Working with incoherent papers

When I say a paper is incoherent, I mean that it doesn’t make sense: the thesis is unclear, the supporting evidence doesn’t tie back to the thesis, there is no logical progression of the argument, and the paper lacks structure and is just a stream of wandering, uncollected thoughts.

There are two main times that papers don’t make sense:

  1. The student fully understands the material and is certain of the message that she wants to convey, but struggles with articulating herself.
  2. The student isn’t sure of her message, has questions about the ideas she’s discussing, and just generally isn’t clear on what she wants to say.

What’s a tutor to do?

As a tutor, once you’ve identified that the paper doesn’t make sense, your next step is to identify which type of case you’re facing. This is accomplished through talking with the student, having her explain to you the essay prompt, asking her to share her ideas, etc. You can also ask the student directly: “Do you feel clear on what you want to say?” or “What do you want to say in this paper?” Her answers should give you a sense.

When dealing with the first case, here are the strategies I’ve found most effective:

  • Push away the paper and just talk

Literally put aside the paper, and just talk to the student. Ask her to explain the prompt, her thesis, her supporting evidence, and her conclusion. Listen carefully to everything she says. If something doesn’t make sense, stop her and ask her to explain the idea further or in a different way. Jot down notes. Ensure that you can completely follow her thought process and that you fully understand her ideas. If there are any kinks in her own understanding, this is the time to identify and sort them out. This should take about 10-20 minutes, depending on how well the writer can express her ideas aloud and how extensive/complex the ideas are.

  • Start fresh by working on a new piece of paper

You can bring the original paper back into view now, but try to work in a separate space. That means don’t mark up this paper or try to revise it; instead, take a new piece of paper and write ideas there.

This is because if a paper is jumbled and unclear, it doesn’t need to be revised- it needs to be rewritten. If the student looks at the original paper and tries to work from there, it will be incredibly difficult to have the necessary open mind to build the paper any differently than she did the first time. Revising an existing paper is like working in a coloring book- you can can change the colors you use within the lines (in writing, this is word choice, sentence structure, grammar), but the picture (thesis, structure) will stay the same. Instead, the student needs to craft a whole new paper and the best way to do this is with a fresh start.

So, why should the original paper come back into view at all? That’s because those ideas will still be incorporated, and the writer can and should draw on them. The important point is to focus on restructuring the paper, and that won’t happen if she’s working within the failed framework she created the first time.

Note: In these cases, I often tell students this directly. I explicitly advise them to begin their next draft in a separate Word document- not by copying and pasting or rewriting within the original one. Giving this piece of specific advice really drives home what I mean when I say to be open to writing the second draft very differently from the first.

  • Explain the basic rules of logic

I took an Introduction to Logic course during my very first semester at college, and it was arguably the most valuable course of my entire college experience. Here are the two key examples that I teach to other students:

Premise 1: Socrates is a man.
Premise 2: All men are mortal.
Conclusion: Socrates is mortal.

Premise 1: If it is raining, then I bring an umbrella.
Premise 2: It is raining.
Conclusion: I bring an umbrella.

Then, I tell the student that her writing should be laid out in a similarly logical way, with premises that lead to a conclusion.

Almost unanimously, the response I have received from students is: “I can do that with my writing?!?!?!”

And I say: “You SHOULD do that with your writing!”

Then, we talk through specifically how the student can think of her argument in this way and how she can present it as such.

An important factor in doing this well is transition words. Words and phrases like: ‘consequently,’ ‘therefore,’ ‘then,’ ‘additionally,’ ‘as a result,’ ‘for this reason,’ ‘furthermore,’ and ‘in conclusion’ will indicate the type of relationship between ideas. It’s important for the student to choose these words properly; often, students just choose a transition word that ‘sounds good’ to them but logical writing requires carefully selecting words that deliberately express the relationship between the students’ thoughts.

  • Grammar

There are many ways in which students struggle with grammar. Sometimes, a student is ESL and unfamiliar with certain English grammar rules. Other times, a student’s jumbled thought process leads her to improper grammar use.

Grammar is also really difficult to tutor because it can often become editing rather than tutoring. I’ll do a full post on this issue in the future, but I’ll give some brief suggestions for now:

-Identify recurring grammatical errors, explain the grammar rule, help the student apply it to a made up example, and then ask her to apply it to her own writing.

-Underline improperly conjugated verbs and ask the student if she knows how to correct that error.

-Circle sentences with a grammar error and ask the student to identify the mistake.

For a more comprehensive explanation of the importance of grammar and the connection between grammar and thought process, I recommend reading Kirk Barbera’s post, Grammar and the Real World.

Now that you have some tips and tricks for working with students who understand the material but struggle with writing, let’s discuss how to approach the second case with the student who doesn’t really know the ideas she’s discussing and doesn’t have a strong understanding of her argument or thoughts. That’s a lot trickier to tutor. A writing tutor’s job is not to teach the student the material, but rather to help her to express it. So, you can only do so much in this situation and it is important not to burden yourself or feel guilty if this session doesn’t end up being your most effective one of the day. It is the student’s responsibility to come in with ideas of what she wants to say. Just because she doesn’t do that does not create a obligation on your end to generate content for her. That’s a fine line to walk, though. Here are the strategies I’ve found most effective.

  • Ask the student what she does and doesn’t know

I have found it is helpful to ask the student to share what she does know with certainty and what she is unclear on. Write down those things so you have a note of what to help her figure out. This list will also be helpful for the student, since students often say they don’t understand anything in the class when that’s not actually the case. Knowing what she needs to learn is very valuable for a student in her studies.

  • Ask her to show you class readings, PowerPoint slides, notes

See if you can help her to make some sense of the ideas. She may have misunderstood something she read and you can clarify that for her. Or, she may not understand some of the words the professor used but you might be familiar with that lingo and can help her out. This is best used when the confusion is not a deep conceptual misunderstanding but rather a smaller, more specific uncertainty.

Note: If this isn’t your field of specialty, you don’t have any knowledge on this area, or it’s super complex material, then this is not a great strategy to employ. It is better to say you do not know the answer than to steer a confused student into further confusion. For example, I studied business and philosophy in college and if a student came to me confused about the concepts he’s discussing in his chemistry lab report, this would not be a strategy I would use. If someone came to me confused about Hobbes’ Leviathan, then I would. It is really important to also not provide the student with any ideas she could plagiarize- her writing must be her own, so you cannot provide her with a thesis or supporting evidence towards her claim. But you can clarify any small areas of confusion she is facing.

  • Ask her what ideas she currently has in mind for this paper

It’s helpful to establish that you don’t expect her to have perfect ideas. Generally, people don’t love to share ideas they don’t have confidence in. So, I usually say something like:

I know you’re having a hard time with generating and understanding the content for this paper. I’m wondering what types of things you were considering discussing? It’s totally cool if some of your ideas aren’t actually ones you end up using, but I’d love to hear what was on your mind initially.

See where you can go from there! She may have an awesome idea that she just needs to flesh out more, and you can help her to do that.

  • Ask the student what resources she has available to her and suggest additional ones

Students, especially younger ones, often do not know what resources they can draw upon for academic help. Before listing what’s available, you should find out what the student already knows of and has tried so that you don’t suggest things with which she is familiar.

Some students are resistant to seeking academic help because they feel it signifies a failure or incompetence on their part. However, students often respect and look up to their tutors, and this is a chance for you to use your position of authority in a positive way. It can be really helpful for you to mention a time you sought help in a course. Simply mentioning a class in which you struggled and went to the professor’s office hours each week can be enough to flip a switch in the student’s mind that needing and getting academic help is not a bad thing.

If you do not know of resources off the top of your head (although I strongly recommend that you do), then you can Google around with the student to help her get the help she needs.

You’ll notice each of these strategies begins with the word Ask. That’s not a coincidence! When working with this type of student, you should be asking tons of inquisitive and prompting questions. The key idea is to ask, not tell. This may be counterintuitive- the student doesn’t know what she wants to say, so you may feel inclined to tell her what to say. That’s not the best approach because it won’t develop her into a better or self-sufficient writer in the long-run. Asking pointed questions, however, will lead her to new ideas and teach her how to come up with ideas on her own.

Hopefully, now the student has a better idea of what she’d like to argue or present in her paper. She may now become the first case, a student who knows her ideas but struggles with writing. If so, use the strategies I outlined in the first half of this blog post! Or, the student may have been a strong writer all along who just didn’t have a clear idea of her content. That’s great, and now you’ve helped her overcome this obstacle so she can write a great paper.

Overall, these are two very common cases. The more experience you have, the easier it will be for you to distinguish between the two. Having a plan of what to do in each scenario is really important in using your tutoring session as effectively and efficiently as possible. I hope this post helps you to do that!

Photo by Evan Dennis

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