Amongst many other things (e.g. pre-sessional programmes, general English classes, IELTS and CAE preparation, foundation programmes, in-department support, in-sessional programmes and credit-bearing modules) the ELTC also provides a Writing Advisory Service (WAS) to all students studying at the University of Sheffield. It is not only international students who use this service, home students use it too. In terms of levels, we get a mixture of bachelors students, masters students, PhD students and lifelong learning students. This post is going to talk a bit about what a WAS appointment offers and my experience of doing them.
What is “a WAS”?
It is a writing advisory service appointment which lasts for one hour. Any students studying at the university can book an appointment. Teachers are timatabled WAS slots and these appear on our timetabling system. When a student books an appointment, we are able to access their information by logging in to this system and clicking on the relevant slot. In advance of the appointment, we are able to see a student’s name, their department and course, their nationality and an appointment history. So, if students have been before, we can see a record of what they brought (i.e. what type of writing) and what advice they were given. If it is their first appointment, then obviously this part will be blank. These are not “our” students; in most cases you see a different student every appointment. Occasionally you get needy students who try to book the same tutor every time, but this is discouraged as we don’t want to encourage over-dependence on a particular person.
How does it work?
Students have to report to reception so that reception can mark them as attended, which unlocks the appointment history so that we are able to edit it. As teachers, we have to be at reception just before the session is due to start, to meet the student and take them to the allocated room, which always has a computer in it. Students have to bring a print out of whatever piece of writing they want help with. We are not expected to read stuff on screen, thankfully! Before I look at the piece of writing, I ask the student about it – what is it? what problems do they think they have with it? is there anything in particular they want me to look at (e.g. structure, referencing etc.) – so that I have a context to start from. Then the student has to sit and wait while I read through their writing and identify issues with it.
Once I have had a chance to look through the piece of writing, what follows is a discussion of it with the student. Generally I focus on structural issues first – so problems with the introduction, thesis statement, paragraph topic and concluding sentences, conclusion. Next would be other aspects of cohesion like linking language, demonstratives and catch-all nouns, lexical chains, etc. Then issues of academic style e.g. formality/appropriate vocabulary and referencing. Finally, I’ll pick out a few persistent grammar issues to discuss. The idea is that it’s NOT a proofreading service, it’s an opportunity for students to learn how to write better, based on a piece of their writing. Therefore, ideally, we need to equip students to deal with their issues independently. One way of doing this, for example, is using www.wordandphrase.info/academic to model how to use it to answer questions relating to what word to use and how to use it. We also direct them to various websites such as the Manchester Phrasebank.
The final stage of the appointment is writing it up in the student’s appointment record notes as they have access to these notes. The notes are written to the student, as they are for the student to refer back to, rather than being written in lesson record style. I usually get the student to tell me what we’ve talked about, as a way to reinforce what we have done, and write that into their records, pasting in any links we have used in the course of the session too.
This is a recording which lives on the Writing Advisory Service web page. Students can watch in advance of their appointment, in order to know what to expect.
My experience of WAS’s
- It’s not uncommon to get a no-show! Students are encouraged to cancel in advance if they can’t make it but sometimes that doesn’t happen. They may get caught up in whatever else they are doing or forget they made the appointment etc. Repeat offenders get banned from making appointments for a period of time.
- When students do show up (which is most of the time, to be fair!), they are very enthusiastic and appreciative. They want to do well in whatever assignment it is they are working on and recognise that what you are discussing with them can help them with this.
- The first one you ever do is terrifying and difficult, but as with so many things, with experience it gets much easier. You learn what to look out for and how to help students get to grips with those issues. You learn not to be daunted by whatever is put in front of you, however obscure it may seem at first.
- Because I teach EAP generally, it’s easy to pick out materials from our electronic stores of them, to illustrate what I am trying to explain to students. This is very helpful!
- You get to see a wide range of different types of writing from different subjects. It can be a bit scary to be faced with an essay full of legalese, especially if you are a bit tired anyway (as with my slot last thing on a Friday!), but you get used to looking beyond the subject specific stuff (which we aren’t expected to be experts on!).
- They are enjoyable! It’s a bit of a faff because I, like my colleagues in this building, are in a different building to where the appointments happen, so though it’s an hour’s appointment, with the walking there and back etc it’s nearer an hour and a half of time gone, but once you’re there and doing it, the hour flies!
Do you have anything like this where you work? How does it work?