Reflections on Tutor Research and Lessons Learned

By Chrissine Rios, Kaplan University Writing Center

Woman sitting at computer

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I took a Teacher Research course during the first semester of my graduate program. I would be teaching composition as a graduate assistant the following semester, so I had thought learning the latest trends and methods of teacher research would prepare me for the vigor of being a scholarly Composition instructor and lifelong academic. But course descriptions tend not to cover everything about a class, and like many students at one time or another while pursuing their degrees, I was immediately overwhelmed by what I had signed up for.

The big research project—the one that would last all semester and account for the entire grade required the use of our current students as subjects. Apparently, my classmates had earned their bachelor’s degrees in education and were already teaching at primary and secondary schools, so while they collected release forms for using their students as research subjects, I with my bachelor’s in Spanish—speaking, reading, and writing it, not teaching it—faced my greatest fear at the time: not acing a course. I couldn’t bear it, so I came up with a plan, or more actually, I realized the most obvious solution: I would conduct a tutor research project.

I had been tutoring since my sophomore year, and one of my tutees at that time had a reading disability and was failing Composition I because of it. She couldn’t understand abstractions, so if a word did not represent a physical object, she had difficulty knowing what it meant, and she especially couldn’t synthesize what she had read to identify a theme or main idea. Using her as my research subject seemed ideal not only for me but her. The project would give me more opportunity to learn how to better help her.

I proposed my tutor-research idea to my professor who also headed the graduate-level teacher education program. She was somewhat skeptical but approved of my project, and the semester went swimmingly until the end, specifically, until the day I had to present my findings in front of my class of fellow teacher researchers.

The presentation began well enough. I spoke about my tutee’s reading disability and how recording the sessions enabled me to analyze my methods such as her out-loud reading and our discussions. I remember that she had responded well to annotating context clues as she read to determine a paragraph’s organization and purpose. Paragraphs with words such as first, next, then, and finally, for example would be a chronological organization used for narrating events over a period of time, and paragraphs with words such as because, consequently, and for this reason would indicate cause and effect. I also cited research on active reading and strategies for boosting comprehension, and then I presented my conclusion:

The best tutoring methods to help my student were first to listen to her verbally summarize what she read and second, to talk with her about her impressions, observations, and understanding until she was able to determine a theme, purpose, or point and finally be able to say something about it in her own words and writing.

And that’s when the heat from the projector lighting my PowerPoint behind me intensified. The looks on the faces of my peers as I stood before them seemed to ask, “That’s it? A semester of research and you discovered that you just have to listen and then talk about it?” Even to me, my conclusion was anticlimactic. But I’ve now been tutoring for 20 years, and there remains no better tutoring strategies than active listening and student-led, tutor-facilitated discussion. The methods may seem basic, but they require skill too when you consider the tutor’s job isn’t to tell students the answers but help students uncover the answers on their own: to learn them.

My professor gave me an A- for my tutor research in her teacher research course, which at the time, I felt, tarnished my perfect GPA, but my student who had been failing? She earned a C+ and went on to Composition II. I also went on to teach Composition knowing to give students not only time to complete the assigned readings but time to talk about them among one another. If I could go back and defend my results again, I’d share my ultimate finding: true learning goes further than any grade, and it lasts a lifetime.

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