Online Tutoring via Email: 90% Awesome


During this semester in my CURRINS 547 class, wee are tutoring high school students with their papers via email and the collaborative word processor, Google Docs. I already have some experience with tutoring here at the University level, so it’s been interesting to work with students at the high school level. I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to interact with younger students! So far, most of this experience has been fabulous, but it’s early and I can already sense a few things that might be limitations on this form of tutoring.


The great part is that, when these students send papers, I can take my time to look at them and not feel pressured to make snap comments on the finer points of the paper. It furthermore allows me the freedom to read through the piece a couple times before making any comments at all (without feeling like I’m wasting the writer’s time). That’s awesome for me because I generally need time to develop my thoughts, so I tend to feel uncomfortable with what I say if I haven’t thought it through thoroughly. Even better, I have the time to concentrate on the higher-order concerns of the paper instead of working hard to ignore the lower-order concerns for the time being. These writers deserve individualized and respectful feedback on what they’ve had the courage to show me, and this format of tutoring helps me do that.

Tangible Feedback

Another good part is that the writer will have something tangible to keep as a part of the tutoring interaction. Students may refer back to the comments often to see how they might incorporate them into their work (much like the hard-copy form of commenting). This can be especially helpful when there is encouragement to be found among the comments. If I can pinpoint the great things they’re doing in their paper, then they’ll have the option of looking back often on those comments to help themselves continue to write in ways that work.

Building Relationships = Enhanced Feedback

The last big pro that I have for this email correspondence method is that we’ll be working with these students all semester. I’ll be able to tune my ear to the voices in their papers so that I can see them in their work. This differs from work at the Writing Center because, for the most part, we don’t have regular sessions with writers. We have appointments which can last 30 or 60 minutes, and each writer can have a maximum of two hours per week. It is also the student’s choice and responsibility to create and attend the appointment. In a similar manner, it is now the high schoolers’ responsibility to correspond regularly with me during this semester, and this partnership has no time limits at all. I will be curious to watch out for the differences that accumulate during the semester.


A Setback Regarding Feedback

Feedback is not instant. These students are to incorporate the comments we add to their papers in their revisions for a grade, so there is a time crunch. Not that I don’t answer regularly, but I can only work on emails from the group of tutees when I’ve got the time (which may not fit the time frame that the student was thinking of). I have decided to ask each student about when they’re hoping to see my comments whenever they submit a piece to me so that I know when I *must* have it done (I’d hate to return the paper too late). On a similar note, if I have a question or need clarification on something, I have to ask it in an email and wait for a reply. Most of the time it’s a minor question of little significance to the whole of the paper. However, when the confusion involves a point that is integral to the purpose of the paper, the email correspondence slows the tutoring process down a bit.

(P.S. To try out the online tutoring module at the Writing Center, students at UWM can find out more at the Writing Center website. To make an appointment, simply click on the yellow starburst in the top-right corner and follow instructions to create a profile and appointment)

At the Writing Center here on campus, we also have online tutoring! The format is different, though: it is in an IM chat window. This presents another realm of pros and cons, but I prefer that form for the instantaneous responses that it facilitates. I find that this form is more mimetic of a face-to-face conference. I can understand the difficulties of that, though, if we were to try that with the high school students. First of all, we have many tutees, so it would be an improbable feat to fit them all in during the school day. High schoolers have a lot on their plate too (just like college students), so it’d be VERY difficult to match up online appointments.

This is, in the end, not a bad system at all. I’m enjoying the process for the most part, and I suspect that this will go smoother as the year proceeds. Wish us luck!



2 responses to “Online Tutoring via Email: 90% Awesome

  1. It’s neat to be reading Hicks in conjunction with our service learning. I feel I definitely identify with his pros and cons of the collaborative online workspace, which is what your post here reminds me of. While I’ve done some electronic tutoring for a class in the far gone 2007, I feel technology has already advanced to make my interactions with students this time around so much smoother. It makes me wonder about what online tutoring will be like in the next few years!


  2. You make some great points about the pros (and cons) of giving feedback via email. I wonder what your take will be giving feedback via GoogleDocs. It may have a more “instant” feel yet perhaps feel more impersonal. We shall have to see.


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