How Does the Writing Place Serve Distance Learning Students?

by Kristina Wilson


By day, I’m a Learning Designer in the School of Professional Studies. When I meet with faculty members who are designing or revising online courses, I often advocate for the needs of online students, saying, “Online students prefer X,” or “Online students need Y.” But wait, how do I know what students want or need if I’m not in a teaching role? Sure, there are research-based standards like Quality Matters, but I wanted to interface with adult and distance learning students directly and ask them those questions. What do you prefer? What do you need?

So by night, I’m a tutor at the Schaffner Library Writing Place on the Chicago campus, where I meet one-on-one with students about their writing. We can meet either online or in-person, and I’ll dive into the options soon, but first let’s dispel a few myths about writing tutoring.

A writing tutor is not a copy editor. Although we do give advice on grammar and style guides such as APA and MLA, we are not primarily editors. Our conversations, as you’ll soon learn, may range from organization and tone to following the directions of the prompt. We try to empower students to make editing changes on their own.

A writing tutor is a coach, not a judge. Students shouldn’t feel ashamed to bring their work to the Writing Place. We will never shame or judge students who are trusting us with their work, but instead try to have a balanced conversation to identify areas for improvement and coach improvement in writing.

What services does the Writing Place offer distance students?

The Writing Place offers distance students–indeed, all students–a variety of services. Although most students think to bring essays and reports, tutors can address a wide variety of writing types. This might include critical or creative work for classes, from poems to presentation slides, or writing that falls outside of class commitments, such as resumes, grant proposals, and high-stakes e-mails. If it’s written, we can talk about it.

Students may also meet with us at any stage of the writing process. Most commonly, students bring first or final drafts of longer written pieces. It’s important to know that we can assist much earlier in the process, too! We are pleased to help with brainstorming, outlining, and organization in addition to consulting on already-written work.

What might our conversation look like? First, the tutor typically asks a few questions, such as the prompt and audience for your writing, and if there are any specific questions or goals you have for your work. Then the tutor has to read the work, as they are typically seeing it for the first time. The tutor can read a student’s work silently or aloud, or the student can read their own work aloud. Then, it’s off to the races, with the tutor and student making real time edits, notes, comments, and suggestions.

It’s important to note that, although writing tutors are usually pretty good at trivia, they are not specialists in every field–nor do they need to be. Although I don’t have a background in medical informatics, global health, public policy, or predictive analytics, I will have plenty to bring to the conversation. Tutors will often read as “the public” or an “outsider” to workshop for clarity and use of jargon. Tutors may not know everything, but they are adept at finding writing resources and helping students form questions to ask of you–their instructors!

How does the Writing Place meet with distance students?

Distance students are welcome to make appointments at the Writing Place. In fact, our online appointment system is also our online meeting software, and our tutors are familiar with online, synchronous consulting. WCOnline is similar to Google Docs in that both parties can edit a shared document and watch in real time as edits are made. A text chat–but no audio or video–accompanies this system.

However, we are also flexible with our online meeting styles. Students who prefer to have a spoken conversation could request a phone call with both parties looking at a shared document (typically a Word document sent as an e-mail attachment or a shared Google Doc). A Blue Jeans video conference with screen sharing could also be a great option. Students can select the option that suits them best.

How can you inform your students about the Writing Place?

By now, I’m sure you’re convinced that the Writing Place has a lot to offer your students. So how do you get them to make an appointment?

First, mention the Writing Place on your syllabus, linking to both the Schaffner Library page, which provides appointment policies, and the Writing Place appointment and online meeting system. You could also create a Resources page in your course site and mention the Writing Place there. This won’t just point students in the direction of the Writing Place, it’ll help meet Quality Matters Standard 7.3: “Course instructions articulate or link to an explanation of how the institution’s academic support services and resources can help learners succeed in the course and how learners can obtain them.”

You might also find unconventional places to name-drop the Writing Place. Try including it in assignment descriptions, especially for key checkpoints like proposals, drafts, and outlines. The same goes for announcements, especially those that summarize class performance on an assignment or reinforce writing assignment deadlines.

You might have an idea of where this is going next; you can mention the Writing Place when giving students feedback on their work. This isn’t very useful at a final draft stage, as you will want students to be able to make changes based on your feedback and a Writing Place consultation, but it could work well for earlier work in the course. Make specific suggestions for improvement and propose an appointment at the Writing Place.

Although this can be an effective time to mention the Writing Place, it can also be a sensitive time. Students could perceive your suggestion as remedial or punitive, so it is important to provide context and sandwich the suggestion with positive feedback. What are they already doing well? What could they improve?

If you want your students to develop a close relationship with the Writing Place, you could even require an appointment as part of an assignment. For example, students might compose a draft, workshop it with a tutor at the Writing Place, make changes, and turn in the revised work with a short reflection of the experience.


Don’t forget that the Writing Place is also available for faculty and staff use! If you’re writing something–anything–and want a second look, bring it by.

If you have any questions about Writing Place, the services it provides, how it meets the needs of distance students, or how you can encourage your students to visit, please contact Learning Designer Krissy Wilson.

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