Peer tutors help you make the grade

Peer tutors spend time helping their fellow students improve academic skills.

By Chance Joyner

National Grammar Day was March 4. Did you march forth and profess your love for good grammar? Perhaps you were a little too nervous to express yourself.

If you don’t want to be left in a comma coma next year, or you just need help writing an important paper, the FSC Tutor Center can help.

Peer tutors are professor-recommended students with a 3.5 to 4.0 in their subject. They have also completed a 10-hour master tutor seminar. All you have to do is fill out a short form in the Tutor Center on the third floor of Hammond, and you will be teamed up with a peer tutor.

While they will assist you in strengthening your skills, peer tutors won’t write your papers for you. “Doing the work for you doesn’t work,” says Thomas Rousseau, assistant dean of academic support services.

Marybeth Donlan, a writing peer tutor, says she works with between eight and 13 people in a semester. “I focus on the process of writing, how to be a better writer,” Donlan says.

Donlan somehow finds the time to meet with her many students up to twice a week. “Having consistency means I’m familiar with their needs,” she says. “That lets me focus on individual needs instead of being a blanket guide.”

Each student has a different method of writing. Some people just start writing whatever comes into their head; others write outlines. The hardest part is often just getting started. No matter what your style, Rousseau says, it is important to devote enough time to writing a quality paper; your grade reflects the amount of time and effort you put into it.

“Reflection and planning are keys to improving grammar,” says Rousseau. “Writing tutors help you to stop and reflect.”

Donlan adds, “Talking about the assignment simplifies it.” She says it is important to bring the assignment to a tutoring session, because just decoding the directions accurately is a major component of the project. You need to ask yourself a few questions: Do my ideas fulfill the requirements of the rubric? What is my thesis? Do my ideas and evidence support my thesis? “We get a dialogue going, and they realize how they want to start it,” says Donlan.

“If you start early, you can re-read your paper and notice obvious mistakes that can make a huge difference in your grade,” adds Donlan. She also helps writers by having them read papers aloud. “Reading aloud helps you call attention to errors,” she says.

One of the major errors Donlan notices in student papers is tense shifting. “A paper starts in past, shifts to present, then drifts back to past,” she says. This can by dizzying for a reader.

She also says that it’s critical to make sure that everything in the paper connects to your thesis. “Assumptions are made that the reader knows what you’re talking about, but it is not explicitly stated,” she says. “If you think you’re being explicit enough, push it further.”

And then there’s the dreaded comma, the bane of every writer’s existence. The OWL, Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab, has a handy guide to 15 common comma errors (owl.english.purude.edu/owl). The FSC Writing Center’s website also includes links to guides for citing papers in MLA, APA, and Chicago Style format (fsc.edu/writingctr).  And Diana Hacker’s “Rules for Writers” is a crucial tome for every writer’s bookshelf. Hacker also has a website with free online resources and style guides. Trying the resource lets you learn for yourself and helps you retain the information better.

Another tricky thing to be aware of is Word, Microsoft’s ubiquitous word processing software. Spell check can be both a savior and a curse, Donlan says, so you should always pay attention to what spell check is suggesting before blindly accept its changes. Donlan once read a paper in which the misspelled word diagnosis had been errantly replaced with dragoness, leading to a humorous misunderstanding. Donlan accepts that it is easy to let Word do all the work. “It even capitalizes I for you!” she says, but you must actively pay attention to what it is doing to your writing. The grammar checker is rarely right, she says, but it can help you spot when you are writing in passive voice, something that is off limits for strong essays.

Everyone has his or her own grammatical pet peeves. Rousseau bristles at the thought of mixing up they’re, their, and there. “Some teachers hate contractions,” says Donlan. This reporter just wishes people would learn the difference between you’re and your.

Ultimately, Donlan says, conversation is one of the most effective planning strategies in the writing process. “Trial and error, taking the time to experiment, and setting aside enough time to meet over more than one appointment are important to tearing the paper apart,” she says.

Rousseau adds two main questions you should ask yourself about each aspect of your paper: “Why did you include it? How does it work?”

Tutoring takes time, but it may ultimately save you time and improve your skills and your grades.

“You can’t come in at 9 if your paper is due at 10,” says Rousseau. “Don’t wait until it’s too late!” he urges with a smile.

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