this tutorial.
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Phases 1 & 2 - conclusions
• Key factors contributing to effective peer writing tutorials
– centrality of collaboration and non-directive enabling
– student flexibility and willingness to adopt collaborative
approach, even when initial expectations may differ
– training programme that emphasises collaborative ethos and
encourages continuous reflection on practical application in
tutorials
• Appropriately trained students are able to facilitate the
kind of dialogue around writing that can help fellow
students develop into confident academic writers
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Phase 3: Relationship between writing tutorials
and student learning, achievement and retention
• Part of the larger “Pathways to Success
through Peer Mentoring” project
– led by Aston University
– funded by HEFCE and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation
– involving eight institutions (UK and Canada)
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Research questions
• Does participation in peer writing tutorials promote
student success?
• Sub-questions:
– What demographic, pedagogic and other factors influence
the outcomes of peer writing tutorials?
– What is the long-term pedagogical impact of participating
in peer writing tutorials?
– What are the determining characteristics in the process of
conducting peer writing tutorials?
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Building on earlier study
• Small-scale study into effect of Writing Mentor tutorials on
students’ grades in Business module at Aston University (Yeats
et al., in press 2010)
• Found higher grades amongst students who had tutorials
(statistically significant)
• However, did not control for students’ motivation or entry level
– so higher grades could be a reflection of more motivated and
academically stronger students opting for peer tutorials, rather than
an effect of the tutorials themselves
• Our phase 3 study aims to take these variables into account
– motivation: use of a Learning and Study Skills Inventory (LASSI)
– entry level from University database
– hoping for preliminary results by end of year
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Economic challenges
• Broader context
• Demonstrating effectiveness
• Criteria for success
–
–
–
–
value for money
quality of students’ learning and writing
achievement levels
employment and further study
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References
Angier, Carole and Palmer, William (2006). Writing Solutions. In Davies, Stevie; Swinburne, David and Williams, Gweno (Eds.) Writing
Matters: The Royal Literary Fund Report on Student Writing in Higher Education, London: The Royal Literary Fund, p15-25.
Bruffee, Kenneth A. (1984). Collaborative Learning and the ‘Conversation of Mankind’, College English, 46, 635-52.
Carino, Peter (1995). Theorizing the Writing Center: an uneasy task. Dialogue: A Journal for Writing Specialists 2.1, 23-27, in Longman Guide
p124-138.
Devet, Bonnie; Orr, Susan; Blythman, Margo; and Bishop, Celia (2006). Peering across the pond: The role of students in developing other
students' writing in the US and UK. In Lisa Ganobcsik-Williams (Ed.), Teaching Academic Writing in UK Higher Education, Houndmills:
Palgrave Macmillan, p196-211.
Ender, Steven C. and Newton, Fred B. (2000). Students Helping Students: A Guide for Peer Educators on College Campuses, Jossey-Bass, San
Francisco, CA.
Lea, Mary R. & Street, Brian V. (1998). Student Writing in Higher Education: an academic literacies approach, Studies in Higher Education, 23,
157-72.
Lillis, Theresa M. (2006). Moving Towards an ‘Academic Literacies’ Pedagogy: Dialogues of Participation. In Lisa Ganobcsik-Williams (Ed.),
Teaching Academic Writing in UK Higher Education, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, p30-45.
Lunsford, Andrea (1991). Collaboration, Control, and the Idea of a Writing Center. The Writing Center Journal, 12.1, 3-10.
Murray, Nicholas and Kirton, Bill (2006). An Analysis of the Current Situation. In Davies, Stevie, Swinburne, David and Williams, Gweno (Eds.)
Writing Matters: The Royal Literary Fund Report on Student Writing in Higher Education, London: The Royal Literary Fund, p7-13.
Newman, Melanie (2007, March 16). ‘Appalling’ Writing Skills Drive Tutors to Seek Help. Times Higher Education Supplement, 6.
North, Stephen M. (1982). Training Students to Talk about Writing. College Composition and Communication, 33, 434-441.
Smith, J.A. & Osborn, M. (2003). Interpretative phenomenological analysis. In J.A. Smith (Ed.), Qualitative Psychology: A Practical Guide to
Methods, London: Sage.
Tinto, Vincent (1993). Leaving College: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Vygotsky, Lev. (1986). Thought and Language, revised and edited by A. Kozulin, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Wingate, Ursula (2006). Doing away with ‘study skills.’ Teaching in Higher Education, 11, 457-69.
Yeats, Rowena; Reddy, Peter; Wheeler, Anne; Senior, Carl and Murray, John (In press, 2010). What a difference a writing centre makes: a
small scale study. Education and Training.
Yorke, Mantz and Longden, Bernard (2003). The first-year experience of higher education in the UK. HEA Final Report.
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Contact:
Kathy Harrington, [email protected], 020 7320 2254
Peter O’Neill, [email protected], 020 7320 1086
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Writing Mentors at London Met