Advice for Tutoring Confrontational Tutees

By: Kevin Miller, Benjamin Freedman, and Jesse Bulson-Lewis

The synopsis of our tutoring presentation was how to effectively tutor an unwilling tutee. Specifically, a tutee went into the COWS seeking help on his first Encounters paper. The tutee and tutor had different ideas of what constituted a tutoring session, and thus the tutee was unwilling to receive the tutor’s constructive comments. In other words, instead of listening to the tutor’s suggestions, the tutee was offended by what he perceived as the tutor personally attacking his paper, and dismissed constructive criticism. Furthermore, the tutee was also dismissive of the tutoring session as a process, and instead thought that a tutoring session meant editing.

The tutoring session began with the tutor asking the tutee what the topic of the essay was, and then instructing the tutee to read the introductory paragraph out loud. By the time the tutee finished reading, it was evident that the thesis of the paper was not completely clear due to unclear terms such as “objective judging,”  and “practical perspective” being poorly defined. Unfortunately, the tutee was unable to define their own terms verbally when prompted by the tutor, so the thesis itself lacked clarity. In response, the tutee claimed that the arguments were in fact perfectly clear, and it was simply the tutor’s fault that they were unable to ascertain the intended meaning. This general theme of conflict carried on throughout the tutoring session, and the tutee continued to reject any and all advice as personal attacks on the writing. Finally, the confrontation came to its summit, at which point the tutor took a step back and explained that he was simply trying to help the tutee become a better writer, and was genuinely interested in what the paper was trying to say, that the tutee felt comfortable, and actually began to listen to advice. Once this basic level of trust was built, the tutor explained that a great place to start improving the paper would be to gain a better understanding of the terms used in the thesis, and then provide a precise definition for said terms. The tutor further explained that it is essential to ground definitions and examples in the text. The tutee finally accepted the advice, and the session ended optimistically.

While we have been talking in class about various tutoring techniques, actually working as a tutor, albeit in mock session, permitted us to implement those ideas as we would in an actual tutoring session. Since we were not actually following the script verbatim, we frequently had to ad-lib responses just as an actual tutor might have had to. This in turn required us to try and respond to social cues, and we think that this showed both us and the audience the difficulties of working with a tutee who really does not want anything beyond proofreading. A good tutor has to practice patience and self-control, finding the balance between reassuring the student that the paper is a good one well-worth developing, and pushing the student to develop his ideas clearly and accurately. This is a balance that is especially hard to find with such a resistant and combative student.

Hearing the feedback from our peers was also helpful, as they had some different ideas on our fictional scenario. One person suggested that maybe, when the student became too aggressive and rude, the tutor should have pushed back more and made it explicitly clear that that sort of conduct was not acceptable. Another theme that flowed through the post-skit discussion was the question of how to reconcile the peer-to-peer relationship that students at Whitman have with the slightly more unegalitarian power dynamic between tutor and tutee. While we as a class did not come to a firm resolution on any of the issues, the discussion served well to help us understand the complexities of tutoring in a much more concrete fashion.

Tutoring Writing: Just Summary

By Taylor, Kenya and Spencer

For our Tutoring in Writing presentation, we decided to practice tutoring a student who brings in a paper that is mostly summary and lacks a true thesis. While deciding how to approach the assignment and what paper we could use as a sample to read aloud in class, we took a moment to look back at our own Encounters essays. When Taylor looked back through her Frankenstein essay, she  realized that it had the exact problem we were focusing on – the essay lacked a formal thesis and was almost exclusively a summary of the text. This was perfect for us to use because it was a real, well-written essay that resembled something a student would actually submit.

Next we read through the paper together, as if we were in a COWS tutoring session. Taylor would make comments about her thought process while working on the paper, and at the same time Kenya was looking at the paper from the perspective of a tutor. We knew it was important to draw out parts of the essay that were interesting and could be developed further, potentially into a new thesis statement. It turned out that most of Taylor’s argument was shoved towards the end of the paper, when she had felt she was “allowed” to expand on her otherwise very basic thesis. This was interesting because it got us thinking about the different experiences students may have had in high school and even some college classes. Each teacher and professor wants something different, and students often feel that they need to follow a very specific set of rules while writing. We believe that this is a good thing for any tutor to keep in mind.

We also focused on the use of quotes in the paper. Instead of using the quotes to advance an argument, they were merely working to summarize the text. Taylor remembered adding the quotes because she knew she needed a certain minimum amount of evidence, rather than because she felt they were integral to her argument. This is a mistake a lot of freshmen make, so it was important for us to address it.

Spencer acted as an outside observer, commenting on and summarizing our (arguably very real) tutoring session. Sometimes it can be hard to recognize what sort of dynamics are present in a tutoring session while you are in the midst of it, so it was useful to hear the session summarized in a logistical way.

Our actual presentation consisted of a short reenactment of our original tutoring session, followed by Spencer’s explanatory synopsis. Part of the presentation involved reading the paper aloud, which revealed just how boring a summary-based essay can be, regardless of how well it is written. After the first few paragraphs, every time Taylor moved on to a new section, someone in the classroom would sigh in disappointment. It must have felt as if it would never end. While slightly embarrassing, the class’s reaction emphasized just how important an interesting, arguable thesis is to any good paper.

Overall, we felt that this assignment was an excellent learning experience because it allowed us to practice tutoring a very real situation that a COWS tutor is bound to encounter on a regular basis.      

Assistance on Senior Thesis


Tutee: senior working on thesis; too many ideas, too broad, need a focus

Tutor: help narrow your ideas; condense important info

Goal: smaller goal, know which steps to start taking


Assistance on Senior Thesis

            A student came in with a 10-page draft of her senior thesis proposal, on sociology, and needs help with narrowing down the focus of her paper. The first challenge is to clarify the direction of research and ideas. The second challenge is that the tutor is unfamiliar with the tutee’s field of research. The third challenge is that the tutor has not experienced a thesis project.

The tutee came in knowing what struggles she wanted to address. The tutee seeks suggestions on how to narrow down ideas so as to better explore nuances in her research. The tutor asks the tutee to explain the theoretical framework and how that relates to the thesis topics, so she can have a basic understanding of the thesis project. After explaining, the best course of action is to examine the thesis statement, as this is the blueprint of the paper. Here, ideas can be introduced and condensed effectively to guide the rest of the work.

The tutor asks what motivates the tutee to choose specific topics to study, prompting an opportunity for the tutee to explain the multiple aspects of her thesis statement. The tutee proceeds to explain her personal connection to the research and justifies her thesis, while unknowingly leaning more towards one specific idea than another. Tutor discerns and points this out to the tutee, suggesting that she focus solely on the topic she has expressed the most interest in. However, the tutee expresses that both aspects interest her; she has difficulty detaching herself from any one idea, as she has significant academic investment in each area.

As a compromise, the tutor recommends that the tutee shift the bulk of her attention to the first topic while keeping the second one in the back of her mind so that it is not completely eliminated from the paper. The tutee recalls her writing process, in which it was hard to find empirical data and academic resources on the second aspect. Through the discussion, the tutor and the tutee mutually agree with adding the second aspect into the “future research” section.