Two Heads Are Better: An Experiment in Paired Skype Tutoring

Satellite Locations, Technology, The Online Writing Center, Tutorial Talk and Methods, Uncategorized, Writing Center Tutors / Monday, September 8th, 2014
Picture of the author
Picture of the author in Madison, WI.

By Leah Misemer

Leah Misemer is a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she has been working as a Writing Center instructor for three years.  She served as the TA Coordinator of the Online Writing Center at UW-Madison for the 2013-14 school year.

Usually, we think of a writing center appointment as a collaboration between two people, the tutor and the student.  If there are more than two people in an appointment, we frequently assume that there are more students working with a single tutor.  In the Spring of 2014, my Skype team, in a professional development activity modeled after a previous in-person paired tutoring experiment, discovered that there are many benefits to sharing the task of instruction, both for instructors and writers. Jessie Gurd and I had complementary skills and working together showed us not only the gaps in our knowledge, but also offered strategies to help us fill those gaps.

The Writing Center at UW-Madison has offered Skype instruction for a few years now.  During a normal Skype appointment, a student and instructor from the Skype team chat via Skype while working through a draft together using Google docs.  The intimacy of being able to hold or have an appointment from your home or your dorm coupled with the affordances offered in the shared space of the Google doc, make Skype appointments rewarding experiences.  In a previous blog post, instructor Anne Wheeler reflected on the many affordances and opportunities Skype offers.  However, like most writing center appointments, Skype appointments are mostly between one student and one tutor.

In the Spring of 2014, as the TA Coordinator of the Online Writing Center, I led an activity that challenged the assumption that writing center instruction is a one person task by asking my Skype team members to pair up for a shift.  In order to make logistics as simple as possible for students, we decided that tutors would pair up in person and share a computer, rather than working together virtually, which would have made the experience something like a conference call.   Afterwards, we debriefed about the experience as a team.

Paired Skype Screenshot
A screenshot of Jessie Gurd and I during our paired Skype session. This is the view students saw during the appointment.

On the day we were supposed to work as a pair, Jessie Gurd and I met at her house a little before Skype appointments started for the day to set up and talk about how we would run the appointment. We decided that she would be “in charge” most of the time, meaning she would speak first and she would have control of the keyboard. We modified our sign up sheet to let students know they would be working with two tutors this evening, and then we were off. When a student signed on, he or she got to see both of our smiling faces on the screen.

Here are some notes I wrote immediately after the session:

Paired Skype tutoring sign up sheet
We wanted our sign up sheet to show students that they would be working with two instructors. Click to view a larger version of the image.

“Teaching with Jessie was an interesting experience, moreso than I originally thought it would be.  We worked with two students Jessie knows already, so I felt a bit like the odd one out at first.  However, as we took turns offering opinions during the session, we found that we frequently agreed with one another and were able to reinforce suggestions by modeling multiple audience members for the writer.Both the students we worked with seemed genuinely pleased to have two perspectives on their writing.  We both noticed that we pay attention to drafts in very different ways even though both our comments were largely structural: whereas I’m someone who pays attention to more broad concepts, Jessie thinks about how the style of writing influences how ideas come across.  I think working together helped us see our different approaches in a way that working alone does not. “ 

Overall, as these notes suggest, both students and instructors found this to be a positive experience. Students loved having two readers because they got to see how their draft played with multiple audiences. They also were privileged to have two people excited and enthusiastic about their work, which can help build writer confidence.  Paired tutoring also helped build tutor confidence. I consider myself a seasoned instructor, but there will still sometimes be moments in an appointment where I wonder if what I’m doing is best for the student or right for the assignment. When another instructor is sitting with you, you get to verify your teaching choices with another well-trained, talented teacher.

In addition to building instructor confidence, paired Skype tutoring, in my case, put two complementary instruction styles together, which benefited students and tutors.  As my notes suggest, Jessie tended to focus on global concerns by looking at style, while I tended to suggest reorganization on a paragraph level.

Dog and Cat Yin Yang
The author’s dog and cat pose as yin and yang. Like Jessie and Leah during their paired Skype appointment, they complement one another.

On the one hand, when you put both of us together, the student received two different kinds of quality instruction that helped the paper improve, whereas, if we had been working alone, the student would have received only my kind of instruction or Jessie’s kind of instruction.   On the other hand, as tutors, both of us were not only able to see the gaps in our teaching styles, but also observed a model that would help us address those gaps in the future.  After this session, I started thinking more about how working on individual sentences can help improve student papers.

While many of these lessons can be learned from any kind of paired tutoring experience, whether in person or via Skype, there were specific advantages of the paired tutoring experience for Skype instructors. These advantages were generally related to the plethora of techniques available for Skype instruction using the Google doc: gestures on camera, highlighting text, taking notes on student dialogue within the document, writing comments, moving text around, and just generally using the Google doc as a place to experiment with writing.  Just as with instruction style, each tutor tends to employ specific techniques during sessions, and working together exposed instructors to alternate techniques and affordances our Skype service has to offer.  What’s more, because tutors were paired, rather than just observing one another, they got to experiment with those new techniques immediately within that Skype shift, which helped them incorporate the new techniques into their practice.

It is clear that there are many benefits to paired Skype instruction, but there were also some wrinkles to be worked out.  In our first appointment, Jessie and I felt the need to check in with each other a lot, which meant the student didn’t get to talk much. In our second appointment, though, we turned responses into a cycle, asking each other and then asking the student about what she thought of our suggestions.  There was also the problem of the single keyboard, which several tutors struggled with.  Because we had decided Jessie would be in charge of the keyboard, I found myself having to verbally describe places within the Google doc, which was awkward and inefficient.  The ideal scenario would be to have two keyboards sharing a screen, but that is uncommon.  The other solution would be to hold the session more like a conference call, though you would ultimately lose some of the camaraderie generated by the two instructors being in the same place, and having two people to juggle on video might be overwhelming for the student.  In any case, the benefits far outweigh some of our struggles, especially knowing about those struggles and being able to brainstorm about how to overcome them beforehand.

Have you experimented with paired tutoring either in person or in a virtual environment?  What was your experience like?  Tell us in the comments.

8 Replies to “Two Heads Are Better: An Experiment in Paired Skype Tutoring”

  1. I also participated in this activity – with the lovely Annika Konrad as my partner – and found it really rewarding. Like Leah says, it really encouraged me to think about my approach to tutoring (online or otherwise) and what aspects of that approach are unique(ish) to me, and what other models/methods might exist and/or achieve different outcomes.

    Leah, you talked about noticing differences in how you and your partner think about/comment on the writing itself. My session also highlighted differences in how my partner and I build rapport and interact “socially” (for lack of a better word) with students. Both Annika and I take a friendly and warm tone, but we integrated rapport-building differently throughout the sessions. It was really interesting to see how differently the same comments can be delivered (as we, like you guys, tended to agree in our feedback).

    Observing my peers in action has reliably been among the most helpful and enjoyable professional development activities I’ve done at UW. It’s something I always wish I did more but almost never make time to do unless it’s built in for me – so whenever that happens I’m glad. I hope Jessie keeps this up as part of the online development – and if there’s an odd man out I’m happy to jump in!

  2. Becca,

    Thanks for your comment. I love that you add to the conversation the idea of the different ways we build rapport with students. Like you, I find I learn much from observing and/or working with my peers. I’m curious to hear (from you and others) if or how you found partnering different from just observing. Did you find it useful to be able to practice with what you were learning immediately? Or do you feel you would have learned just as well regardless? Either way, I’m glad you found the activity so illuminating.

  3. This experiment sounds really interesting, particularly because it was a skype adventure! I have not yet had an opportunity to do paired tutoring, but I have benefited a lot in the past from team teaching activities for many of the reasons that you mentioned — observing the way other people structure activities and feedback, appreciating their unique strengths and learning to see those strengths as complements to my approaches. I never really thought of tutoring as something to do in a team, however. Yet after reading your post, it sounds so clearly rewarding. I will look forward to opportunities to work with colleagues in this sort of capacity.

    Out of curiosity, you mentioned some “wrinkles” in working as a pair on skype, mostly related to the physical logistics of sharing a machine and space on the camera. What are some ways that you managed to iron those out, or have you thought of ways to do that which are less awkward (besides the uncommon ideal of two keyboards, etc.)?

    Thanks for sharing this experience, and the adorable picture of your pets! 🙂

  4. I can’t believe the coincidence of this post, since today I re-read and taught Bruffee’s “Collaborative Learning and the Conversation of Mankind.” In response to Bruffee’s call for collaborative learning opportunities, as well as to Bruffee’s assertion that knowledge is collaboratively generated through discourse and writing, I was wondering why I had not pushed the boundaries of collaborative learning in my classrooms. I thought about how I might encourage this type of learning in the writing center I direct, and one idea that came to mind was paired WC sessions! So I am thankful for this post, which gives me ideas about how I might accomplish this both in the Center and in the online tutoring we offer. Now I’m off to encourage my Writing Center Theory and Practice students to read your excellent post.

    Cydney Alexis
    Assistant Professor of English
    Director, The Writing Center
    Kansas State University

  5. Cydney,

    What a coincidence! I agree that paired tutoring or observing peers is a form of “putting our money where our mouths are” when it comes to collaboration. If we stress collaboration with writers in our sessions, why not practice that collaboration, and encourage tutors to do so, during the training process. As you can see, it was a valuable experience for me and my fellow Skype tutors. I’d love to hear about your paired sessions once your tutors have them.

  6. I also had the privilege of doing paired tutoring (with Becca Tarsa). The first thing that comes to mind when I reflect on the experience is that it was FUN. I am a huge supporter of collaboration in general, but paired tutoring was a scenario I had never really considered before Leah asked us to do it. Like you say in this post, I learned so many new tutoring techniques and collaborating with Becca allowed me to feel like I know what I’m doing. While we had similar reactions to student writing, we used different strategies to communicate similar ideas. I would love to have the experience of being tutored by a pair of instructors. Now that would be interesting.

  7. Thank you for sharing your experience, Leah! I particularly appreciated your consideration of how the affordances of the Skype format both work with and push against the kinds of collaboration necessary for team tutoring. Out of curiosity, has anyone who has tried team skype tutoring also tried team-teaching in the classroom? I’d be curious to hear how that process differed, both for the students and for the two instructors.

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