Learning in the Commons

Tom Deans and Tom Roby, directors of a university's centers to help students with writing and mathematics, respectively, consider the styles, goals and metaphors of their related efforts.

November 16, 2009

Earlier this year at the kickoff event for our university’s Learning Commons — a bustling floor of the library that includes the main research help desk, the University Writing Center, the Quantitative Learning Center, a help desk for educational technology, clusters of computers, a video editing room, a series of glass-walled study rooms, and several lounge areas — Veronica Makowsky, our vice provost for undergraduate education, reflected on the history of the word “commons.” She traced its once pejorative connotations in British culture (commons as both the untitled classes and the shared land given to them by nobility); she focused, however, on how early Americans redefined and embraced the term. They adopted the idea of the commons as vital to democracy by both celebrating the common man and setting aside valuable land for civic purposes (town greens, public squares, town halls).

That our Learning Commons should evoke a capacious democratic ideal seems apt because a casual walk around the floor reveals several competing conceptions of learning gathered into one space. Even the University Writing Center (W for short) and the Quantitative Learning Center (Q), both founded in 2004 to support an overhaul of our general education system, have different ways of promoting learning.

W and Q are tutoring centers led by faculty and staffed by graduate and undergraduate tutors. The centers were originally placed side by side as a kind of matched set, but after a few weeks W pulled up stakes and moved to a different part of the library floor. Q was just too noisy.

It was not that W prized silence. Quite the contrary — every student who walked into the University Writing Center read his or her draft aloud and discussed it with a tutor. The two centers simply generated different kinds of noise.

We have since come to realize that W and Q work from different root metaphors. Q has taken on the feel of a busy emergency room. Learners arrive needing immediate help with homework or exam preparation, are triaged by a receptionist or graduate student supervisor, and are assigned to work with a tutor. In most cases, the tutor is already working with some students, but the student can join a group working on the same topic or time-share the tutor. Learners gather in clusters of various sizes, talking with one another as well as the circulating tutor, creating a buzz of active engagement with challenging material.

For Q tutors it can be challenging to handle multiple students and subject areas simultaneously. (Some of the best have been chemical engineering majors who can handle all four of Q’s core topics: math, chemistry, physics, and statistics.) But most rise to the challenge, like a chess grandmaster playing simultaneous games, walking from cluster to cluster, offering suggestions and encouragement. When faced with a particularly large group, the tutor can take them to nearby room for a mini-recitation.

The ER model was not premeditated; rather demand for Q tutoring has always exceeded its budget for tutors. Growth has been rapid: from 600 visits in fall 2005 to 7,000 in fall 2007 and (projected) 12,000 in fall 2009. Q has never come close to one-on-one tutoring — rather, we have needed to make the case strongly to administrators for enough resources to keep the learner to tutor ratio within reasonable bounds. Fortunately, our model of multitasking tutors seems to work for many students, giving them opportunities for independent thought or neighborly collaboration while the tutor is engaged elsewhere.

The ER analogy also captures a common emotional state of Q learners: the recently injured. Students are often anxious and confused; many have yet to appreciate confusion as a prerequisite to "figuring out" or learning. In some cases, the anxiety is based on old wounds from previous years or is correlated with "dropped stitches" in the students’ mathematics education.

Because calculus is taught on a foundation of algebra on a foundation of arithmetic, small confusions early in a student's career can have long-lasting, cumulative consequences.
Some learners resist being forced to do some of the work on their own and tutors need to confront a "Just show me how to do it!" ("Just cure me!") attitude. Tutors respond by revealing the reasoning behind the procedures and operations, explaining both the how and the why of the problem solving.
 In the Q disciplines undergraduates are largely mastering a fixed body of content rather than creating their own, but there is significant variation in the learning issues students face. Q tutoring is able to respond to those differences — diagnosing problems and delivering care — in a way that lectures or recitations cannot match.

Q does not, however, cast students as patients waiting to be "cured" or "fixed" by experts. Instead, it encourages self-help and growth. Tutors are urged to leave learners "in charge of the pencil," letting them do all of the writing and as much of the thinking as they can. Our goal is for learners to become more independent, to do as much as they can on their own.

For that very reason, most writing centers have tried to steer well clear of medical or clinical metaphors.

What one sees when strolling by the University Writing Center is tutors and writers, one on one, huddled around drafts, talking through ideas and options. Tutorials happen at two tables in a glassed-walled studio; others go on at tables out in front of the studio; others take place in soft reading chairs nearby.

This scene looks somewhat like a coffeehouse, and indeed W embraces the metaphor of the salon, an intellectual space where students come to discuss their ideas and their works in progress.

While it cultivates a café ethos, W is not about diffuse philosophizing; it is about work — collaborative and conversational work, for sure, but still work.

Most students make appointments in advance using Web-based scheduling software that shows both the first names of our tutors and their various majors, which range from business to biology, engineering to English. While all our tutors take all comers, writers often select a tutor whose major aligns with the topic of the draft that they plan to bring to the tutorial. And many writers, like students who come to the Q center, arrive anxious or with misconceptions about how our tutorials work. (The most common misconception first timers bring is that we will focus exclusively on sentence-level matters or edit their papers for them.)

Each 45-minute session begins with a discussion of the assignment and what the writer wants to work on; then the writer reads aloud. Following that, the tutor may provide encouragement, register understanding or confusion, ask questions, model writing strategies, consult a handbook, or prompt the writer to consider several options. Tutorials often start awkwardly but the best ones develop into thoughtful conversations punctuated by moments of perplexity, small breakthroughs, and occasional laughter.

Working with student writers to shape their ideas and sharpen their prose is less about covering what they don’t know than provoking dialogue about an emerging project. This process aligns well with assignments that ask students to discover and develop their own arguments. That is, most college writing assignments demand divergent learning: each student needs to do something distinctive and original with the material. Q activity is more keyed to convergent learning: students in a given calculus course all need to get to the same place, even if they take different routes to get there.

As a W session nears its end, the tutor typically asks, “So, what’s your plan for revision?” A Q tutor might ask, “Do you feel like you understand this concept better now?”

A good café and a good clinic. A vibrant public square needs both, just as a dynamic learning commons needs more than one kind of noise.


Tom Deans and Tom Roby are on the faculty at the University of Connecticut. Deans is an associate professor of English and director of the University Writing Center; Roby is an associate professor of mathematics and director of the Quantitative Learning Center.


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