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The role of questioning in writing tutorials: a critical approach to student-centered learning in peer tutorials in higher education

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Abstract

Peer tutoring in higher education aims to enhance student learning, and confidence. In writing centres, peer writing tutors use critical questioning to make the tutorial sessions student-focused and productive. The nature of questions influences the outcomes of the tutorials, yet research has not devoted sufficient time to unpacking what form this questioning takes, and the potential value for students and tutors. This paper explores the kinds of questions asked, the challenges posed to students and tutors, and implications for the learning process. Tutors’ experiences during tutorials and their reflections in written reports are used to unpack and explore questioning in tutorials. The paper highlights questioning as relevant in writing centre spaces due to its central role in shaping student learning about writing. The findings have relevance for peer tutoring in higher education generally, and indicate the importance of peer tutors learning to use questions to engage effectively with students.
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This is a pre-print version.
To cite this article: Paul Nwati Munje, Robert Doya Nanima & Sherran Clarence (2018): The
role of questioning in writing tutorials: a critical approach to student-centered learning in peer
tutorials in higher education, Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning. To link to this
article: https://doi.org/10.1080/13611267.2018.1511953
The role of questioning in writing tutorials: a critical approach to student-centred learning
in peer tutorials in higher education
Paul Nwati Munje, Robert Doya Nanima and Sherran Clarence
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Abstract
Peer tutoring in higher education aims to enhance student learning, and confidence. In writing
centres, peer writing tutors use critical questioning to make the tutorial sessions student-focused
and productive. The nature of questions influences the outcomes of the tutorials, yet research has
not devoted sufficient time to unpacking what form this questioning takes, and the potential
value for students and tutors. This paper explores the kinds of questions asked, the challenges
posed to students and tutors, and implications for the learning process. Tutors’ experiences
during tutorials and their reflections in written reports are used to unpack and explore
questioning in tutorials. The paper highlights questioning as relevant in writing centre spaces due
to its central role in shaping student learning about writing. The findings have relevance for peer
tutoring in higher education generally, and indicate the importance of peer tutors learning to use
questions to engage effectively with students.
Keywords: academic literacies, higher education, peer tutoring, student writing
development, South Africa, writing centres.
Introduction
University writing centres are broadly understood, in South Africa and around the world, to
provide a place where students and staff focus on the development and academic support of
student learning through writing. They are usually centrally located, rather than housed in
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particular faculties or departments (Yeats, Reddy, Wheeler, Senior & Murray, 2010), and
typically work with students across the disciplines, at both under- and post-graduate levels.
Essentially, writing centres place themselves within a particular discourse, against remediation or
‘fixing’ poor students’ writing (Clarence, 2011; O’Sullivan & Cleary, 2014). Drawing on
discourses and theoretical underpinnings such as those implicated in Academic Literacies, most
writing centres in South Africa characterise writing as a social, value-laden act of meaning
making within the academy (Archer, 2010; Dison & Clarence, 2017). Writing is informed by the
disciplinary knowledge students are writing about, the ways in which that knowledge is created,
debated and disseminated in these disciplinary communities, and the ways this knowledge and
writing is valued, shaped, constructed and understood (Jacobs, 2015). Writing is not a discrete
‘skill’; it is a practice that must be developed and learned over time, and in community and
conversation with others: peers, tutors and lecturers (Hathaway, 2015).
Constructed within this framing and positioning of writing centres, peer writing tutorials,
or consultations as they are often known, are not about telling or teaching students the ‘right’
ways to write. Peer tutors do not assume the role of writing authority, dispensing writing
instructions or prescriptions to student writers who are positioned as novices in relation to the
peer tutor as ‘expert’ (Hathaway, 2015). Rather, peer tutors position themselves alongside
students, physically and figuratively, sitting beside them in the writing centre, and working with
them to question, challenge, support and advise as they engage in the difficult task of revising
and rethinking their written work. In South Africa, as in other contexts where admission is
inclusive, such as the UK (see Deane & Ganobcsik-Williams, 2012), writing centres work with a
heterogeneous student body, students from a range of home and school backgrounds with
different levels of preparedness for tertiary study; students with home languages other than
English; students with different kinds of exposure in their prior schooling to reading, writing and
feedback; and so on. Writing centres are designed to embrace and foster this heterogeneity,
working with students in ways that celebrate and include their individualism, while walking a
cautious line between this and helping students to better ‘fit in’ with the rules and conventions of
writing and thinking in the academy (Carter, 2009; Nichols 2017). Thus, the ways in which peer
tutors create conversations with students, through the kinds of questions they pose and probe
with, is a vital aspect of how a writing centre works within this context and its tensions.
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This implies that peer writing tutors need significant support from writing centre
coordinators tasked with developing and supporting these tutors. Therefore, the environment for
learning created in a writing centre should be one that facilitates generative conversations about
writing and knowledge-making across a range of writing tasks, disciplines, and levels of writing
experience and ability. Since questioning is at the centre of writing tutorials, it is important, then,
to consider its nature: what kinds of questions we ask, how and when we ask them, and whether
and how this process invites students to be part of their own learning process in productive and
empowering ways. This paper attempts to closely and critically unpack and understand the role
and nature of questioning in peer writing tutorials within a South African higher institution’s
writing centre, and consider the implications of the findings for writing centres, and peer tutoring
more generally. More specifically, the paper addresses the following research question: What
types of questions create space for student writers to become part of the writing process? In other
words, how do we enable, through questioning, to create spaces for student writers to take
ownership of their writing, reflect on the process of creating a piece of writing, and learn about
themselves as writers in ways that enable further growth and learning?
Tutoring, questioning and learning in higher education
The concept of questioning in learning events, such as tutorials, can be defined and applied in
varied contexts. Questioning is an important tool used by peer tutors, specifically in writing
centres, to create an interactive space with student writers that encourages engagement,
participation, and enhances the achievement of stated or implicit goals (Limberg, Moday &
Dyer, 2016). Capdevielle (2012) sees questioning during writing centre tutorials as an age-old
tradition that needs to be nurtured because of its unquantifiable value, especially in ensuring that
skills achieved are valued beyond a particular session. Essentially, opening a peer writing
consultation with questions that draw the student into the conversation, and make them feel that
their voice will be heard, valued and included, sets up a productive space for conversations about
writing (Capdevielle, 2012). This approach enhances what writing centres, and peer writing
tutors advocate. This approach could enable students to obtain effective feedback to improve
their understanding and execution of their tasks, feedback that is forward-looking, and aids
students’ development and the learning process (Deyi, 2011; van Heerden, Clarence &
Bharuthram, 2017).
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According to Limberg, et al. (2016), questioning has both “pedagogical and
organizational tenets” and is used by tutors to tap into the knowledge of student writers within
writing centre spaces. Pedagogically, questioning directs the student to reflect on a given task on
their own and formulate answers with little external influence (O’Sullivan & Cleary, 2014). The
organizational aspect, on its part, calls for the right questions to be asked at the right time during
the course of the tutorial. The kind of questions asked, how they are framed, the context, and the
phase of the consultation in which they are asked, are suggested to be critical elements in
determining the nature and outcome of a consultation (Brown, 2008; Limberg, et al., 2016).
Brown (2008) notes that if tutors ask the wrong questions or focus on criticising the work of
students rather than asking leading and encouraging questions, it is probable that students will
feel judged and insecure about their writing, consequently withholding relevant ideas that can
potentially take the consultation forward.
The questioning process in writing centre spaces during tutorials therefore needs to be
friendly, dialogical and open. The intention is to assist student writers uncover their own talents,
as well as their basic knowledge and understanding of the topic or text under discussion
(O’Sullivan & Cleary, 2014). Thompson (2009) suggests the need for writing tutors to ask
questions that will properly engage student writers in a process of self-reflection and self-
discovery, assisting them to identify gaps in their own writing without too much intervention.
For this reason, rather than pointing out the errors in the student’s draft or text, questions should
be framed with the intention of leading student writers on a critical thinking path of increasingly
independent problem identification and problem-solving. Here, the focus is on knowledge
building, increased understanding, and confidence.
Limberg et al. (2016) indicate that different kinds of questions play particular roles at
different stages of the consultation and produce varying outcomes. For example, every successful
consultation is shaped by the nature and outcome of introductory questions - essential
icebreakers (Limberg et al., 2016) - which can either make or break a consultation session
(Harris, 1995). Harris (1995) suggests that introductory questions ought to be framed to portray
the tutor as a peer that is willing to help and listen with non-judgmental intent (see also Brown
2008). This welcoming opening to writing tutorials has the potential to cater for the emotional
challenges of especially first-year university students, who are often affected by varying prior
schooling experiences that may have implications for their perceptions of studying, learning
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spaces, and approaches to learning (Beard, Clegg & Smith, 2007). For this reason, tutors are
expected not begin all tutorials in the same way with all student writers they encounter, even
when they see many students about the same writing task. Apart from making the student feel at
ease, introductory questions should also assist a tutor to tap into the student’s prior knowledge
and understanding of the task at hand, and also activate their thinking abilities. The questions
asked at this stage of the consultation make the student the “primary agent” in the writing
tutorial, and the owner of their own work, rather than making the tutor the focus or task owner
(Brooks, 1991, p.2; Mitoumba-Tindy, 2017). This makes it relevant for tutors to carefully
determine how to use questioning to open a conversation with a student writer. Questioning thus
ought to act as a valuable tool to assist student writers during tutorials to learn to identify writing
gaps or missteps, discuss these constructively, and learn to revise their writing effectively, with
the tutor as peer advisor rather than instructor (Mitoumba-Tindy, 2017).
The role of the tutor as advisor and interlocutor, rather than surrogate lecturer is central to
this dialogic, engaged view of tutorials led by questions, rather than answers. If tutors take on too
directive a role, students will be unable to become the primary agents in writing tutorials, or the
owners of their texts. Thus, questioning in writing centre spaces should assist “writing peer
tutors/consultants … to play the role of writing advisor and peer mentor who can offer students
writing guidance, probe their thinking and question their clarity of response to specific tasks they
are working on” (Dison & Clarence, 2017, p.8). In effect, questioning should give student writers
a platform to shed the passive role they may more readily assume in their lecture halls and
become more active, independent, and creative thinkers.
When student writers feel settled and convinced that they are in an appropriate
environment for peer learning, they may be moved to ask valuable task and writing related
questions that could assist them to see their writing with fresh perspectives and insights.
Thompson and Mackiewicz (2014) are of the opinion that questioning in writing centre tutorials
is meant to indirectly guide students through their own reasoning, thus consultation sessions
could be made more productive by giving students the space to freely ask tutors questions about
their work. The aim of writing centre work is to enhance the writing process, and to equip the
writer with longer-term confidence, skill and understanding to assist them progressively become
better academic writers (Dison & Mendelowitz, 2017). Thus, while the requirements of the task
should be taken into consideration and task-specific questions should lead on from the students’
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assessment of their own aims, challenges and specific needs, it is suggested that tutors should
encourage students to also think more broadly about their writing (Brooks, 1991; Shabanza,
2017). In all consultations or tutorials, regardless of the task at hand, the questioning process
should be two-way: students must be able to ask tutors questions, just as tutors should strive to
use appropriate questions to engage, probe, challenge and advise student writers. Ultimately,
students should leave a writing tutorial feeling they have discovered their own solution or way
forward to the writing issues at hand, and clarified their own doubts and views on their
assignment.
Positioning the UWC Writing Centre
The need to improve the quality of education at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) by
way of assisting students in their learning endeavours began in the 1980s with the establishment
of an academic development programme (ADP). This was meant to bridge the gap between the
requirements of university studies and the resources and challenges students brought with them
from school to university. Although the programme unfortunately never achieved its objectives
(Wolpe, 1995), it created a basis for the establishment of the Writing Centre. South Africa’s
democratic dispensation in 1994 ushered in a new era in all spheres of society, including higher
education. 1994 also marked the opening of the UWC Writing Centre, as a response to the intake
of larger numbers of students from different backgrounds, and especially black students who
were previously denied access to higher education institutions (Reddy, 2004; Habib, 2016). In
effect, this introduced a process that changed the way in which teaching, learning and student
support has been conceived and enacted at UWC, as the Writing Centre was among several
measures put in place to ensure quality education.
The UWC Writing Centre, like many others, was initially housed within a larger
academic development centre, which was later closed. Since then it has existed independently,
although with the support of the divisions for teaching and learning development within the
university. Although traditionally conceived as a remedial space to teach students who struggle
to write effectively, much like its counterparts in other universities, the UWC Writing Centre has
evolved beyond this limited initial role (see Nichols, 2017; Archer, 2010). The UWC Writing
Centre has reimagined itself as a space in which students and peer tutors can meet to discuss
writing tasks, and some of the related challenges of tertiary study, without students fearing they
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will be judged and found lacking or deficient in some way. Striking back against dominant
deficit discourses that position students’ underpreparedness as the key problem, rather than
universities’ underpreparedness for such diverse student bodies and experiences, the UWC
Writing Centre underpins its work theoretically and ideologically with Academic Literacies
(Lillis, et al., 2015), as outlined earlier. In so doing, it has worked, and continues to work, to cast
itself in the role of academic support for all student writers at the university, regardless of prior
or present levels of competence in writing.
Further, the UWC Writing Centre aligns itself with writing centre work, locally and
globally, by creating a space for students to not only learn how to write effectively in and across
the disciplines, but also where the conventions and rules that shape writing can be unpacked,
made visible, and even challenged at times. This is challenging work, as it requires the Centre to
walk what is often a fine line between being there for the students, but also being there for the
university that funds its existence; and often what students need, and what the university wants
are at odds (see Carter, 2009; Dison & Clarence, 2017).
Students need to be guided through the learning processes of writing, and that takes time
because these processes are not linear. Universities want higher throughput rates and better pass
marks (Lewin & Mawoyo, 2014), and often work towards these from a deficit discourse.
Universities perceive proficiency in academic writing as a ‘skill’ that students ought to be able
to learn early on and simply perfect as they go, or even have it with them, when they enter
university (Bock, 1989). This discourse places writing problems squarely on the shoulders of
students, denying a process-oriented approach to writing (see Smit 2012; O’Shea et al., 2016 on
deficit discourses). According to Bourdieu and Passeron (1990), an approach that engages with
students from their current position and helps them develop proficiency or ability is preferred.
Bourdieu and Passeron (1990) argue that, English language is no one’s mother tongue regardless
of prior home and school background and that all students, although to varying degrees, need
guidance and support in becoming academically literate.
The use of questions to guide these process-oriented, student-centred writing tutorials is
key to the way the UWC Writing Centre challenges the deficit discourse to create a space where
all writers, and all writing, are welcome. Its unique approach to questioning creates a platform of
engagement that can motivate and empower student writers as they become increasing aware of
the need to take ownership of and responsibility for their learning and writing. As such, different
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types of questions are asked during writing tutorials based on the context of the tutorial and its
purpose. These questions are usually not pre-planned, considering that student challenges and
circumstances vary. The responses and outcomes at each stage are based on how the questions
are framed and the emotional state of the student during the tutorial. Certain questions and
responses assist to redirect the framing of follow-up questions, and also play an important role in
taking the consultation forward. However, the experience and skill of the tutor determines the
ways in which questions are worded, timed and posited to students, and how in turn questions are
answered and built into the ongoing conversation. The questions asked are commonly grouped
into introductory, task-related, and more general writing-related questions.
Methodology
This paper draws on data from the authors’ peer tutoring experiences, their own reports written
on tutorials with students and students’ anonymous feedback after consultation sessions. The
paper explores the types of questions that assist student writers to: get involved in the writing
process; take ownership of their writing; be able to identify gaps in their writing; and generally
be able to reflect on and hopefully learn more about academic writing. Ethical clearance for this
project was granted by the university, under the auspices of a larger project on tutor development
within the university. The writers made use of individual reflective journals to piece together
conversations and experiences with students. An effort was made to include reflections on
student reactions and responses during tutorials, their ability to ask questions, and their initiative
to answer questions and take ownership of their work.
The data used in this paper was not ‘analysed’ as such using any particular approach.
Rather, different kinds of questions were noted, and recorded from the data sources, and then
organised into the three categories mentioned above: introductory, task-related, and more general
writing-process-related questions. The authors then discussed these categories, further refining
them in relation to the data, before deciding on the framework for the following section. The data
is thus used to form a basis for looking critically at the different kinds of questions that are asked
most frequently in peer writing tutorials, and how these can facilitate productive conversations
with students about their writing.
Findings and discussion
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Introductory questions
To begin with, introductory questions are often used as ice-breakers and are asked with the
intention of making students feel welcome and comfortable. Peer tutors should be able to ask
questions that develop closeness with student writers, in a holistic perspective (Jones, Garralda,
Li and Lock, 2006). At the UWC Writing Centre, the form and direction of the introductory
questions is at the discretion of the writing tutor. However, the training and development
programme offered to tutors throughout the year encourages them to ‘read’ the student and
determine how best to start a consultation; for example, the student and tutor may be meeting for
the first time, and the student may be apprehensive, or they may have worked together before
and thus can start the conversation from an established base. Tutors are thus trained to be
sensitive and alert to the way students respond to the initial ice-breakers, and to switch direction
or stop depending on the reaction of the student.
A common opener to a writing tutorial:
Tutor: Hi, welcome to the writing centre. How are you today?
o Student: I’m okay, thank you.
Tutor: Have you been here before? Do you know anything about us, what we do, how we
work?
o Student: No, this is my first time.
Tutor: How are you hoping to be helped today? What are you struggling with in your
writing?
o Student: I need someone to help me with my essay, see if I am on the right track.
Tutor: Most students who come here ask for that kind of help, so you are not alone here.
Let’s have a look, and see what the task is about and where we can go from there. I’m
going to ask questions, and you can ask questions too, and ideally we’re going to talk
about your writing so that you leave here knowing what to do next to work on it. Okay?
Questions that invite students to define the problem they need help with, and start to think about
where they are starting from in a process of developing as writers are designed to both welcome
the student, and gently open a reflective space of the writing tutorial. Students new to the Writing
Centre tend to expect to come in and meet a tutor who will correct their work, or tell them how
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to ‘fix’ their essay. Thus, the introduction must accomplish the task of settling the student in, and
informing them gently that they will need to participate in the tutorial to improve their writing.
The challenge attached to introductory questions is that tutors may need to spend more
time than may be desirable - given that tutorials are only an hour long-settling down the student,
especially in cases where students seem to be struggling, or does not have a clear understanding
of what help they are looking for. In these cases, tutors may inadvertently create too large a
space for student writers to pour out their problems, in terms of writing or university life in
general, potentially derailing the consultation and making it difficult to refocusing on the writing
process. Although such a friendly rapport is important, care needs to be taken not to make the
tutorial too social, such that time is taken away from the important academic work. This can be a
particular challenge for tutors within a space such as a writing centre, where emphasis is placed
on undoing the hierarchical power relations inherent in lecturer-student relationships, and sharing
the control over the content and pace of the tutorial with the student (Mitoumba-Tindy, 2017).
Thus, while tutors always want to be welcoming and sociable, it is important to balance creating
a space in which students feel comfortable to talk and share, with focusing on the academic work
at hand, so that students and tutors are able to work effectively together on the writing.
In one consultation in 2016, the second author engaged with a student and established
through introductory and task-related questions that the student did not understand the task and
was not prepared for the consultation session. This posed a risk of the tutor answering the task
for the student, or offering feedback that would make the student feel like she was being judged
on her writing. In his report, the tutor stated:
The student did not understand the task and the draft presented was not in
line with the requirements specified by the concerned lecturer. For this
reason, the tutor assisted the student on task analysis and advised her to do
further reading and come back for a follow-up session the following Friday.
When the student returned for the follow-up session, the engagement was fruitful. This was
reflected by the nature of interaction between the peer tutor and the student. The student felt
more comfortable, confident and interactive. A report by the tutor after the follow-up session
stated:
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This was a follow-up to an earlier appointment that had been scheduled from
the previous week. The kinds of questions and answers that emerged from the
session proved that the student appreciated what was done during the first
consultation. The student was able to use task analysis skills learnt during the
first session. Also her ability to answer and ask questions proves that she had
done extensive reading as advised.
This is an indication that the introductory questions helped to orient the student towards taking
ownership of her own writing, and also to the ways in which the Writing Centre seeks to assist
student writers. The student was able to learn and use task analysis skills, and was also more able
to engage with the feedback in the course of the session, as a result of being more prepared to
take part in the tutorial as a co-creator of the space, rather than a passive recipient of writing
assistance.
Task-related questions
Tutors at the UWC Writing Centre utilise task-related questions to uncover and discuss students’
knowledge and understanding of the task or assignment at hand. Such questions encourage
student writers to think about their task from different perspectives, and to bring relevant
disciplinary knowledge into the conversation that will assist them to revise the written work
accordingly. The framing of the questions and student responses reveals the depth or level of
students’ understanding or lack thereof. The deduction is made by comparing what they say
verbally and what is in their written draft; the latter is used by peer tutors to prepare ahead for the
meeting with the student. The data revealed different groupings of task-related questions: task
analysis questions; conceptual/terminology questions; reading and research questions; and
organisation of ideas/structure questions. Peer tutors do ask questions about referencing, but as
this is not a primary focus of any writing tutorial (unless it is the only issue a student needs help
with) this did not emerge as a significant category.
Task analysis questions are focused on tapping into the students’ understanding of the
specific conceptual or task-related keywords, as well as direction or instruction words in the
specific assignment question or task. The assumption here is that, if a tutor can help the student
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to clearly understand the specific instructions and requirements in the assignment/task (and
generally many students struggle to analyse task briefs), they will be better able to accurately
analyse the task, and plan a competent written response. Since students are expected to analyse
their task briefs and construct an answer that responds to the specific demands of the lecturer,
writing tutors also pose questions at this stage to understand whether students’ verbal analysis
and written drafts are in harmony and meet these demands. Where verbal explanations are a
mismatch with the written assignment, follow-up questions are then asked to assist students to
self-identify gaps in their own reasoning and writing - these questions may then segue into
questions about key terminology and concepts involved, and even reading and research needs
and plans. At this stage, the student is able to focus on the most relevant or important parts of the
assignment that needs to be revised as they are supported by peer tutors to rethink their response
to the assignment brief.
A fairly typical snippet of task-related questioning:
Tutor: Let’s have a look at your task. What is it that you are required to do here with this
assignment?
o Student: I have to write an essay on Macbeth.
Tutor: Okay, yes. What aspect of Macbeth are you focusing on here - it’s a long play?
o Student: We have to look at the part of Lady Macbeth, where she is telling him to kill the
king.
Tutor: Okay. So is that an interesting part of the play: What happens there?
o Student: <answers with a brief account of the conversation in the play between Macbeth
and Lady Macbeth>.
Tutor: Right. So, what does your task ask you to say about this part of the play? Do you
have to analyse what they are saying? Or do you have to relate it to what comes before or
after this in the play?
o Student: We have to relate it to the rest of the play, to show how Lady Macbeth makes
Macbeth do what he did.
Tutor: Okay, so you are positioning this extract within the play, and then writing about
what it means for what comes after, the events that happen after Macbeth kills the king?
o Student: Yes, I think so.
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Tutor: And, how have you tried to do this, in your draft here? Can you talk me through
the draft, and how you feel you have answered this question?
o Student: <begins to explain the draft to the tutor>.
Tutor: Do you think what you have just said is related to what is in your draft?
o Student: I think so.
Tutor: Okay let us compare what you have said to what is in your draft, and work from
there on possible revisions and changes you can make to improve it.
This snippet highlights aspects of task analysis questioning, and then moving the student
into the draft itself, leading the conversation into questions about terminology, reading and
research, the organisation and selection of ideas and how these are connected, and so on.
Importantly, it highlights that tutorials cannot necessarily follow a linear, step-by-step structure,
where questions can be posed in a ‘tick-box’ form, which is, starting at one pre-determined point
and moving steadily through a set of questions in a ‘logical’ order. As the writing process is non-
linear, so are conversations about writing. The important thing to note in this exchange is the
tutor pushing the ownership of the writing onto the student, using questions, and repeating back
to students’ key parts of their responses, to move the conversation onto the writing, and the ways
in which it has evolved thus far.
It should be noted that it is a significant task to ensure that the right kinds of questions for
this student, and this draft, are posed, and the desired outcomes are therefore achieved for every
student and for every consultation. Students come with different expectations of tutors and the
writing centre, and these do not always align with our ways of working. Many students are open
to the question-and-answer, dialogic mode of working, even if they arrived wanting to have their
writing ‘fixed’. But some are resistant, feeling perhaps that this asks too much of them, or is too
open-ended where they may be struggling with the implied independence of thinking and writing
post-tutorial. These varied demands, and thus the changeable tone of tutorial sessions, can result
in tutors pointing out errors in the student’s draft, or telling the student how to revise a particular
passage or paragraph, rather than posing leading questions that ought to prompt engagement,
reflection, and self-identification of (at least some of the) revisions needed. Some tutors may be
tempted to act as surrogate lecturers or disciplinary tutors, especially in instances where students
demonstrate limited knowledge of the task at hand, or do not demonstrate the ability to
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consistently answer questions designed to direct or prompt their own thinking. A report after
consultation session, the tutor stated:
The session focused on task interpretation due to the gap between the
student’s draft, verbal narration and what the task requires. Evidently, the
student did not pay attention to the task guide, and as such did not interpret
and answer the question as expected. Attempts were therefore made to
guide the student through the necessary steps and requirements. After every
explanation, the student was given an opportunity to jot down the necessary
information to use in his post tutorial revision and rewriting. Since the
student had a basic idea of the content, it was easier to guide her through
the process. After the session she was advised to redo the assignment
following guiding steps provided, and to come in for a follow up
consultation the following week.
In another report after consultation, the same tutor stated that:
The student came to the session needing help with spelling and grammar for
an essay that has been marked by his sbject tutor. He was hesitant to answer
task-related questions, because he did not attend to the comments of his
subject tutor. The student’s reaction was evident that he expected the
writing tutor to attend to the comments of the subject tutor on his behalf.
Considering that the subject tutor was familiar with the content of the essay,
I focused on asking questions related to task analysis, so as to interrogate
the student’s understanding of the task and not the comments of his tutor.
Attending to the tutor’s comments would have been tantamount to me
editing the student’s work, rather than guiding him through the writing
process.
Although the approach by this tutor would potentially assist such students to improve that
particular assignment, the primary objective of a writing tutorial as creating a space for students
to acquire necessary abilities and knowledge with potentials for replicability or further
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development is undermined. Students in such circumstances may be constrained in developing a
level of confidence in their ability to improve their writing without such ‘step-by-step’ guidance,
creating a dependency on the writing centre. This further undermines the focus on writing as a
social, community-oriented activity that develops over time, rather than as one dependent on
acquiring the right skills for a particular task. Thus, in addition to questions about the task at
hand, peer tutors also ask more generalised writing-related questions that have in mind longer-
term writing development and knowledge building.
Writing-related questions
The intention of writing-related questions is to explore and develop students’ knowledge of
academic writing more broadly, particularly through focusing not only on what we need to write
in higher education and how, but also why we write in particular forms or styles. The questions at
this stage are geared towards potentially developing students’ knowledge of academic writing
beyond the immediate task at hand; to do what North, in his classic text, exhorts us to do and
develop the writer, and not just the writing (North, 1984).
At this point, the tutor engages the student in discussions about the genre of the task at
hand. For example, an argumentative essay would require their understanding of not just how to
write such an essay, but also why certain aspects of it must take a particular dimension, such as
the use of evidence, and the structuring of the paragraphs to express claims and evidence related
to reasoning. At this stage, tutors are expected to lay emphasis on the need for student writers to
understand their own writing style, as well as their own knowledge and application of writing
conventions, taking the academic discourse of their specific disciplines into consideration, and
heightening their awareness of this.
Writing-related questions need to be carefully balanced with task-related questions: if the
focus is too much on the content and form of the immediate assignment, students may connect
all their learning only to that single context, painting the tutor creating in students a potential
dependence on this kind of help with every assignment. But, if the questions are too much about
generalizable notions of genre characteristics, or why we write introductions or paragraphs this
way or that depending on the discipline, students may not learn enough in the tutorial to help
them make progress with the task at hand. Tutors thus need guidance, and need to lean on their
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own experience as writers, to learn how, when and why to ask particular questions to create an
environment conducive for student learning, in the shorter and longer term.
Implications of questioning on student writers, peer tutors, and the writing centre
community
The ways in which the UWC Writing Centre has used questioning in writing tutorials has over
the years left imprints of varying degrees on both students and tutors, imprints that are highly
replicable. One outstanding imprint for students is that of ownership of their writing (see Brooks,
1991, a classic text). This is evidenced in students’ feedback, where they focus on how they can
keep working on their own essays post-tutorial: ‘The tutor was helpful and he explained
everything that I didn’t understand in my assignment. I now know what I need to do to improve
my writing’, and, ‘I now understand how to construct an essay and include factors that are
important and also constructing an interesting paragraph. I received constructive criticism that
built my writing skills’. Putting the responsibility for the writing into the hands of the student
writers, and basing the conversation on different kinds of revealing or exploratory questions, has
the effect of making students feel more knowledgeable and capable. They may well return to the
Writing Centre, but hopefully they will return with different tasks, different questions and a
sense of how they are growing as writers over time.
Another key effect of a more conscious approach to questioning is the potential for
‘replicability’, such that students leave the writing centre able to understand and explain not just
the ways in which the present assignment can be improved, but how this learning can be taken on
to future assignments. Replication would mean reducing dependency on the writing centre, and
may make it possible for students to help their peers and develop a more ‘writing intensive’
culture within their courses or modules. A balance between focusing on the specific task at hand,
and lifting the focus above that task to look at issues contributing to longer-term development,
such as explaining why we write particular genres the way we do (and how they might be
challenged perhaps), is vital to ensuring that learning happens cumulatively for students
(Clarence, 2017).
A further outcome of a dialogical approach to writing consultations, using the kinds of
questioning reflected on above, is shared power between peer tutors and student writers. Apart
from making the student writer accept responsibility and have a voice in their writing, the kinds
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of questions tutors ask and the corresponding answers give student writers shared power in terms
of controlling the pace and form of the writing tutorial (Shabanza, 2017). This experience - of
learning to express their own views and take responsibility for their writing in a supportive space
- may make students more able to claim and use their voice with other tutors and lecturers, hence
becoming more critical and active in their thinking and writing. Asking and answering questions,
and giving students space and time to think and talk about their work challenges the more
traditional, hierarchical power dynamics present in other contexts within the university (Harris,
1995; Nichols, 2017). This makes the role of questioning, and the ability of the writing centre -
and peer tutoring more generally - to use this tool to assist students to take ownership of their
own learning process so valuable, and worthy of consideration.
Thompson (2009) adds that questioning contributes to developing student writers’
motivation and confidence, attributes that they are likely to take into their future academic and
writing careers. The ability of the writing centre to challenge the classroom approach enables
student writers to have the courage to share their own thoughts and challenges more freely,
knowing that they will not be judged or criticized. Students enter consultations with different
levels of confidence and motivation, but generally leave the centre better off or different than
they were when they first arrived, based on the kinds of student-focused, question-oriented
conversations they are a part of.
There are also benefits for tutors as well. The use of questioning assists tutors to become
more coherent and organized in their own writing endeavours, since they indirectly learn by
teaching (Topping, 1998). The ability of the tutor to plan the questions, and evaluate students’
responses, enhances their own cognitive development. In other words, as tutors reflect on student
writing, and the kinds of questions they could ask students in tutorials, they are able to approach
their own writing through a critical lens, using the same kinds of questions to improve their own
thinking and writing.
Conclusion
Questioning plays an invaluable role in shaping the work of a writing centre in higher education.
The ability of the questioning approach to create engagement, participation, and a truly student-
centred conversational space about writing presents many advantages to both peer tutors and
student writers. However, using the different types of questions highlighted in this paper to
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structure productive conversations with student writers is not an easy, linear task. Students come
to the writing centre, or to a tutoring environment, with different concerns about their academic
work, and need to meet at the point where they are taken forward for their learning to be truly
empowering and relevant. The role of questioning is to help tutors to meet students where they
are, assess with them the next steps in the process, and support them as they work out how to
take them to move forward.
Although this paper has focused on the work of a writing centre in using questions, and
the resulting dialogic approach to peer tutoring, to enhance student learning, we believe that
aspects of our argument have relevance for peer tutoring in higher education more generally. All
peer tutors should be approaching students as peers, rather than as lecturers or experts; all
tutorials should be based on engaging students in their own learning, giving them space to think,
talk and reflect on their academic work as they take responsibility for it. Thus, it is our hope that
those tutoring or working with tutors in and outside of writing centres will rethink the role of
questioning within their tutorial spaces, and explore within their own contexts the kinds of
questions that are most useful in eliciting greater student participation, ownership and learning.
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