Information Sheet #17

November 11, 1988


Lisa Spellman-Trimble

Asking the right questions in a tutoring session is vital to the success of the conference and the learning process of the student. The necessity for consultants asking the appropriate, non-threatening questions may seem an obvious fact in the writing center business, but so often it is the obvious that is most easily overlooked. The wrong questions can lead the consultant and student astray, causing them both to concentrate on unimportant issues. A successful writing center needs to keep the spotlight on the obvious.

To discover what questions consultants were asking most often and how effective those questions were, out writing center staff developed the following training exercise. In one of our weekly meetings, the consultants contributed the questions they thought they asked most often. They also considered questions for conferences suggested in Donald Murray's "Learning by Teaching." From this list, Dr. Marrs selected ten model questions and reproduced them on a worksheet (see A Set of Model Questions at the end of this essay). Spaces 11 and 12 were left blank for consultants to write in any questions they found themselves asking that were not on the sheet.

In addition to discovering the staff's most popular questions, the study has three further objectives. First, the exercise was designed to remind consultants that their role as askers of questions is often more important then as givers of information. Most consultants had already discovered that when they did not use questions for inviting students to participate actively in the conference, the consultants found themselves dominating a session, jumping to conclusions about the writer's intentions, and never learning what the writer thought of her paper. Communication broke down and the conferences were not effective.

The second objective was to help consultants perceive what kind of questions they asked, how often they asked them, and how effective each question was. In addition to informal discussion, staff training sessions, and each consultant's journal writing, the project sought to help consultants become conscious of their tutorial techniques.

A third objective was to broaden the consultants' range of questions. For each consultant, the list contained several unfamiliar questions. The model question form was not intended to impose a rigid format for each conference. Rather the form gave the staff a disciplined approach for exploring new questions and discovering their impact on the tutoring session.

The exercise proceeded in the following way. Each consultant received a sheet with the ten questions. After each session, consultants marked the number of times they estimated each question was used. For each question, the consultants chose one session in which they described how the question was used and analyzed its effectiveness. The sheet also required consultants to estimate how many times they asked a follow-up question of the original listed. This data would suggest which questions most often required follow-up tactics to elicit the desired information.

At the end of a month, each consultant evaluated the questions. They sorted the questions into three groups: excellent questions that consistently proved helpful; good questions that worked occasionally in the right situations; and finally, ineffective questions or those seldom used. The consultants completed the exercise by discussing the one question that was most effective in the majority of sessions.

Over 60 conferences were reported on by the eight consultants who completed the study. Six filled out the questionnaires in great detail; two made only minimal comments. Despite a wide range of responses, some patterns were immediately evident. The consultants most often asked, and ranked as most effective, questions 1, 3, 4, and 10.

Question 1, dealing with the main idea or thesis, was asked in almost all conferences. One consultant comments that "if the student is unable to tell you this in a few sentences, the paper probably does not either." Questions 3 and 4, asking students what they liked and disliked about their papers were asked in over 90% of the conferences. Also, the majority of the staff frequently used question 10, asking if the students had any questions concerning what the consultant had said or suggested in the conference.

Only two consultants asked about the future direction of the paper or how it compared with previous work. "Most times there was nothing to compare it to," commented one consultant. "Many of the students I saw were writing on their particular subject, and for this professor, for the first time."

Six of the consultants added questions of their own in spaces 11 and 12. All six added some form of a two‑part question: What is the assignment for this class? Do you understand the assignment? The consultants found that many students did not understand the nature of the assignment or what the instructor expected. Consultants found that most conferences concentrated on helping students more fully understand the assignment's requirements.

Many consultants used the sheet to remind them of useful questions and to check themselves as well. Other consultants found that helping the students find their mistakes was far better than simply identifying the problems. On question 4, asking students to point out their weak areas, one consultant admitted that she was still locating problems for a student and not letting the writer discover this herself.

This same consultant switched question 6 around and found it to be more effective. "Instead of asking the students what they were surprised to learn in their papers, I told them what I, as a reader, either did or did not learn." She hoped this sharing of response would give the students a better idea of audience, and how at least one friendly reader responded to the text.

The consultants said they found the handout to be useful. One commented, "that the sheet reminded me which questions were most effective." Another consultant noted that "these were useful for me to look at when I was stuck in a particularly difficult conference and did not quite know where to go next."

Perhaps the greatest danger from this system is that consultants would mechanically repeat these 10 "best" questions and always stick to them. We hope that consultants will explore new questioning techniques. At the same time we need to continue evaluating the questions we ask. Exercises such as the one described in this paper are just one of the techniques for keeping the obvious obvious.

A Set of Model Questions for Tutoring

(For each question, the consultant indicates the number of times used, the follow-up questions, and a description of one session.)

  1. Main idea: What is the paper's main idea? What is the thesis?

  2. History of the paper: How did this paper develop? What works best?

  3. Good points: What do you like best about the paper? What works best?

  4. Weak points: What do you like least about the paper?

  5. Incomplete: Where is your writing incomplete, or missing supporting details?

  6. Surprise: What surprised you in writing this? What did you learn?

  7. Readers: How will your audience respond? Where will the audience have trouble?

  8. Future direction: Where is this paper going? How will you revise this paper?

  9. Comparison: How does this paper compare with others you have done?

  10. Questions: What questions do you have of me?

  11. __________________________________________________________

  12. __________________________________________________________

[Lisa Spellman-Trimble graduated this past May after having worked in the Coe Writing Center for 18 months. The exercise she describes was conducted at Coe in the spring of 1987. A slightly longer version of this essay first appeared in the May issue of the Writing Lab Newsletter, published by Purdue University.]

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