Assisting All Students in the Writing Center

Amy Sexton, Kaplan University Writing Center Tutor

The writing center serves all university students, including those with learning disabilities.   According to the Learning Disabilities Act of 1968, a learning disability is “a disorder in one of more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using spoken and written language” (as cited in Neff, 2008). As this definition indicates, students with learning disabilities are likely to need academic support in writing.   While writing center tutors normally strive to work collaboratively with student writers and place most of the responsibility for drafting, revising, and editing on students, this approach may need to be altered when working with writers with learning disabilities. Additionally, tutors may need to look for creative and innovative ways to further assist these writers.

In “Learning Disabilities and the Writing Center”, Julie Neff (2008), Director of the Writing, Learning, and Teaching Center at the University of Puget Sound, details various adjustments that tutors may need to make in their tutoring styles, practices, and expectations to accommodate students with learning disabilities. These adaptations include techniques aimed at helping students utilize areas of strength in order to compensate for weaknesses and assisting them in retrieving information and knowledge that they may not realize they possess (Neff, 2008).

Neff suggests that while students with learning disabilities will have a wide range of needs, one commonality is that the writing center may need to provide more specific help, such as modeling, demonstrating writing concepts, assisting in information recall, and correcting mechanics while also aiming to help the student writer learn to be more dependent and rely on his or her own self-cues.   For example, Neff notes that many student writers with learning disabilities may not benefit as much as other writers from freewriting because, often, these students have no way of knowing what they do not know. While many  students may be able to make meaning through freewriting, students with learning disabilities may require focused conversation that aims to unlock the knowledge that these students do have.   Similarly, Neff suggests that students with learning disabilities may lack the ability to focus on both generating ideas and producing text, so writing tutors may need to record the students’ thoughts and ideas so that students can concentrate on just generating ideas.

Further, Neff mentions that student writers with learning disabilities may also need extensive modeling and guidance when it comes to organizing their writing, as they may not be able to discern between important information and supporting details. Neff suggests that writing tutors ask leading questions that help the writer to see how all the information works together.   Likewise, tasks that writing tutors typically expect students to be able to accomplish independently, like proofreading and editing, may need to be approached in a different way when working with students with learning disabilities.   These students may not be able to apply grammatical rules and principles to their own writing, so they may need tutors to point out issues or read the work out loud (Neff, 2008).

Neff also suggests that students with learning disabilities may need additional direction in tasks such as planning time for research and writing.   She advocates tutors creating study sheets that break larger tasks into smaller accomplishments and actively modeling how to use this type of aid for students.

Tutors who assist students with learning disabilities may also need to search for creative ways to help their tutees process information. For example, designer Christian Boer recently incorporated various design principles to create a font intended to make reading and composing easier for learners with dyslexia (Hohenadel, 2014). By utilizing heavier lines, slants, and other details, this new font makes letters that are commonly confused, such as “b” and “d” more distinct so that readers with dyslexia can distinguish them more easily (Hohenadel, 2014).   This font, which Boer named Dyslexie, is available for free download, and learners with dyslexia can install it for use in typing, printing, as well as reading web documents (Hohenadel, 2014).

By understanding the specific kinds of help that students with learning disabilities may need and tweaking their tutoring strategies accordingly, while also being aware of new innovations that may help these students, writing tutors can help all students with learning disabilities, “reach their full potential” (Neff, 2008, p.248).


Hohenadel, K. (2014). A typeface designed to help dyslexics read.   Retrieved from

Neff, J. (2008).   Learning disabilities and the writing center.   In C. Murphy & S. Sherwood (Eds.). The St. Martin’s sourcebook for writing tutors.   (pp. 237-250). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Top Three Tips for Video Reviews

Molly Wright Starkweather, Tutor, Kaplan University Writing Center

Photo © 2014

Photo © 2014

Leveraging video technology for asynchronous tutoring in writing across the curriculum can be an exciting prospect, especially for online writing centers. All of a sudden, there are free software programs like Jing or even free screencasting web sites like Screencast-o-matic that use a Java applet, creating many opportunities to go over a student’s paper with the benefit of audio and visual feedback. At first, it seems a straightforward process, starting with making comments on the paper (using MS Word’s Comment function, not Track Changes), then recording a video going through those comments and talking about them to students so that they hear your reassuring tone of voice coaching them and encouraging them to improve their writing, and finally sending the video and the paper with comments back to the student. Once a tutor has mastered this process, he or she can further improve the process by following these three tips for video paper reviews:

  1. Share comments in the order you want, not from beginning to end. Sometimes a Higher Order Concern like a thesis statement issue, a misplaced paragraph, or a pattern of missing citations for outside sources will fall among Lower Order Concerns like a pattern of comma splices or a mistake on the title page. Address comments in order of their importance as a way of giving students a sort of to do list to prioritize their revision.
  1. Show students resources they can use and visit those resources during your video reviews. By actually “walking” students to a resource, you can highlight specific parts of a resource that apply to a paper. Face to face tutoring sessions allow students to ask questions about a handout, but videos do not, so anticipate what a student will want to know about how to use a resource, especially if it involves something like a checklist or a table of contents/an index with items to look up.
  1. Model corrections with video technology. If there is a pattern of grammatical error, like a comma splice, you can use the screencast video to correct one of the comma splices in the video and then hit “undo” on the document to return the mistake, allowing students to have a custom-made correction video to watch while they make a correction. The same technique can be used to demonstrate possible major changes to a paper, such as moving a sentence or whole paragraph from one part of the paper to another. By hitting “undo” and reminding the student that you are offering an option, the student can assume the writing power and make the actual changes to the paper on his or her own.

By following these top three tips, tutors can create more dynamic, effective video reviews. Students will be more likely to envision a to do list with priorities ranging from most important to least important when they see a review that moves from global to local concerns. They will also be more likely to actually visit the resources listed in their comments when they see what that resource looks like and how specifically it can help. Finally, student writers will feel more confident making one big change or several smaller corrections when they see it modeled, undone, and handed back to them. What are some top tips that you have for when you create video feedback for student writers?

Patchwriting, Dr. Seuss, and Plagiarism Prevention

Amy Sexton

Writing Center Tutor, Kaplan University


Plagiarism. The word alone can invoke fear and anxiety in students. At our online writing center, we often work with students whose instructors have alerted them to plagiarism issues in their writing, and, many times, students are not sure how they have plagiarized.   One scenario we commonly see occurs when students borrow original words from an outside source but do not effectively paraphrase. They may delete a few words from the original text or replace some with synonyms and believe that they paraphrased, so no quotation marks are needed. This method of ineptly paraphrasing is referred to as patchwriting.  Howard, Treviss, and Rodrigue (2010) distinguish patchwriting from plagiarism:

“Whereas many institutions’ academic integrity policies classify patchwriting as a form of plagiarism – a moral failure – recent research indicates that it occurs as an intermediate stage between copying and summarizing: inexpert critical readers patchwrite when they attempt to paraphrase or summarize” (p. 179).

As Howard, Treviss, and Rodrigue note, then, patchwriting may best be seen, not as a punishable offense, but as a unique teaching and/or tutoring opportunity.

One obvious way that teachers and tutors can help students move from patchwriting to effective paraphrasing is to teach critical reading skills. They may also find the technique of scaffolding, or chunking the learning into manageable units, and including a tool or technique for understanding each unit, helpful. One such scaffolding method is introduced in the presentation “Understanding Plagiarism with Dr. Seuss”. In this presentation, Dr. Nani Azman and Dr. Stephen Fox detail using the popular children’s book Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss to teach students about inadequate paraphrasing.   This simple strategy worked well because students were generally familiar with Dr. Seuss and could easily grasp the idea that “Many people have a strong distaste for forest-colored fowl embryos and cured domesticated pig products” (Azman & Fox, 2014) is not a successful paraphrase of Dr. Seuss’ familiar statement “I do not like green eggs and ham” (as cited in Azman & Fox, 2014).

Like Azman and Fox (2014) I often use a similar technique in my work with students to help them better understand paraphrasing. One statement I commonly utilize is located on our writing center’s web site: “Our live tutoring sessions are staffed by Kaplan University composition professors who look forward to meeting you and answering your writing questions.” Using this easily understood example, I can show students that “Live tutoring is available from writing teachers who are excited to meet you and address your writing questions” is not an effective paraphrase. Students get this! Most of them immediately see what has went wrong with my example paraphrase, and then we can discuss successful paraphrases and what they may look like.   Whether it is Dr. Seuss or simple verbiage from a writing center web site, presenting students with a simple prompt that they can easily understand helps them to comprehend successful paraphrasing and provides the scaffolding that they need as they move to comprehending and paraphrasing more complex texts that they will inevitably encounter in their classes and research.


Azman, R.L. & Fox, S.H. (2014).   Understanding plagiarism…with some help from Dr. Seuss: A plagiarism prevention presentation. Retrieved from

Howard, R.M., Serviss, T., & Rodrigue, T.K.   (2010). Writing from sources, writing from sentences.  Writing and Pedagogy, 2(2), 177-192. Retrieved from


When Commenting on Student Writing, Use This Shortcut with Extreme Care

By Chrissine Rios, MA, Kaplan University Writing Center

I’ve encountered both good and not so good practices for tutoring and teaching writing over the past twenty years, and the difference between the two often comes down to how to best use a tool.

TextExpanderThere is one tool in particular that I could not do asynchronous paper review half as well without. For me, the brand has changed over the years as I began with Typeitin by Wavget then used Spartan Multi Clipboard and now use TextExpander by Smile, but all do the same thing: paste previously written comments on a paper. I’d recommend any of these clipboard programs to any tutor or instructor who regularly reads and responds to student writing online.

When so many students new to academic style need help with the same matters of formatting and citation, essay structure, paragraph development, and sentence grammar, a clipboard can save hours of typing the same feedback over and over. Using a prewritten clip also guarantees that the feedback on the fifteenth paper in need of page formatting or source integration is as thoughtful and detailed as it was on the first paper. With a few key strokes, you can insert a clearly written response that more than draws attention to an area needing attention but also suggests a strategy, provides an example, and/or recommends a resource to help the student take the next step, so the student not only understands the feedback but knows what to do with it or at least where to begin.

Yet as wonderful as ready-made, well-written comments are, feedback also has to be relevant, useful, and personal to be substantive and pedagogically sound. Clipboard programs are no shortcut for close reading and critical thinking, nor are they a substitute for the reader-writer connection paramount to tutoring, teaching, and learning writing. Clips only work well in tandem with personalized feedback.

When using a clipboard to comment on papers, consider the following best practices:

1. Reread every comment you insert, every time. Comments need to accurately identify and explain the issue in the highlighted text. If you insert a comment for a fragment, and the comment describes the issue as a clause missing a subject or part of the predicate, but the text being highlighted by the comment has both a subject and predicate and is a fragment because a subordinator is making it a dependent clause, you’ll want to modify the comment or create a new comment for your clipboard that addresses the specific issue as exemplified by the student’s writing.

2. Use the clip only as a template. Modify the pasted clip by adding specifics and deleting unneeded details to ensure your comment is useful. If you have a clip on how to format an in-text citation that explains the elements needed, punctuation rules, and variations between quotations versus paraphrases, and the student has only misplaced a period, after pasting in the clip, delete the extra information. Further, praise the student for his or her strong grasp of citation format!

3. Use the specific language from the student’s text. If you have a clip to help a student identify and edit inconsistencies with grammar such as subject-verb agreement, your comment may only be useful if you also indicate which word is the subject and which is the verb in the highlighted passage. Don’t assume the student will know. Here’s an example:

Original Clip: Since the subject for the plural verb “___” is the singular noun “___,” the subject and verb do not “agree,” making your point unclear. As you edit, you’ll want to give subject-verb agreement extra attention to make sure both are singular or both are plural. You’ll find a terrific review of subject-verb agreement in the recorded KUWC workshop here. I hope you find it helpful as you revise and edit your paper, ____!

Personalized Clip: Since the subject for the plural verb “come” is the singular noun “the nurse,” the subject and verb do not “agree,” making your point unclear. As you edit, you’ll want to give subject-verb agreement extra attention to make sure both are singular or both are plural. However, sometimes when a prepositional phrase, such as “on nights” in the highlighted sentence, comes between the subject and verb, it can make the subject harder to identify. You’ll find a terrific review of subject-verb agreement that also addresses the use of prepositional phrases in the recorded KUWC workshop here. I hope you find it helpful as you revise and edit your paper, Julie!

 4. Be discerning. Once you have a large database of clips, it can be a little too easy to insert comments; however, too much feedback, even when well written and personalized, can hinder more than help. Comments should address the questions or concerns stated by student in the message with the paper submission, your sense of the highest order concerns for the purpose of revision first and editing second, and what is appropriate given your assessment of this student’s writing skills in the context of the class the paper is for. Ask, would detailed comments on citation format be necessary for a 100 level IT course? Probably not. Would a long explanation on how to write a thesis statement by useful to a graduate psychology student writing a case study assessment? It’s unlikely.

5. Finally, back up your clipboard program regularly. Developing a good database of clips takes time. I know because in the seven years I’ve been tutoring online, I’ve had to start over a few too many times. Computer and hard drive crashes no longer have to take your clips with them, however. Use the backup options of the clipboard program you choose, save your good work to the cloud, and enjoy the time you save by using a clipboard by shifting your focus to personalizing your already well-crafted comments.





Thanksgiving Reading

Thanksgiving is next week, and many of us will have a break from our regular duties.  So, it’s a great time to enjoy a book .  Here is one of Tutor Amy’s favorite books.

James Still River of Earth ( 245 pages)

Reviewed by Amy Sexton, Writing Center Tutor, Kaplan University Writing Center

Who should read this book?  Anyone who appreciates a solid, strong sense of place in fiction will enjoy the imagery of the Appalachian mountains and their creatures and people. Anyone who enjoys regional literature should appreciate Still’s use of dialect, descriptive language, and sensory details.  Readers who are attracted to strong female characters should delight in the characters of Alpha Baldridge and her mother, known only as Ma and Grandma.
Summary: Set in Appalachian Kentucky, River of Earth chronicles the hard lives of members of the Baldridge and Middleton families around the time of the Great Depression as they struggle internally and externally with the changes of industrialism, which in the Appalachian region meant that many farmers went from needing only the land to feed their families to relying on a violate coal-mining industry.
Why I picked this book? River of Earth is one of those books that sticks with you. I read it for the first time over 15 years ago, and its words and characters have lingered with me since.   It is considered an Appalachian classic, and I can relate to the struggles the family experiences as I come from a family supported by coal mining and understand the trials of hard-working coal miners in a boom or bust economy, then and now.
Favorite quotes from the book: Brack Baldridge, Alpha’s husband, expressing his desire to return to coal mining: “I’m longing to git me a pick and stick it in a coal vein. I can’t draw a clean breath of air outside a mine this time o’ year. It’s like a horse trying to breathe with his nose in a meal poke.”   Alpha, on Brack’s intention to uproot the family and leave their home and small piece of land behind to live in a coal camp: “Forever moving yon and back, setting down nowhere for good and all, searching for God knows what,….Where air we expecting to draw up to?”


Simply Being Simpler: Simple Advice to Help Your Students Understand

Kyle Harley

Writing Center Tutor, Kaplan University

Over the course of the past decade, as a writing tutor, I still find myself struggling to understand how and why situations involving students’ frustration with writing assignments evolve into these complex matters we continually see with little to no resolution in sight. This incident popped into my mind after a recent tutoring session where a student voiced concerns over the way the instructor created an assignment. Having experience on both ends of the equation, I felt pangs of guilt begin to emanate from my gut as the student uncovered even deeper frustrations—the student did not find an issue with the assignment at all; instead, the assignment, as it may be, found an issue with the student. Before pen even met paper, the student already felt as if she had failed the assignment—one she was initially excited to begin, as well.

This all sounds a bit far-fetched, but seriously consider how assignments develop over time. At first, yes, they begin as a mere seedling—possibly a question that can be repurposed into a great writing prompt, or maybe you decide on a theme that a series of assignments can mimic over the course of an entire semester. Does this sound remotely similar to anything that we, as instructors of writing, continually preach to our students? Obviously the construction of these assignments comes with a host of issues to take into consideration, but the simple fact at the end of the day remains impossibly simple: sometimes we need to revise our own approach to our own assignments.

I say this partly out of frustration, but more accurately out of wonder. Should we side with the students, citing the instructor’s tyranny as the cause for the educational unrest? In sum, probably not—that seems to cause a bit more harm than good. Instead, I found myself looking at my own teaching methods, and I really took the time to trace my own pedagogy back to the very first class that I taught—talk about frustration. What I realized most about my own assignment construction aligned perfectly with this student’s frustration—I wrote this particularly complex assignment for myself and expected students to understand exactly what I meant. The language was overly elevated, and I even put information in the assignment regarding citation at a point in the semester when each of my students’ names remained a mystery. If I signed up for my own class, I may have dropped within the first few weeks—take that, ego.

Because of this punch in the academic-gut, I decided to dissect some of these student frustrations and offer a short, easy list of suitable solutions that have proven to work when expecting such great results from these students.

  • As an instructor, understand that the way you construct your assignment’s instructions can make or break the end product.

The title might be a bit preachy, but the reality behind the message could not be any more absolute. When we receive a paper that contains far too much information or the wording may be a bit lengthy, our first reaction includes suggesting the student pare down some of the information to create a leaner document. So why do we not apply this same ruling to our assignment construction? By no means am I suggesting that you lower the level of your academic assignments; instead, why not try using more direct language that addresses the exact requirements of the assignment? As an avid proponent of ‘fluff’ in any and all forms of writing, this pains me to say, but at times you just need to get to the point. If you construct assignments and students frequently come to you seeking clarity on what the assignment is asking them to accomplish, the issue at hand simply involves a quick revising session of the assignment’s language. There is no need to take this personally; instead, remember that you are the mentor here—you should want your students to succeed.

  • In an ‘age of technology,’ we still must remember that technology costs money—and quite a bit of it.

Branching off of the last suggestion, practically all assignments in the university setting require some form of technology to accomplish, which we must also remember comes with a price tag that many students simply cannot afford. Because of this, many teachers assume that students understand how to proficiently work technological applications we take for granted on a daily basis. I find myself a bit shocked when a student asks how to operate their e-mail account, but then I remember that I, too, needed this same guidance when I began my journey back at Kent State University before Facebook even had a face. The only way that students will learn to navigate the academic channels smoothly involves helping them along the way, and sometimes that may well take a simple lesson such as how to open an attachment in an e-mail or even get started typing their paper. This sounds simplest of all, but none of us learned to ride a bike before we crawled across the floor.

  • Still not convinced? Okay—send them to us!

It is understandable that many instructors may see these smaller activities as a waste of time—if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen, right? Wrong. That is where we come in. If you find that students are still struggling to understand your assignments, we can help! Sometimes students need someone else to break down the dense assignment instructions for them, and, luckily for students, tutors love to unpack assignments and get students started on the right path.

Many of these suggestions might seem rather obvious, but the fact of the matter remains that many students cannot access their assignments due to a pretty silly gatekeeping mechanism that need not be in place. By approaching our assignment construction differently, we, as educators and mentors, could possibly open an avenue to an impossibly bright mind by simply being simpler.

Writing Centers, Accessibility, and CRLA 2013

Molly Wright Starkweather

Writing Center Tutor, Kaplan University

One of the best features of teaching and tutoring writing online is opening the doors to students of all abilities, including students who have been diagnosed with a disability. According to a 2009 guide by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a disability as restricting day-to-day life activities, like mobility (walking or driving) or communication (hearing or seeing), among others. Online education can reduce many of the concerns that students with disabilities might have with an on-ground campus. For instance, a student with mobility limitations will not have to seek accommodations for campus parking or classroom access, since the campus is virtual. Of course, online campuses can present their own unique challenges to keeping education accessible to students with disabilities. Sometimes the prospect of accommodating students of all abilities can seem daunting, especially when the virtual education landscape (including legislation and university protocol) changes in response to new research in disability studies and higher education and in response to new assistive technologies. When tutors and teachers of writing consider the whole student experience for learners with disabilities, the daunting prospect becomes a promising opportunity for growing even stronger in our service to all students.

Professor of Special Education and higher education inclusion advocate David Connor (2012) reminds those working with students with disabilities to view the student’s challenge and accommodations as part of a different, not deficient, learning process. It has been common knowledge among my colleagues at different universities that an accommodation is meant to provide nothing more than an equally accessible educational experience. When I have taught composition, I have never changed my grading standards from student to student, and none of my students with accommodations have wanted an easier experience than their classmates. The goal of providing accommodations for disabilities in a higher education setting is to open access and opportunity for all students.

How does the Kaplan University Writing Center open access and opportunity for all students? Since we are tutors as part of academic support, there are no discussions of accommodations as instructors would see in a classroom setting, but there is a responsibility for all center staff to create equal opportunity and access for students with disabilities. Some of these possibilities were explored as part of a recent conference for academic support professionals.

On November 7, 2013, three Kaplan University faculty and staff presented as part of a panel on “Faculty and Academic Learning Centers: Supporting Students with Learning Disabilities” at the College Reading and Learning Association (CRLA) conference in Boston, MA. My fellow panel members included Kira Shank and Sheryl Bone of Kaplan University, as well as Nita Meola of Columbia College in Chicago and Teresa Carrillo of Joliet Junior College.

During the 90-minute exchange between panelists and participants, our panel discussed the tools we use in serving students with learning and other disabilities. Here are some of the best takeaways that come to my mind:


  1. Approach the task of including students with disabilities from a standpoint of hospitality. Providing accommodations is not about extra work for instructors or easier assignments for students; rather, providing accommodations is about making space for learning.


  1. As professionals involved in academic support, we should be aware of the Center for Disability Services. Keep up with the center by attending staff development presentations (or even student presentations) routinely, and make room for discussing the center’s services as part of teaching and tutoring where appropriate, like in the syllabus.


  1. Remember that students with disabilities need respect and privacy. While it is good to discuss campus resources like the Center for Disability Services openly to eliminate stigma and get valuable information out to students, it is also important to communicate discreetly with students about individual circumstances. Show respect for the student by listening actively and deferring to the authority of Disability Services whenever appropriate, especially when it comes to articulating accommodations.

What might be some other considerations as we continue opening access to all higher education learners?


Connor, D. (2012). Helping students with disabilities transition to college: 21 tips for students with LD and/or ADD/ADHD. Teaching Exceptional Children, 44(5), 16-25.

U.S. Department of Justice. (2009). A guide to disability rights laws. Retrieved from