Collaboration and the Peer Tutor:

Characteristics, Constraints, and Ethical Considerations

in the Writing Center

By Nancy Annett


While at home during Thanksgiving break, I picked up a copy of my community newspaper and read through it. One of the feature articles explained how a town resident had won an award for being the "Principal of the Year" in my county. The author of the story had questioned the principal about her reaction to the award. First and foremost she denied sole credit for improving her school -- she asserted that she was merely part of a collaborative team of administrators, teachers, and parents that worked together to create the best possible school for the students. This type of situation is by no means confined to school principals. We all have heard Oscar and Academy Award winners salute their producers, songwriters, parents, friends, etc., without whose support and collaboration the end product would not have been possible. Often times the President alone does not receive credit for a well or ill-done job -- the executive administration receives the praise or blame. The point is, collaboration abounds in our society. Collaboration helps many people complete tasks that they could never accomplish on their own, or it helps them complete those tasks in a more superior manner than is possible without assistance.

However, our interest lies not with collaboration in general, but with the collaborative writing that is produced by the joint efforts of a peer tutor and student writer. In my midterm essay, entitled, "Collaborative Learning: Definitions, Benefits, Applications, and Dangers in the Writing Center," I present a brief history and give the definition of collaborative learning, illustrate how Vygotsky and others have proven that collaborative learning is beneficial, tell how tutors in the writing center can use collaborative learning, and suggest why there is some opposition to the use of collaboration. But in this essay, my final project for English 376, I aim to take a more detailed look at collaboration in the writing center. Specifically, I will provide answers to the following questions in hope that the information will allow tutor and student to make the most of each collaborative writing session: what are the characteristics of a good peer tutor, what hinders the tutor/tutee relationship, and what ethical issues must a peer tutor take into consideration?

What are the characteristics of a good peer tutor?

Before listing the traits that a successful peer tutor must posses, it is necessary to decide whether or not the tutor and tutee are actually peers. In his book, "Collaborative Learning," Kenneth Bruffee suggests that the educational effects of peer tutoring, both in the long and short run, are contingent upon the degree to which the tutor and tutee are really peers. He says a peer is a person who has equal standing with another, such as in rank, class, or age, and he emphasizes that a peer is an equal, not a superior (82, 83). In the realm of peer tutoring, equality means two things: both tutor and student believe that they bring important skills and information to the session, and they both believe they are institutional status equals, or students, plain and simple (Bruffee 83).

One reason a peer relationship between tutor and student is imperative that collaborative learning is meant to be a chance for the student to gain knowledge via a learning technique that is very different from the traditional classroom setting. Though one should not consider a peer tutor to be a replacement for the teacher, some students work best in the absence of authority. In the article, "Collaborative Learning Theory and Peer Tutoring Practice," author Alice Gillam states, "the general goal of collaborative learning is to replace the alienating, teacher-dominated methods of traditional instruction" (42). And Gillam suggests another reason why it is important for the tutor to be a peer; a peer is still living the undergraduate experience, and knows what it feels like to deal with the educational system as a student. Also, she notes that at the time of collaboration, the tutor must bring knowledge of the conventions of discourse and knowledge of standard written English to the writing conversation (42).

So far, we have noted that a good peer tutor must actually be a real peer, and that this peer tutor should have a solid foundation in grammar and style. It is also important that tutors lack the power to assign grades to their tutees' work -- this allows the two to "speak the same language" (Gillam 43). Yet, this last characteristic may not be present at the University of Richmond writing center. Here, peer tutors write reports to professors following the conclusion of each tutorial. One cannot be sure that what is written in these reports will not have even the slightest influence over the grade-giving teacher. A student writer whom a tutor describes as "helpful and well-prepared" may carry more favor with a professor than a student who is "unmotivated and ill-prepared." Though there is no certainty that the professors take any stock in the tutors' reports, tutors should at least consider that their words could have an impact on the students' grades.

Andrea Lunsford, a professor who thinks knowledge ought to be viewed as socially constructed, insists that "Collaborative environments and tasks must demand collaboration" (39). She says that goals must be clearly defined and that the job at hand (writing, in our case) must engage all participants on an equal level (39). Thus, it is important that the tutor not do all the work in the session -- if goals are established, they must be set up jointly. The only authority that the tutors have is that which their partners, their tutees, grant them.

If collaboration is to be productive, Bruffee maintains that the peer tutor should be a collaborator, not a monitor. The monitor system has its origins in the 19th century British private schools. Here, older or more advanced students, the "best" students, acted in the stead of their overburdened teachers, helping students to review. Today, we often think of teaching assistants and lab assistants as modern-day monitors. "They are select, superior students who for all intents and purposes serve as faculty surrogates under direct faculty supervision" (Bruffee 83, 84). Monitors cannot be effective collaborators because they do not really share a student status with the tutees -- they have been "professionalized." Dr. Joe Essid, head of the University of Richmond's writing center, says the UR writing center is a combination of the monitoring and collaborating models. "The best writers do not always make the best tutors," he says, and adds that his criteria for writing center tutors includes very strong organizational skills, good interpersonal skills, and good (not necessarily phenomenal) writing skills. It would seem, then, that Richmond's writing tutors are more like collaborators than monitors, since they are not selected for their sensational writing skill but rather for their potential to be the best tutors.

Bruffee also remarks that the degree of peership that tutors maintain with their tutees depends on the way in which the tutors are taught to tutor. Besides watching each other, he says that most institutions of higher learning train their tutors systematically, either with frequent meetings or credit-bearing courses (85, 86). UR writing tutors take English 376, where they learn both the theory and the practical side of effective peer tutoring. Joanne DeMoss, a '97 UR graduate who took English 376, commented on the course, saying, "Class time also provided an easy format for bringing up questions, concerns, and experiences and any other problems that were occuring in our sessions. It was helpful to get feedback from Joe and fellow students." Joanne also says that the writing fellow program has helped her gain a better perspective on her education -- she thinks that college is still the time to practice and improve one's writing. When working with writing students, tutors are expected to act professionally and to implement the knowledge they have gained in class to the tutoring session. Does this professional attitude classify the tutors as monitors? One may argue the question from either perspective. These tutors, though, are trained to be excellent collaborators.

Another vital trait for the peer tutor is knowledge of the tutoring situation. The effective peer tutor should know that the goal of each collaborative writing session is to help the student become a better writer by sharing knowledge about writing and about the student's particular assignment. Though tutors may comprehend the desired goal, they may not clearly understand how to achieve this goal during the course of the tutorial. In the article, "Ethical Issues in Peer Tutoring: A Defense of Collaborative Learning," Richard Behm discusses how the tutor and tutee can work together to benefit through collaboration:

"In an effective writing center the tutor and the learner are truly collaborators, peers involved in a give and take, a communal struggle to make meaning, to clarify, to communicate. The kind of collaborative learning that marks effective peer tutoring programs is a very basic act of sharing, one that often extends well-beyond completing a particular academic exercise. In fact, I am convinced that peer tutoring and other kinds of collaborative learning gather power in proportion to the degree of cooperative involvement in the endeavor. Collaborative learning becomes a kind of joint investment, a mutual fund that has many potential yields to both tutor and learner. In the best peer tutoring, the distinction between tutor and learner is often blurred. I know I have experienced this many times when tutoring my own students -- moments when in our discussion about a piece of writing I have learned as much or more than the student, either about myself, about my writing, or about writing in general" (6).

Note that Behm does not discuss the specifics -- he does not say, "The tutor must make the student justify each argument," or "The tutor will not correct grammar mistakes." He provides a general outline that a tutor can adapt to each different tutoring environment. Nothing is set in stone, except, perhaps, that both peers put forth their best collaborative effort.

It appears that peer tutors are effective when they are true peers with the tutees, when they have a solid writing foundation, and when they have been trained in the theory and application of collaborative tutoring. These peer tutors do no have to be the best writers -- they must only commit themselves to collaborating. As an aside, peer writing tutors may want to invest some time in reading Murphy and Sherwood's book, "The St. Martin's Sourcebook for Writing Tutors," for a good overview of the tutoring process. This guide has been very helpful to me as I have learned the art of peer tutoring.

What hinders the tutor/tutee relationship?

When peer tutor and student writer sit down to collaborate, one would think that if each person contributed to the conversation, and each challenged the other's biases and presuppositions, then they would have no problem in socially constructing knowledge and improving the student's paper. However, there are many obstacles that hinder the walk down this road to successful collaboration. The very nature of the college or university setting provides institutional constraints over the transaction of knowledge. Bruffee contends that students are rarely absolutely equal in ability, knowledge or expertise -- some students will always be a bit quicker than others. Also, the peer relationship in the tutoring session is usually not autonomous. Both the particular assignment, as stipulated by the professor, and the curriculum established by the institution will shape their discussion (Bruffee 83). In a different work, "The Art of Collaborative Learning: Making the Most of Knowledgeable Peers," Bruffee explains how the teacher's presence can interfere with collaboration. When teachers hover around the writing session, they are "predetermining the outcome of the work and maintaining the students' direct dependency on the teacher's presence, resources, and expertise" (46).

Gillam reminds us that the words peer and tutor ought to be a contradiction in terms. Though the tutor and tutee may share institutional status as students, the tutor's loyalty is torn; he is pulled by the loyalty to his fellow students, while at the same time he also feels loyal to the academic system that has rewarded him by making him a tutor (Gillam 42). UR writing fellows and tutors receive a stipend each semester to compensate them for the time they spend in helping student writers. But this stipend should not affect their tutoring performance, for both the tutees and the academic institution have the same goals for the tutor: help the student produce better papers by helping the student become a more skillful writer.

Theresa Miranda, a writing tutor, writes about an experience she had in her school's writing center. Before she explains the tutorial, she poses this question: "How can the writing center act as a place to strengthen students' voices -- voices that exhibit an awareness of the conventions of academic discourse and voices that show ownership of the papers as well as the social aspect of listening to the voices of others?" (1). As she ponders in an attempt to answer her question, Miranda contends that Bruffee's vision of the writing center is of a place where students of equal status can combine their ideas and discover what they need to know through the method of conversation. Yet, in a real life circumstance, she thinks the consultants and consultees see their roles as scripted -- tutors feel as if they must ask particular questions and students think their job is only to receive, not give, information (Miranda 2). With the correct training, tutors should know their roles are not immovable, and that they must adapt their tutoring dogma to each individual writing session. And if the student does not give, but only takes, the tutor should know that any knowledge that results from the session is not the outcome of a collaborative effort.

When a student came into the writing center with a paper on welfare reform that claimed that blacks and Hispanics were cheating the welfare system and should therefore be sent back to their "native" countries, Miranda could not believe what she was reading. "My role as a writing center consultant changed from the static, simply ask the basic questions to arrive at the problem to someone involved in a conversation about racial stereotypes and welfare participant's rights" (Miranda 4). As the debate continued, Miranda says the student wasn't just a "sponge," soaking up grammar and punctuation tidbits, but defended his points and responded to hers. This consultation provided the right atmosphere for the student to present his argument and to be unabashedly honest, two things he could not have done in the actual writing class (Miranda 4). This example is a brilliant case of how collaboration can benefit both the student and the tutor. Miranda should be applauded because she did not allow her role, or the student's, to be scripted.

Another element that may harm the tutor/tutee relationship is if the tutor provides assistance to a student who does not really need help. Vygotsky, who has done much research regarding the effects of collaborative learning on the development of children, has found that social interactions (in our case, the writing conversations) are most beneficial to the intellectual development of the student learner when they revolve around tasks that the student cannot do alone, but in which he or she requires assistance. One cannot be sure why students travel to the writing center if they do not need help -- perhaps they are lazy, or maybe just unsure of their ability. In any event, Vygotsky's theory asserts that tutors are not doing students any favors when they help writers who don't really require it.

What ethical issues must a peer tutor take into consideration?

Ethics in the realm of peer tutoring may be considered a constraint on collaboration. But, it is such a controversial constraint that I felt it needed to be addressed separately. First, tutors must consider what amount of subjectivity is appropriate in the writing session. Tutor Stacey Freed asks, "But how does one deal with a paper that goes against one's fundamental beliefs?" (39). She thinks that tutors do students a disservice when they do not voice their own opinions and force student writers to scrutinize their work. Freed discusses a student essay she encountered where the student wrote about the positive aspects of war. Though the essay was well-written, Freed admits that she is a pacifist and wonders if she ought to criticize the student's beliefs? She answers her own question by proposing that most tutors believe that it is not their job to attack the personal viewpoints of the writers (Freed 40). However, Freed qualifies her assessment this way: "If a student discusses issues in his or her paper, then tutors must act not only as a springboard, but also as a foil, a devil's advocate" (42). She suggests that a code of ethics may be needed for tutors, just like other professionals. This idea seems worthy, but who would create the ethical code -- the teachers and administrators who concern themselves with plagiarism, or the peer tutors who concentrate on learning?

In my English 376 class, the aspiring tutors faced the subjectivity challenge when they were instructed to write commentary on an essay that could be offensive to many people. The paper, entitled "Beautiful Women are Big," contended, among other things, that the best women are large, that thin women are necessarily stupid, and that a man should choose his mate mainly for breeding potential. When the class discussed the essay, we were not bothered so much by the aforementioned assumptions, but by the student's fallacies in logic. In my commentary, I emphasized that the student needed to re-evaluate his logic in order to clear up the many inconsistencies. And though I pointed out that some readers would take offense, I did not harp on this detail. Others in my class took different approaches. Darden Copeland said in his newsgroup post, "What is offensive to me is his [the student's] lack of effort put into the paper. Obviously this person did not re-read this paper, or look too closely to what he was really saying." Katie Tichacek said, "Even though I didn't really comment on the offensiveness (I stuck mostly to sentence level, organization and support issues) I made sure that I took note of what exact parts of the paper were offensive." And Stacey Wojkowski stated, "I asked many questions about textual evidence and also pointed out that some women may be offended by this paper" (Netscape News).

Besides subjectivity, peer tutors must also decide how to handle accusations of plagiarism. As mentioned previously, Behm reviews ethical issues in peer tutoring. He addresses this ethical quandary by evaluating the function of an education. An education could have a certifying function, "making judgments about their [students'] abilities so that employers and others may determine fitness for jobs and so on" (Behm 3). Or, is the university a place of learning and teaching, where the "pursuit of truth, the sharing of knowledge, and the development of educated citizens" are the prime goals (Behm 4)? Behm is an advocate of the university as a place of education.

He discusses his experience as a writer for such publications as "Sports Illustrated" and "English Education," and contends that in the real world, "No writer works in a vacuum" (6). Collaborative efforts such as a spouse, editor, teacher or peer tutor responding to the text, someone suggesting a bold change in direction, organization or content, or an idea being bounced around in a group discussion are typical for the working writer (Behm 6). Though students' papers may not contain only their ideas, their collaboration with a writing tutor is not dissimilar to what real writers do. Why should one view this joint effort as plagiarism rather than learning? Even if a student did write the paper without assistance, his ideas are not all his own -- they have come from all sources of information with which he has had contact. And just as in the collaborative session, students must decide which information they want to incorporate into their work. According to Behm, the collaborative writing practiced in most writing centers in not plagiarism, but is ethical and reflects the way people write in the real world (9). The writers are ultimately responsible, for they decide which advice to accept and reject when completing their papers (Behm 10). Perhaps peer tutors should worry less about avoiding plagiarism and more about defending the merits of collaborative writing. Even if one is to view the university as a place of certification, how important is the work of an individual mind? It is minuscule, if one views knowledge as socially constructed.

Mary Robertson and Rachel Apanewicz, a director and peer tutor at the Sheekey Writing Center at La Salle University, believe that a writing center must consider, "Where is the line?" when concerned with the ethical issue of how much help a tutor should offer a tutee (1). Robertson believes there is no right answer to this question, for "Each writing center functions within a special academic and political context so that each center must address these contexts as it defines its role and its policies" (2). As Freed mentioned, there is no standardized code of ethics for peer tutors, so each writing center must devise its own. For the writing center grounded in collaborative theory, this code of ethics might not draw an inelastic line but a flexible one, one that allows tutors to provide different levels of assistance to different types of students.


Peer tutors are an important asset to any college or university. They provide student writers with a different context in which to work on their writing, a context unlike the traditional classroom. In the collaborative writing center, tutors should not only distribute writing information to their tutees, but they should also accrue knowledge from those same interactions. Effective peer tutors bring certain elements to the tutorial, including knowledge of writing discourse and an understanding of the conditions that are necessary for collaboration. And though there are many constraints placed on the collaborating environment, from institutional burdens to worries about ethics, the capable peer tutor can find a way to surmount them. Other spheres where writing tutors may want to excel are in writing commentary and in utilizing technology. Lastly, peer tutors should strive to remember that collaboration is more than just theory and doctrines -- it is a learning technique that provides a benefit to real people throughout our society.

Works Cited

Behm, Richard. "Ethical Issues in Peer Tutoring: A Defense of Collaborative Learning." Writing Center Journal. 10 n1 (1989): 3 - 12.

Bruffee, Kenneth A. "The Art of Collaborative Learning: Making the Most of Knowledgeable Peers." Change. 19 (1987): 42 - 47.

---. Collaborative Learning. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Copeland, Darden. "The paper that doesn't really seem to offend anyone." Netscape News. 5 Oct. 1997. (1 Dec. 1997).

DeMoss, Joanne. "Re: WAC program." Personal e-mail. (3 Dec. 1997).

Essid, Joe. "Re: Final Project." Personal e-mail. (1 Dec. 1997).

Freed, Stacey. "Subjectivity in the Tutorial Session: How Far Can We Go?" Writing Center Journal. 10 n1 (1989): 39 - 43.

Freedman, Sarah. "Crossing the Bridge to Practice: Rethinking the Theories of Vygotsky and Bakhtin." Written Communication. 12 (1995): 76.

Gillam, Alice M. "Collaborative Learning Theory and Peer Tutoring Practice." Intersections: Theory-Practice in the Writing Center. Ed. Joan A. Mullin and Ray Wallace. Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English. ERIC: ED374464. grids 53 - 65.

Miranda, Theresa. "A Case Study: Personal and Social Ethics in the Writing Center." ERIC: ED401530. grids 1 - 4.

Robertson, Mary C. and Apanewicz, Rachel. "Where is the Line? How Ethical Questions Reflect a Writing Center's Philosophy." ERIC: ED365996. grids 1 - 3.

Tichacek, Katie. "offensive paper." Netscape News. 4 Oct. 1997. (1 Dec. 1997).

Wojkowski, Stacey. "The offensive paper." Netscape News. 5 Oct. 1997. (1 Dec. 1997).


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