Acknowledge what your student wants to focus on

Your student shares that she wants to focus on grammar today, but after reading her piece, you observe that it needs a clearer thesis and better structure. Your student says she wants assistance in varying her vocabulary, but you’re struggling to understand what she’s trying to communicate in her piece. Overall, your student is looking to polish her wording when she needs to go back to the beginning and work on the basics. Sound familiar?

What do you do?

The secret lies in how you begin the session. First, the most important thing is to acknowledge what your student wants to work on. Make sure the student feels heard, recognized, and understood. There are several ways you can accomplish this:

  • Jot down what the student says she wants to focus on
  • Repeat what the student expresses interest in improving
  • State that you will make sure to address those areas

“Okay, I hear that you want to talk about grammar and vocabulary. Let me write that down, and I’ll be sure to keep that in mind as we read through your paper.”

Do this immediately to put your student’s mind at ease; once she knows you’ve heard her and she has your confirmation that you’ll address her concerns, she’ll feel much better. Because you wrote down what she said, she knows that you won’t forget. She’s confident that you’re aware of her needs, and can now relax and listen to all of the feedback you provide. Now, she’ll be open to discussing other aspects of her paper.

Next, jump into tutoring as you normally would. Draw the student’s attention to her thesis statement, the paper’s structure, etc. Tackle those fundamental concerns. Do your thing!

As you’re working on these areas, briefly incorporate what your student wanted to work on. Mention that her current thesis statement needs to be clearer in terms of content, but that you also noticed she conjugated one of the verbs wrong and help her understand the mistake. Work on clarifying confusing sentences and also bring up a few opportunities that you see for her to spice up her vocabulary. Focus the bulk of your energy on improving her paper’s thesis/structure, but also touch on the areas that your student requested.

Save five minutes at the end of the session to briefly discuss the concerns your student expressed at the beginning of the session. First, tell your student what common specific issues you saw with regard to the concerns she brought in. Ask her to jot these issues down so that she can reference them later.

“I noticed you often wrote in the present tense when you were discussing something that had already happened in the past.” 

“I saw you use the word ‘great’ a lot in your writing and I think there are more descriptive words you could choose.”

Then, provide your student with a specific strategy to overcome this issue. Ask her to write the strategy down next to the issue.

“When you go home, highlight each verb in your essay and then read your paper out loud so you can hear the sequence of events. Stop after each sentence to check that the verbs are conjugated properly for the chronological order you wish to convey.”

“Use a thesaurus to replace each ‘great’ with another positive adjective that is more descriptive and specific to what you’re communicating.”

If time allows, you can show her quickly how to apply this strategy. For example, fix one improperly conjugated verb together or browse a thesaurus together to find a new word.

Now, your student has a list of problems and solutions that empower her to better her piece with respect to the areas she felt needed improvement.

Then, close your session with a statement like this:

“Well, it looks like we touched on grammar and vocabulary, which you expressed a desire to address. We also talked about how to improve your thesis statement and organize your paper in a clearer way. I’d work on those things first, and then you can use the strategies we discussed to remedy any grammar mistakes and vary your vocabulary.

Most importantly, make sure to ask:

“Do you have any other questions for me? Do you feel clear about the issues you came in with now?”

And make sure to listen to the answer. Hopefully, if you’ve followed the advice I’ve provided, your student should respond that she feels much better about these issues. Asking this question makes your student feel valued and shows that you care about teaching her.

Now, you’ve restated again what your student wanted to discuss; you acknowledged that you touched on those things; you mentioned the other things you focused on; you gave the student specific ways to address her concerns; and you asked the student how she feels now. As a result, she’s grateful not only that you gave her strategies for improving her grammar/vocabulary, but also that you brought other important issues to her attention. Overall, your student should feel respected and capable.

Never feel like you have to pick between appeasing your student and accomplishing your own agenda. Remember that you both have the same goal of improving her writing abilities and writing piece. You need to work together to get there, and your student needs to trust you to listen to her. That’s how you build a relationship and reach your goal.

Photo by Ming Jun Tan

4 thoughts on “Acknowledge what your student wants to focus on

  1. I like the approach. It is one I use in various fields when working one-on-one with people, such as tutoring mathematics or working as a coach. Certainly addressing their concerns is a priority, but as you’ve demonstrated, the chief concern is improving the quality of their work, which is why they are actually meeting with you.

    Do you typically prescribe what students should do, or allow them to be involved in the process? One area that stood out was when you said: “I saw you use the word ‘great’ a lot in your writing and I think there are better words you could choose.”, and then recommended they use a thesaurus.

    The assignment you gave them will, of course, help them find alternative words. And they may notice other repetitious words in their work as they read through it in the future. But they may also just take what you’ve said and go with it, without additional thought or reflection. From a coaching perspective, I may have approached it by saying “As you read your work, do you notice any words that are used more frequently than others?” and when they find some, “Why do those words stand out?”, “How do they help improve your ability to communicate?”, “Do they improve it at all?”, “How could you use a word that is more precise in each specific instance, and where might you find those words?”

    Now, obviously you’re working with time as a factor in many cases, so you can only take that so far, given that it likely a minor problem in their work. But approaching it in this fashion could help prevent you from ever having to do it again with the student, because you’ve made them not only aware of it, but also an active part of determining the solution. You’ve given them ownership of the problem, and they are going to be more likely to follow through on their own in the future.

    *Disclaimer: I’m sure you already do this in many ways, but I’m sure we have different styles and thought it could be an interesting discussion to add a different potential approach.*

    1. Ah, yes. So, I do agree with you. I think it’s extremely important to include students in the process of determining a solution. It’s best if you can simply prompt them in a way that lets them come up with ideas all on their own. In my sessions, I do strive to give students ownership of the primary issues with their writing; that’s a fabulous thing that I believe all tutors should work towards. If the primary issue is word choice, I would ask all of the questions you listed. But, I was gearing this blog post towards the instances in which students want to focus on word choice but the tutor realizes that the paper needs a major revamping and isn’t at the word polishing stage, yet. Word choice cannot be the primary focus in such a session. So, the tutor may feel torn between acquiescing to the student’s wishes and actually helping to improve her paper. This can be a really awkward situation if the tutor doesn’t know how to handle it properly.

      In that case, as a tutor, I wouldn’t take the time to “teach them to fish” with regard to word choice because they aren’t at that stage yet in their writing development for this paper. They still need to work on the basic fundamentals, like a strong thesis statement, clear structure, and relevant conclusion. The session is better spent focused on these areas and giving students the tools they need to write a coherent, logical, and clear paper. However, because the student expressed an interest in word choice, she does deserve to leave with some action steps to improve that area, too. It’s more timely for the tutor to be direct and explicit about vocabulary issues, and in a case where there is so much to accomplish and focus on, time is the tutor’s most limited resource. The student likely already has some degree of ownership over the issue of vocabulary because she’s the one who brought it up, so she should be motivated to take the initiative to apply the thesaurus tactic to other words she repeated, as well.

      If sessions could last forever… and tutors and students had unlimited patience… Sure, it would be nice to make the student self-sufficient in every aspect of writing. This blog post is aimed to help in those instances when a tutor needs to prioritize the session in such a way that leads to a better paper, while accommodating the wishes of a student who may not realize what her paper needs.

      Overall, I do agree with you—my suggestions aren’t the best way to improve a student’s grammar and vocabulary skills; they’re not meant to be. They do, however, make your student feel a bit better in those areas so that you can shift her attention to more pressing concerns. And then you can give her tools to improve those critical, fundamental areas. Next time she comes back, you can focus on imparting the skills to improve her vocabulary long-term with the questions you mentioned!

      I am planning a blog post about when a tutor should be direct versus indirect with students… Stay tuned!

  2. Your response is basically what I expected you to say. I know that wasn’t the goal of this particular blog post, but I was curious how you would have approached it if that was the primary topic. It is always interesting to hear the different approaches of people, and I wasn’t sure if the topic of writing was approached any differently.

    You definitely made the point that you wanted to within the blog post – how to address the students’ concerns but also highlight developmental issues within the paper that may be more important.

    1. I think you’re prompting me for my next post 🙂 Something about the difference between shaping a better paper and shaping a better writer; tutoring versus proofreading/editing; prescribing versus prompting… A post along those lines.

      I do agree, it’s interesting to hear people’s different approaches. I hope you keep commenting on my posts, as they come, to share how you do/don’t incorporate any of the tips I outline. It’d be nice to see how tutoring differs across subjects and what different tutoring styles look like. And a conversation about these ideas would be great for all of us interested in strengthening our skills as a tutor/coach/teacher/professor.

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