Laptop-to-laptop tutoring helps students gain college-level writing skills

“This isn’t ninth grade writing anymore” seems to be the breakthrough statement that clicks with Case Western Reserve University students tutored in writing by Susan Dominguez.

It’s no easy task to make the leap from high school to college-level writing, said Dominguez, an English department lecturer and a consultant at the university’s Writing Resource Center (WRC). Some students need help in mastering the conventions of academic writing and developing clear, well-supported arguments.

At Case Western Reserve, they can receive such help during face-to-face tutoring sessions with WRC consultants at four campus locations. But they can also reach Dominguez via their computers.

Online tutoring was the topic of Dominguez’s presentation at the 2012 annual conference of the East Central Writing Centers Association (ECWCA), a regional affiliate of the International Writing Centers Association. The meeting in Indianapolis attracted nearly 300 participants from colleges and universities in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

In Dominguez’s presentation, “Tutoring with my Laptop: Out of the cubicle onto the Internet,” she described her experience conferring with students in cyberspace about their writing. During each virtual tutoring session, she and the student are online at the same time, communicating directly with each other.

Dominguez, who also teaches in the SAGES program, has been with the Writing Resource Center for four years, tutoring both domestic and international undergraduates and graduate students in 30- or 60-minute sessions. She has extensive experience in English as a Second Language instruction and trained in traditional tutoring while earning her doctorate in American Studies from Michigan State University.

The main purpose of tutoring is not to edit a student’s writing, Dominguez explained. “You need to ask the right questions that help students take a new direction, and a better one, in their writing,” she said.

Dominguez uses the Google platform for her virtual tutoring. Once a paper is saved in Google Docs, she and the student can view it simultaneously and discuss it via the chat function in Google Mail. She does not use Skype or videoconferencing, having found that these platforms make some students uncomfortable.

Among the benefits of virtual tutoring, Dominguez cites the ease with which she can integrate resources like Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab, considered one of the best sources of writing advice, into the process. She also noted that students with disabilities sometimes find it easier to communicate via the computer than in person.

But online tutoring has drawbacks, too. Multitasking students are sometimes distracted by email messages and disappear from a session. When this occurs, Dominguez has found that a quick chat message—“Are you still with me?”—is enough to summon them back.

Dominguez has also learned that not all students know how to use Word functions that can help them with their writing. So, for instance, she makes a point of explaining the green or red underlines that can alert them to misspellings or grammatical errors.

On the whole, Dominguez believes face-to-face conferences are still the most effective form of tutoring, so whenever possible, she tries to have the online students make their first session an in-person one.

“It gives us the opportunity to see each other, understand our different styles of doing things and set some goals,” Dominguez said.

At the same time, Dominguez recognizes that “students are more comfortable in using technology, and this is one way to reach them in a way that might be different from traditional tutoring.”

Whatever the tutoring format, she said, the goal is the same: better academic writing.