The Almost Right Word

Molly Wright Starkweather, Kaplan University Tutor


Photo © 2015

There is an old quotation from Mark Twain about word choice: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.” When teaching my daughter the word “bubbles” recently, I learned that there are some situations in which that stark line between the right word and the almost right word is blurred, in a good way. I was blowing bubbles from a toy wand for her, and I said, “Look! Bubbles!” Then I looked her in the eye and said, “Can you say ‘bubbles’?” She looked at my mouth and then responded: “Bubba. Bubba!” I could see her realization that she could try to say it, and I could tell how proud she was of how she worked the syllables together. It was not the right word, but it was almost the right word. That almost was closer than she had ever been before when I asked her to repeat the word, so I was proud and congratulatory.

When we work with children, the learning process involves an understanding that a new skill is not going to be taught and demonstrated to a child with the child in turn performing that skill perfectly immediately afterward. In fact, if we look at the fact that many toddlers go from knowing zero words to learning one or two new words a day, we are impressed by the rate at which new knowledge is acquired. How can a parent or caregiver know that his or her child recognizes a word if the child cannot pronounce it perfectly? The teacher (whether parent, caregiver, or classroom instructor) works individually with the child, gets to know him or her, and recognizes attempts to demonstrate skills. By starting with recognition that the child did not know the skill before being taught, any forward progress can be acknowledged and celebrated as a “good job” (as I often say to my one year old).

When tutors work with adults, the expectation is that the learner comes in with a strong skill set, one that has led him or her to show an aptitude for further learning. Adult learners already know quite a bit about communication through writing, as many different types of careers use writing daily. The problem for many tutors (myself included) is, when I work with a student who has mastered one skill but has not mastered another, I look from a default position of expecting the student writer to have equal mastery among all skills in a set. In other words, if a student writer comes in and has mastered thesis statements, then I expect that same student to have mastered comma splices. As the old saying used to go in another tutoring center I used to work for, “If a student cannot even put a sentence together correctly, how can that student express complex ideas?” Questions like these not only disregard proven pedagogical research about Lower Order vs. Higher Order Concerns, but they also set the student up for failure.

I propose a fairer question. “What is the student working to do that he or she has not been able to do?” Start with that question right at the beginning of the tutoring session. What is the purpose of the tutoring session? Perhaps it is to establish a thesis statement. Maybe it is to find an accurate, credible source to support an idea. It might be to cite a certain kind of source properly in the reference list. Whatever the purpose, acknowledge that the student has the skills to make forward progress in learning that skill. If the student creates a citation that includes information in the correct order but it is not punctuated correctly, then that answer is not wrong. It is not right, either, but it is almost right.

Drafting Student Success: How Our Center Can Help Shape Great Habits

Kyle Harley, Kaplan University Tutor

Photo © 2015

Photo © 2015

I think it is safe to say that we have all experienced extremely tight deadlines. Since being out of school, however, I rarely take a moment to remember those deadlines. You must remember them. They were the deadlines that caused near-caffeine overdoses and, admittedly, not-the-best-of foods to be consumed at the acclaimed “fourth meal” hour. These were deadlines that helped make you and anxiety the best of pals, possibly even friends for life with matching pendants. There were those tense, brain cramping moments when even the word “thing” feels like Shakespeare’s greatest masterpiece on the last line of the final 10-page research paper. Yes, those, wonderful, though certainly not missed, panic-filled nights due to a deadline in a collegiate setting.

However terrible I paint these monsters out to be, the necessity of rigid deadlines helps keep structure in the academic world. Not all structure need be so stressful, though, and with the plentiful amount of academic services readily available to students here at the university, we can certainly help students develop skills to plan more effectively through one of our popular sources.

The KUWC’s Paper Review service offers students a fantastic chance to get into the habit of planning well in advance. Just last week I tutored a student who seemed rather shocked to find out that we look at drafts of papers, regardless of the length, and not just the final product before submission. Many students seem to feel that a complete draft is the only option, which is for good reason due to the fact that they will receive feedback on the totality of the work. But that to me sounds like an excuse. Why not get students more involved with our Paper Review service during the drafting process? This makes the student far more accountable for allotting plenty of time for multiple drafts per assignment, and—two-birds-with-one-stone sort of deal—they will receive a massive amount of help throughout the process from our experienced tutors on multiple steps and/or stages of the writing process. Not only that, but this could be a very valuable teaching moment for any and all teachers to suggest that this practice of drafting and allotting time needs to be implemented elsewhere in the student’s studies.

Why plan ahead solely for writing? Studying for a test, much like writing a paper, can be very easily managed in incremental portions—and that’s just the most obvious example from the seemingly endless list of student activities. Challenge your students to utilize the supporting services for multiple purposes, certainly to help them academically in that respective field, but also to develop into better academics—and that can simply start by utilizing the process of drafting.



What is your writing process?



Molly Wright Starkweather, Kaplan University Tutor


So often in high school and college writing classes, student writers are told that if they want to produce a quality paper, they need to follow the writing process. In varying publications and textbooks, the writing process is expressed as a set of steps from beginning to end that all writers follow. The way I recall being taught was to perform the following steps, one at a time, not going back, in the following order:

  1. Brainstorm. Specifically, I was told to list, then bubble, then outline. Each of these counted as daily grades in my high school class.
  2. Draft. After brainstorming in my requisite three ways, I was required to complete a rough draft. The draft had to be up to the word count required for the final draft, but it could not be as good as the final draft.
  3. Revise. After peer review and perhaps a conference with the teacher to go over the rough draft, it was time to make big revisions. Paragraphs needed to be cut, sources needed to be added, and topic sentences needed to be tweaked.
  4. Edit. After revising for focus and organization, it was time for editing. Was there any passive voice? Any comma splices? Any spelling errors? Out came the red pens and dusting off the old editing marks chart for us all to follow.
  5. Submit/Publish. In my high school days, this step meant making sure that the printer did not run low on ink and that there was a staple placed perfectly at the top left corner of the pages. In college, this meant that I submitted the correct file type to the correct email address with the correct identifying information in my outgoing email to the professor.

I followed this process to the letter, mainly because my grade depended on it. After moving up into my major courses during my Bachelor’s degree and entering into my Master’s program, there was no prescribed process anymore. I might need to submit a draft here and there for perusal, but the process by which I produced that draft was left entirely up to me. When I found that my process did not match the official process that I was taught, I wondered why I was still getting good feedback on my writing.

One of my professors cleared up the mystery for me. She directed the writing center, and one day she shared about post-process theory, which basically acknowledges that a writing process depends on the writer performing that process. In fact, a student’s writing process might depend on his or her identity, including factors like age, gender, or race (Braun, Patterson, & Abst, 2005).

The biggest determining factor in my writing process was my anxiety over producing the perfect paper. While everyone around me despised having three separate brainstorming activities, I enjoyed those activities more than writing the actual paper. When I plotted possible ideas, there was no obligation that I follow through with them—the point was to get ideas out on paper, in no particular order, with no red pen to come along and thrash the living daylights out of my half-formed thesis statement or under-developed paragraph. I realized in graduate school that, the more time I spent on different brainstorming techniques, the fewer drafts I had to work through in the revision stage. A brainstorming-heavy process was not seen as productive, especially to my classmates who were whittling down their fourth or fifth draft while I was sitting down to type my first.

Whenever I tutor students now, I encourage them to try a variety of steps in the writing process and find what works best for them. The most reassuring part of trying these academic acrobatics is that there is somewhat of a safety net. As long as all components of an assignment are completed in due time, there can always be a visit to the writing center to check on progress. I am proud to say that I always brought a brainstorming mess and, eventually, a draft to the writing center for feedback. Students at Kaplan have an extensive resource on the writing process that can be used in building one’s own best writing process:

A word of caution- just as there is no “one size fits all” writing process for all writers, so is there no “one size fits all” process for one writer. Each writing situation is different and requires varying amounts of thought, research, planning, and execution along the way. I did not write my twenty-page paper on feast imagery in Shakespearean tragedy using the same process I used to write my teaching philosophy for job applications. Always consider the whole writing situation.



Braun, P., Patterson, C. & Abst, S. (2005).  Talking back to tutoring manuals. Writing Lab Newsletter, 29(6), 10. Retrieved from

How to Make Your Students’ Writing Matter—to Them and to You

By Chrissine Rios, MA, Kaplan University Writing Center

Academic writing doesn’t come naturally to most new college students.

(c) Writing formally can be like wearing stiff new shoes to a special occasion: uncomfortable if not also painful; the shoes demand more attention than the purpose of the occasion, and once it’s over, the shoes go back in the box. Not only do the expectations of academic style feel rigid, they can also seem prescriptive with the standards, rules, and criteria for grading. It’s no wonder that when students revise, they only concern themselves with presentation—making superficial corrections in spelling, mechanics, and usage. Students cling to the assignment rubric to determine the paper’s completeness and submit it to the Writing Center hoping the tutor who reads it finds nothing wrong.

Writing Center tutors are skilled academic readers, accustomed to providing revision suggestions on first drafts, and some make a good first impression—APA formatted title page, clear intro and thesis, no intrusive grammar errors, yet after reading to the end, the tutor goes to respond and has to scroll back to the title page and introduction to remember what the paper was about. The student never took her new shoes out of the box or did more than try them on, and so begins the work of the writing tutor: help the student re-see her draft, so she rewrites it with more audience awareness, focus on the dominant idea, structure, information, and voice. No simple task for either the tutor or the student.

“Most beginning writers refuse to rewrite,” explains acclaimed journalist and writing teacher, Donald Murray (2013). “Writing is always an act of self-exposure,” says Murray; “When we finish a draft, all writers feel vulnerable,” and since students are also writing to have their knowledge tested, “Any suggestion for a change in a draft is a personal insult” (p. 2). An Aha! moment can quickly turn to dread: “Now I’m going to have to rewrite my whole paper!” said my student while I was helping her paraphrase. She sounded defeated, and kind of angry with me. But this, again, is part of the my work as an academic writing tutor, helping students write beyond the assignment, to let go of correctness, and understand what Murray (2013) calls “the secret of our craft. Writing is rewriting” (p. 2).

When students are writing in the disciplines, and the writing process isn’t built into the curriculum as it is in a composition course, instructors can and should enlighten students in the art of revision and allow time for it.

reading laptop copyRevising is not the end of the writing process but the beginning (Murray, 2013)—it’s when writers re-see the entire draft and make decisions about focus, audience, form, structure, and language—the concerns that help writers discover what they didn’t know they knew and communicate it to the reader in a way that makes sense and matters. A revision worksheet or checklist can help. If you provide one to your students, does it include some or all of the following?

Assignment (The writing prompt, expectations, and guidelines): Does the writing fully address the requirements of the assignment?

Purpose (To inform, persuade, instruct, report, critique, compare/contrast, inspire, reflect . . .): Is the purpose of the writing clear and consistent throughout the writing?

Focus (Similar to photography—where the emphasis is, the dominant idea, clarity): Is the focus of the writing clear? Is it on one main idea?

Structure (The order of ideas, organization): Will the sequence of ideas make sense to a reader? Would any ideas raise questions that go unaddressed? (Why? Who cares? Who says? How so? What do you mean?)

Development (How the structural skeleton is fleshed out with information—content, context, research, specific details, illustrations, facts, examples, evidence, explanations): Are the ideas in the writing developed with enough information to sound authoritative, relevant, convincing, and clear?

Voice (The words, collocations, and patterns of language that project the persona and style of the writer and the formality or informality of the writing occasion): When reading the draft aloud, I sound _______________ (matter-of-fact, persuasive, light-hearted, folksy, logical and measured, sarcastic, impassioned, preachy, humorous, confident, unsure, surprised, honest, like me!). Is my voice appropriate for the subject matter and my purpose? Will it appeal to an academic audience?

Language (The use of rhetorical and literary devices: alliteration, anecdote, metaphor, analogy, assertion, authority, allusion, figurative language . . .): Are the rhetorical strategies and/or literary devices in the writing effective? Do they serve the purpose of the writing? Advance the argument? Clarify the focus? Ground ideas in logic? Reveal your integrity as a writer and researcher? Engage the reader?

That last one, language, could be part of “development” or “voice” too, and you may have your own way of defining other or all of the above ideas. Terrific! Your students would love to hear them. If you don’t yet provide a revision guide to your students writing academic papers, I invite you to develop one from my list and adapt it accordingly. It may make all the difference in helping make your students’ writing matter more, to them and to you!


Murray, D. M. (2013). The craft of revision, fifth anniversary edition. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from

The Extra Mile

Kyle Harley, Kaplan University Tutor

In recent weeks, more than one conversation on the topic of compassion surfaced among tutors and, oddly enough, I am very fortunate in that I simply listened. Now, I fully understand that this comment is absolutely groundbreaking and will forever change your day in so few words, but, levity aside, how often do we really trek down that “extra mile” to better understand our students’ concerns? If only to be the proverbial shoulder for a few minutes’ time, I think we can all benefit from a trip down Humble Lane, and my voyage began with a student who certainly needed the few minutes of humanity that sometimes avoid us entirely.

I wish I had a long and detailed narrative to accompany this experience, but the student was unable to grasp the assignment instructions in their original format. Never have I felt so poorly as an academic than at that moment; likewise, never did I feel more of a responsibility to put myself in her shoes and take a few steps, if only for a second. The assignment itself was not to blame—nor the professor, which I find myself excited to admit. Instead, the problem here, and I am not so sure that it is so much of a problem as it is a simple oversight, reverts back to our distance and lack of a physical presence in front of students. The primary concern of this student stemmed from not feeling comfortable enough in the online classroom setting to pose the question, and, as I am roughly paraphrasing, speak confidently with the professor regarding said concern. So I began to wonder.

Like in a face-to-face setting, we interact with many different individuals, and I stress the term individuals for a reason, which becomes even more complicated with the great services that we provide; but that comes with a bit of fine print—right?

Both fortunately and unfortunately, we do not physically see these students’ emotions when their faces curl up in confusion regarding an assignment, a grade they do not agree with, or even a term we use in seminar that sounds more akin to a foreign language than our own. We simply do not have that consistency; unless, of course, all parties partake in the technology available, but again we cannot presuppose our students’ technology, again, due to distance.

That said, are we truly that unfortunate? As experts in this cacophony that we term as the Internet, I think it is becoming more of our responsibility to try and find that comfortable ground to help students actualize their goals. Sometimes, despite our wanting to do so, this includes rephrasing an entire assignment, on one’s own time, to better assist our students. To put the matter into context, think of it this way: Some assembly required. We all love to read that, right? Well our students’ needs sometimes take on an added clause, and maybe asking just a few more questions would open their minds up enough to feel comfortable in this online learning environment we have created. Surely the convenience of being primarily online comes with the added perks, so my challenge to all those teaching in this e-world of ours remains simple: Go that extra mile. Corny as it may well be, at the end of the day, just hearing the person’s voice change from absolute distress to a happy and content student justifies our work—and I think we all could use a but of sunshine during what appears to be the second ice age. Be the warming presence that our students will return to.



Professor Complaints in the Tutoring Center

Molly Wright Starkweather, Kaplan University Tutor

As a writing center tutor, I sometimes see students come in for help with a chip on their shoulder. They feel wronged, whether in the wording of an assignment or with an accusation of plagiarism. They might identify their tutoring need as “help me with my APA,” but what they are really in search of is a sounding board to air their grievances. They might not even realize this unconscious ulterior motive, which reveals itself early on in the tutoring session, giving tutors the opportunity to choose one (or more) of several tutor-tried-and-true ways to get the session back on track:


  1. Draw a firm line. Some tutors will hear a student stray into professor-bashing and will allow only two “characters” in setting the agenda for the tutoring session, and those are the student and the writing task at hand. If a student has a complaint about the professor, then the tutor immediately says, “What does this have to do with what we are here for right now?” This is a firm stance to take, but it can be very effective.
  2. Set a time limit before moving on. Some tutors will allow a student to vent, but only for an allotted time before asking to see the writing or asking to see the assignment or asking the student what his or her favorite color is—anything to establish that the time for the airing of grievances is over.
  3. Head the complaints off at the pass with questions. Tutors often get into a good zone where we have a set list of questions we can ask a student to paint the picture of the writing situation. If a student starts talking about the fact that the paper is supposed to be informative but then complains that the professor plays favorites in class, interject with “So what is the word count?” or “How many sources are required?” or any other of our default questions. If the student seems set on complaining about the professor during time meant for improving writing, consider the first or second items on this list before moving on to the fourth.
  4. Refer the student’s complaints to the appropriate entity. Sometimes a student is actually seeking a resolution to his or her complaint and is not sure where or how to go about it. Sometimes what sounds like venting or complaining is actually communicating a concern about the student’s educational experience. Here at Kaplan, we are fortunate enough to be able to suggest the student reach out to the professor with those concerns and, if that attempt at communication does not work, we can refer the student to his or her academic advisor to handle the situation.

No matter what, it is important to never take sides. When it comes to our students, everyone is on the same side; we all want the students to critically engage with the topic at hand and demonstrate a mastery of skills, and we all want to do what we can to support that student in the process.



Winter Reading for Online Faculty

The Four Agreements: A Toltec Wisdom Book by Don Miguel Ruiz ( 138 pages)

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

Who should read this book?   Ruiz deems his book “A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom”, and while readers may not attain personal freedom from this little book, the four agreements are simple, easy- to- remember mantras that educators and others in helping careers may find especially helpful. Committing to the four agreements may also help those who have self-image issues or are struggling with relationships in their lives.
Summary:     Drawing on the ancient knowledge and wisdom of the Toltec culture, Ruiz suggests that we should make the following four important agreements with ourselves in order to live our best lives:

Be impeccable with your word.

Don’t take anything personally.

Don’t make assumptions

Always do your best.

Ruiz posits that being impeccable with our word will help us avoid gossip, which he describes as toxic. Similarly, we can avoid others’ emotional poison by refusing to take anything personally.   We all make assumptions about ourselves and others, and controlling them, Ruiz suggests, will keep us from having unrealistic expectations that can also result in emotional turmoil. Finally, if we strive to always do our best, then our best will always be enough.

Why I Picked This Book: I first read The Four Agreements around eight years ago, which was also when I began working in online education. Over the years, I have often remembered Ruiz’s advice to take nothing personally and found it helpful when dealing with miscommunication and other issues that sometimes occur in distance learning.   Ruiz also provides examples in his book that instructors can relate to.  For example, when explaining why gossip is toxic, he describes a current student who hears from a former student that the instructor of the course is horrible. The current student, if he or she believes the former one, will begin the course with a preconceived notion of the professor that may or may not be accurate but will still result in the student’s experience being altered.

Favorite quotes from the book:   “Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves.”

“The world is very beautiful and very wonderful. Life can be very easy when love is your way of life.   You can be loving all the time.   This is your choice. You may not have a reason to love, but you can love because to love makes you happy. Love in action only produces happiness. Love will give you inner peace. It will change your perception of everything.”