Reflections on Directive and Nondirective Practices in the Writing Center

When she wrote this reflection, Vivian M. Cook was a senior at Iowa State University studying Performing Arts and French.  She worked as a theatrical director, children’s theatre instructor, and communication consultant at ISU’s Writing and Media Center.  

After my first year working as a communication consultant in Iowa State University’s Writing and Media Center, I’ve discovered first and foremost that there is a balance between directive and nondirective strategies that we must strive to find in writing centers. Navigating how to tutor a student who does not have a solid paper and who doesn’t feel confident in their writing has been a challenge, and I sometimes feel like I am becoming too directive. When students are struggling to form and connect ideas, it is often most effective to guide them to brainstorming and writing on their own through nondirective practices. However, in “Power and Authority in Peer Tutoring,” Peter Carino discusses how nondirective tutoring can sometimes lead to confusion and inefficiency in sessions if students cannot understand where the tutor’s knowledge and authority lie. He argues that we cannot “pretend that there is not a hierarchical relationship between tutor and student” (Carino 114). As tutors, it is critical to recognize the fundamental struggles that students are facing when they come to the writing center and what strategies can best address those concerns. Perhaps grammar, word choice, and citations demand more directive practices. Lack of confidence, lack of specificity in thesis, confusing transitions, or vague arguments often require nondirective methods. Learning to detect what students need most will enable us to choose which strategies to utilize effectively.

The majority of students with whom I’ve worked are struggling with confidence in their writing abilities, either because English is not their first language or because they believe they have just never been a good writer. Oral brainstorming and nondirective questioning and guidance work well almost every time that students don’t know where to go next or are lacking specificity in their arguments. Some students are more eager than others to revise and write during the session, while others jot down notes to help them revise later. Sometimes, if students are scared of actually writing down their ideas, I write down their ideas while they talk, helping them to see that they are capable of formulating arguments, analyses, and reflections. Often, the struggles a student is facing become clear to them while reading aloud or discussing their writing.

Working with international students as a French major, I have definitely realized that the lower-order concerns of grammar, vocabulary, and punctuation have to take precedence for some students and that I need to use directive practices to communicate that information most effectively. I appreciated our consultant education discussions about Sharon A. Myers’ “Reassessing the ‘Proofreading Trap’: ESL Tutoring and Writing Instruction” and how native English speakers may not understand the repetition that is needed to achieve these fundamental skills in writing (Myers 286, 290). Many international students may not be able to overcome larger structural and content issues if they don’t feel proficient enough in the use of the language itself. Repetition and correction will help navigate these problems. When I directly give students the tools to address lower-order concerns, we can discuss them briefly before focusing our attentions on higher-order concerns. I’ve even started to become more directive in conversations about thesis statements and essay structure. By responding to their work directly, I can give students a starting point to brainstorm how to revise structure, reorganize, and make sense of their thesis statement in relation to their main points. I know we strive to focus on higher-order concerns at the Writing and Media Center, so I’ve had to remind myself over the year about Myers’ argument and my own experience as a language student. Sometimes, it is necessary to prioritize what is most concerning to the student and may be most inhibiting to their writing process.

By applying theoretical principles to my practice as a communication consultant, I’ve learned that directive tutoring works well when addressing lower-order concerns and even basic higher-order concerns such as fundamental structural problems, thesis location and organization, and topic sentence construction and analysis. When the issues needing to be addressed would be best solved through efficiency and clarity, directive is an effective choice. Non-directive tutoring proves useful and provides freedom and challenge for the student when they are in need of brainstorming, connecting ideas, generating new material, and actually writing content. I plan to continue to explore this balance between directive and nondirective strategies as a communication consultant, and I hope to discover ways to encourage students to prioritize higher-order concerns for themselves and to understand their own directive, nondirective, and revision needs as writers and students.