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Recognizing and Working with Problem Students

In theory, Writing Center consultations are about writing—whether or not it is paper specific improvement or general writing skill improvement. But often, in practice, the challenges we face in tutoring relate to the student more so than the paper. In such cases, writing fellows must often combine skills outside of what they know about writing and editing, and take on the role of a sort of therapist or cheerleader.

A “problem” student can hinder a tutor’s ability to help the student with their paper, and therefore, while there is no foolproof way to get students to cooperate and collaborate with you, there are some ways to break through barriers or put students at ease. Below, I list several types of “problem” students, how to recognize them, and how to work with the student more effectively. These observations and suggestions are based purely on my experience and the experience of other writing fellows.


The Defensive Student—“I don’t need your advice, my paper is fine.”

How to recognize the Defensive Student: Students sometimes hint at being defensive early on, but it’s often not until the writing fellow tries to critique or make suggestions that they reveal themselves. They may:

  • mention that their professor is forcing them to go to the writing center (indicating that they may not really want to be there).
  • say they just want someone to look over their grammar (this is not always an indication of defensiveness, but can sometimes mean the student is not open to a critique of their paper’s structure).
  • be very prepared for the consultation and have written multiple drafts they are confident in.
  • ultimately end up defending parts of their paper from your critique, explaining why they are right and don’t need to make any changes you should suggest.

How to work with the Defensive Student: Consultations with defensive students often end up being something of a power struggle. The student’s ego, or perhaps their desire to avoid editing, can get in the way of their receptiveness to criticism and willingness to revise. You might try the following:

  • briefly remind them about the things you DO like about their paper (although don’t overdo this in the cases where the student is already confident enough).
  • remind them that they only need to make the changes they see fit, and then reiterate why you think certain things need to be worked on.
  • say that you are an example of an average reader, and while something may make perfect sense in their heads, if it doesn’t resolve well for you when you read it, the professor might have difficulty with it as well.
  • give them examples from your experience about what does–and doesn’t–work well.

The Insecure Student—“I’m still not sure if I’ve done this effectively…”

How to recognize the Insecure Student: Many students are insecure about their writing and can reveal themselves in a variety of ways at any stage during the process. They may:

  • open the consultation with something direct like, “I am a terrible writer!”
  • become really upset and or worried about their writing after you critique something specific.
  • wait until the end, when you ask if they have any questions or concerns, to reveal that they are not sure at all about the paper or specific elements in it.

How to work with the Insecure Student: The approach with the Insecure Student is less about power struggle and more about building up a student’s ego, as well as helping them see why what they’ve done IS in fact effective, or why it will be once they make the edits you’ve discussed. You might try the following:

  • remind them of the things they have done well in the paper.
  • say that you often have trouble with whatever aspect of writing they are having difficulty with (or, if you don’t, say that a lot of students you work with do).
  • if they express concern about a certain paper element that is fine or that you have worked on in the consultation, explain what about the way they have written it is effective—and why it works particularly well. By explaining what’s effective and why, you will not only help alleviate their anxiety on this paper, but help them be more confident on their next paper.

The Defeatist Student—“I hate this class/this paper; I can’t do it anymore.”

How to recognize the Defeatist Student: Students of this type often have very strong negative opinions about the class or the assignment and will voice them clearly at some point. They may:

  • say right away when you ask them about the class or the assignment that they really dislike it or are frustrated.
  • have had multiple consultations on the same paper and are tired of working on the paper.
  • say at the end that they just want to turn this paper in and not work on it anymore.

How to work with the Defeatist Student: The Defeatist Student, like the Insecure Student, probably doesn’t feel very good about their writing ability, at least with relation to the discipline or specific paper. In this case, your goal is to help motivate them, or at least try to help push them through it, even if they still hate the paper. You might try the following:

  • remind them if they just finish this paper, they will be one step closer to finishing the class, and won’t have to revisit it again.
  • prompt them into talking about any aspects of the class/paper topic that they DO find interesting, and try to find a way to incorporate those into the paper/consultation (even if it takes you off track for a moment).
  • suggest that even if they don’t enjoy this particular paper, they should still put in their best effort so they can take pride in their work.

The Non-Collaborative Student—“Write my paper for me!”

How to recognize the Non-Collaborative Student: This type of student can take on a variety of forms. They sometimes seem lazy, disinterested, or eager for you to give them suggestions. They may:

  • be unresponsive to questions or say, “I don’t know” when you ask them things.
  • actively try to make you answer questions for them by saying, “Well what do you think?”
  • ask how you they should word things.

How to work with the Non-Collaborative Student: The Non-Collaborative Student is usually not actually lazy, but is more likely unsure of themselves (see Insecure Student), not particularly interested in the topic, or genuinely lacking ideas. It is important to stimulate creative thinking, although it can be tempting to throw a student answers when they ask for them repeatedly. You might try the following:

  • ask leading questions. This is tricky, but try phrasing questions in such a way that they will lead students to new ideas or in a general direction you think will be helpful. For example, if you think a discussion of a current event will be helpful might be helpful in their paper, you might say, “Well what about this?” and see if this helps stimulate more analysis.
  • give them something close, but not quite ‘right’. This can be especially helpful with word choice and phrasing, as can giving multiple options. It stimulates the student to think more, and by throwing out some ideas yourself, some okay, some bad even, it will make the student more comfortable with thinking aloud and making mistakes in front of you.
  • ask them to return to the text, and ask leading questions for things that you think might be present (even if you have little knowledge of the book). This is helpful if the problem seems to be that they just haven’t formed their thoughts well enough and want you to form ideas for them.
  • tell them you can’t think for them. This is a bit aggressive, but effective with students who repeatedly ask you to tell them what to say or to give them ideas.