Minimalist Tutoring…Online?

Amy Sexton, Kaplan University Writing Center Tutor

“Minimalist Tutoring: Making the Student Do All the Work” by Jeff Brooks first appeared in The Writing Lab Newsletter almost 25 years ago, long before online learning appreciated the general acceptance it does today in education.   In “Minimalist Tutoring” Brooks (1991) argues that, because the goal of writing tutoring is to help students become better writers, not produce excellent papers, tutors should tutor minimally, assuming a laissez-faire approach when working with students on their writing.   Brooks suggests that when writing tutors work to fix students’ work and make it better, they assume the role of editor, not tutor. Instead of being editors, Brooks recommends that tutors act as interested readers who talk about students’ writing and writing experiences with them.

In his article, Brooks outlines the basics of minimalist tutoring, which include sitting beside the student, adopting an outsider’s stance that places the paper in closer proximity to the student than the tutor, avoiding physically writing on the student’s paper, and asking students to read their work aloud. Brooks also offers three suggestions for “advanced minimalist tutoring” (pp. 3-4). These include pointing out strengths in the paper, asking questions designed to lead students to understanding, and assigning a writing task for the tutee to complete independently while the tutor steps away.   Since most of these principles assume that the tutor and tutee share the same physical space, how can online writing tutors practice minimalist tutoring?

While some of these principles can not be adapted to electronic tutoring, there are practical applications within the spaces and functions that comprise online writing centers.   In our writing center, two of our primary forms of electronic tutoring are paper review (asynchronous) and live tutoring (synchronous), and many of our best practices reflect a minimalist approach to tutoring.

When tutors offer students feedback on their writing, they do so holistically, often discussing higher order concerns like development and organization before pointing out issues with grammar or mechanics, and, as Brooks suggests, they always strive to point out the strengths in students’ writing, not just the weaknesses. While tutors respond to students’ writing electronically, they do not “write on the paper” (Brooks, 1991, p. 3), but instead, use the comment feature in Microsoft Word® to insert comments in the margins of the paper.

In synchronous tutoring, tutors look for ways that students can take charge of the session. For example, students who come to live tutoring asking for a tutor to review their papers are often asked to identify their two or three top concerns about the writing.   Within the live tutoring platform, students are encouraged to share their work with tutors, either by using the screen share feature or uploading their work. Students can also use note pods to take notes during the session, create references and citations with tutors’ assistance, and revise their writing after receiving feedback. They can then e-mail the contents of the note pod to themselves for future reference.

Tutors also often create opportunities for students to work independently between tutorial sessions or paper reviews. They encourage students to revise or edit drafts based on the feedback they receive and then resubmit these later drafts for further review.   Live tutorial sessions are generally limited to 20 or 30 minutes, so sessions often culminate in the tutor giving the student a set of tasks to accomplish and inviting him or her to return for additional work with a tutor.   Lastly, tutors often utilize the techniques of asking students to read their work aloud and guiding students by asking leading questions.

So, while Brooks wrote about minimalist tutoring at a time long before the internet became an integral part of people’s lives and works, and electronic tutoring was far from the norm, many of his tenets for minimal tutoring can, in fact, easily be accomplished in the online environment.


Brooks, J. (!991, February). Minimalist tutoring: Making the student do all the work. Writing Lab Newsletter, 15(6), 1-4. Retrieved from

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