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Tutoring Through the Interface

Laura Feibush, Penn State University


After completing the training, tutors should be able to: 

1. identify elements of software interface pertinent to writing tutoring

2. analyze and compare the limitations and affordances of various interfaces and interface features

3. adapt to unexpected scenarios in synchronous, online tutoring by implementing concepts of critical interface studies and modality


  • Access to personal computers with internet connection. This may include power cords and electrical outlets to charge devices, if necessary.
  • Access to the center’s preferred software for online tutoring (these might include email, Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, WCOnline, etc.). This may include secondary devices used for authentication, such as mobile phones.
  • Word processing software or notebook paper and writing implements to generate brief free-writes.
  • A physical or virtual space organized by the trainer to gather for the concluding group discussion.
  • Tutoring Through the Interface informational video (or view the PDF slides shown in the video)
  • Paired role-playing activity prompts (included below in lesson plan)


Introduction (app. 15-20 min.)

Note: Italicized text in this section indicates additional instructions for trainers.

This introductory prompt/discussion could be conducted by the trainer and tutors synchronously as a group or outlined in an email that would be sent out to all participants ahead of time. This opening discussion may take around 15 minutes. 

Recall a time (perhaps very recently!) when a technological issue disrupted a learning environment such as a class, a workshop, a study group, a meeting, or a tutoring session (this could be an online or in-person experience). How did you end up having to adapt to continue with the interaction/learning goals? Maybe you changed rooms, restarted your computer, or turned off your computer camera. 

Do you think that the learning experience was “successful” in spite of the mishap? How did it change the experience when you had to quickly solve the problem and carry on with your learning in a different, unexpected way?

Things get even more interesting when technology comes more overtly into play. Consider: When was the last time you needed to use a new software for a learning experience? Was there a learning curve to it? Compare: Do you have “favorite” or “least favorite” programs for doing things? Why is that?

It’s always a challenge (large or small) to get to know a new software, unless it’s extremely intuitive–almost as though the interface “disappears”–or we have a chance to try it in a relaxed environment. Then, right when we get comfortable, our favorite program reinstalls and includes a bunch of new features, some helpful but others confusing. For instance: When was the last time your Zoom software needed to install updates to improve its available features or security? Or maybe Gmail changed the layout of your inbox, and it took some time to get used to? 

Arrival point: 

We can recognize that software is always changing, requiring us to continually adapt to different platforms and/or modalities and all the different features they bring with them. This will also be the case when it comes to synchronous, online writing tutoring—the software we use now may not be what we use in another few years, and we periodically encounter problems like slow internet, glitchy cameras, or broken audio. Other times, a tutee may log in to an appointment in an unexpected way, like from their mobile phone rather than their personal computer. So, how do we prepare ourselves for unexpected change or in-the-moment adaptation? This lesson plan asks us to become more aware of how we interact with online tutoring software, and practice the types of chaotic, unexpected situations we are likely to encounter with them at some point in our tutoring. 

The following invitation can prompt tutors to generate a scenario for the role-playing portion of the lesson plan below. This writing task will take around 5 minutes. 

Write down one technological “worry” you have with regard to peer tutoring online, a situation you hope won’t occur but suspect might. For instance, a student doesn’t want to turn on their camera, or you find that the tutoring software is down for maintenance right when you go to log in for a scheduled session. 

Body of Lesson  (app. 35-40 min.)

Part 1: Video Presentation

First, participants will watch a 15-minute video (written and filmed by the author) which can be viewed at any time before the training session. The video provides context for synchronous tutoring approaches, quick tips to make the most of pre-session emails and video-conferencing setup (framing, lighting, etc.), and then focuses further on communicating through digital interfaces, covering concepts such as frames, screens, and features like chat and whiteboard functionalities. It then touches briefly upon reminders for post-appointment elements such as collecting tutee data or composing a follow-up email. 

Part 2: Role-Playing Activity

Next, students complete a five-minute free-write to create a “paper” for their mock sessions to focus on. The free-write is simply intended to generate content for the role-play session, so it can be on a topic of the students’ or the trainer’s choosing, or students can use a paper they are already working on.

Then, tutors work in pairs to participate in a role-playing practice activity that they conduct in an online, synchronous platform for around 15-20 minutes. The tutors should use whatever software they expect to encounter as part of their tutoring for the role-play activity, such as Zoom or WCOnline, etc. 

One member of each pair will be given a prompt for the mock session, which will consist of different technical difficulties that could occur in a synchronous, online environment. Example prompts for role-playing technical mishaps are provided by the author below. They can also be generated by students or trainers based on their experiences or concerns. Have students generate a technical “worry” in the introduction to the lesson plan (above) or in addition to their free-write. Collect these and use them as prompts for different pairs. 

Administrators can decide exactly how they want to organize the activity: trainers can assign tutors 1-2 problems to contend with in their tutorials or give pairs a list of issues to choose from. If one technological problem is easily solved, tutors can keep the tutorial short (5-10 minutes), or tutors can be directed to conduct the mock tutorial for the full 15-20 minutes to observe how the technological issue affects the rest of the appointment. 

Sample mock session prompts:

  1. The tutee would prefer not to use the camera, so they keep their self-facing camera off during the whole appointment. How do you respond? 
  2. The video is working fine in the video-conferencing appointment, but your audio is choppy and unintelligible (mute and unmute yourselves periodically to simulate this!). How do you compensate? 
  3. The college’s email system is down, and the tutee is unable to send the draft they want to work on to the tutor. The essay is due tomorrow, and the tutee really needs help with it! What do you do?
  4. The tutee logs in to the appointment from their mobile phone and must navigate the mobile version of the tutoring software. What comes up, and how do you navigate the situation?
  5. The tutee logs in to the session on a mobile device while driving. They are able to speak but not use many of the other available features. How do you proceed with the session?
  6. Your wi-fi cuts out a few minutes into the appointment (end the Zoom meeting to simulate this)! You must get in touch with each other to coordinate the rest of the appointment. 
  7. The tutee logs in from a place with a lot of background noise, and the tutor needs to ask them to mute themselves periodically during the appointment. How do you negotiate your conversation?
  8. The tutor wants to use a screenshare to look at a writing resource online with the tutee (such as a page from the Purdue OWL website), but the screenshare functionality is not working. What next?
  9. The tutee requests that the appointment be recorded so they can access the integrated transcript later on. However, the tutor needs 1-2 minutes to clean up their dorm room before they are comfortable recording the appointment.
  10. Use the technological “worry” you generated in the introduction to this lesson. 

Tutors conduct the role-play for 15-20 minutes by moving into breakout rooms or logging on to their chosen software. Based on their prompt, one participant may simulate disruptions or limitations to the tutorial. They then return to the main group at an appointed time to participate in Part 3 of the lesson.

Conclusion  (app. 10-15 min.)

Part 3: Debriefing and Wrap-Up Discussion

Lastly, all participants return to the main session to debrief on the role-play activity, to engage in a follow-up discussion that encourages application of lesson concepts, and to summarize, conclude, and potentially extend the lesson’s learning goals. 

Summary of main points from the informational video:

Before the appointment, tutors should make good use of the email used to set up the appointment and think through aspects of their video setup. During the appointment, tutors should be aware of negotiating the frame, and they are encouraged not to skip the rapport-building that sometimes disappears online. They should also manage the barrier of the screen by explaining silences and being more explicit about roles and actions within the appointment.When it comes to special interface features, tutees should analyze their strengths and weaknesses and take initiative to use those features first in an appointment. Be sure to complete any post-appointment follow-ups.

Main points from role-playing activity:

The software and hardware used for synchronous, online tutoring changes often, requiring tutors to continually adapt. Unexpected changes to online, synchronous writing tutoring appointments can take many forms, and tutors need to be agile in their use of technology and flexible in their tutoring skills to serve students’ needs in spite of unexpected occurrences. It is important to practice handling situations in which technology does not work as expected. 

The following questions serve as discussion prompts for the concluding group conversation. The “review and debrief” questions( below) may generate a discussion of around 25 minutes. Questions and activities under the “imagine” and “integrate new practices headings” could extend the session to 1-1.25 hours. For each, I also include an activity that, depending on time and the scale of your training (one-time or multi-session), could be used to further build upon the session’s learning goals. These concluding questions and activities also serve as checks for understanding (below). 

Review and debrief questions: 

  1. How did your mock tutorials go? 
  2. Which aspects of the mock tutorials were harder than you expected? Which were easier?
  3. Where did you get “stuck,” if anywhere? What guidance or suggestions did you feel you needed at that point?
  4. What surprised you – if anything – about how your mock tutorials went?
  5. Did you notice any special affordances arising from the online setting?
  6. Looking back on your session as an observer, what do you notice about how you responded to the technological mishap(s) you encountered?
  7. If you were to conduct the tutorial again, what might you do differently?


  1. What software features do you wish existed, but don’t yet? If you were a software designer, what type of program would you create for synchronous writing tutoring? Drawing on the framework of critical interface studies, which investigates how interfaces guide users’ actions and expectations when interacting with technologies, what options would you include for a user to choose from in your imagined interface? (Possible homework or extension activity: Write or sketch a brief outline of your idea, or create a brief product pitch for your new innovation.)
  2. If you could propose an improvement to your campus infrastructure that would improve online, synchronous writing tutoring, what would it be? (Write a short list of recommendations to the head of operations.)

Integrate new practices:

  1. What is a non-negotiable step for you when something goes wrong? For example: taking a deep breath, finding one way to get in touch with the tutee, etc. (Generate a Pinterest-style list of advice for your future self.)
  2. How might this exercise change an aspect of your tutoring going forward? (Write down an intention or a new practice you learned.)


In addition to the questions and activities listed at the conclusion of Part 3 of the lesson plan (above) here are other ideas for assessing understanding later in the term: 

Ask tutors to write or verbally reflect on how they handled unexpected challenges in one of their appointments. 

Organize a panel of veteran tutors to give advice to new tutors, or an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session for new tutors. Ask tutors to consider: what advice would you give to a brand-new tutor beginning to tutor online?

Consider collecting data in end-of-session forms about whether the appointment was affected by technical difficulties. Collate the data bi-weekly or at the end of the term to identify and address problem areas.


Format Adaptations:

This lesson plan has a hybrid-flexible quality to it, allowing for ways to extend or condense the training. For instance, the video can be watched beforehand for “homework.” The role-play should take place in an online, synchronous environment, but it could happen either during a training meeting or coordinated remotely by each pair of participants. The follow-up discussion can happen synchronously online or be conducted in person. 

Trainers could also assign the paired role-play to be completed by the pairs at a time of their choosing before the group follow-up discussion. To do this, the trainer could simply email the pair assignments and each pair’s scenario. The most important thing is for the role-play to take place using synchronous, video conferencing software, so that the training will take place in the modality that will later be used for tutoring, as I mention above in the context statement. 

The questions I suggest in the Conclusion/Part 3 portion of the lesson plan above could be used to extend the training with an assignment (done individually or collaboratively).

Alternate activities and discussion prompts for tailoring the lesson plan session to specific audiences/communities:

Here, I offer several clusters of discussion questions that may serve to extend the lesson plan I outline above, and which connect the lesson plan’s focus on “technical difficulties” to other important conversations in the fields of writing center work, writing studies, student support, and diversity, equity, access, and inclusivity. They also provide points of departure for adapting the lesson plan to particular audiences and student populations.

  1. What broader issues of equity and access should we bear in mind when dealing with the disruptions of technical difficulties? This lesson plan highlights an orientation, often necessary within writing center work, towards the idea of crisis and contingency. In fact, it assumes that things will “go wrong,” a phrase that warrants further reflection. Consider: students whose lives include obstacles to success in their education—like limited access to reliable technology (not just computers, but also cars for commuting, for instance), a demanding or changing work schedule, or spotty childcare, etc.—are also more likely, by the same token, to encounter difficulties when seeking out the supplemental help of writing tutoring. With that in mind, it is an important dimension of inclusivity, access, and equity to prioritize agility and ingenuity when providing tutoring to students in the midst of technical difficulties. While technical difficulties are sometimes the result of unforeseeable issues stemming from an internet provider outage or a software company making changes at an inconvenient time, we can also begin to see technical difficulties as having a systemic quality, affecting some more than others. A technical difficulty may not signal the failure of an individual to log in on time with seamlessly-working devices and infrastructure, but rather ways in which issues with technology disproportionately affect those already vulnerable to disruptions in their professional and educational lives. In fact, in “Bridging the Digital Divide: Telephone Tutoring at the Center,” Amy Nejezchleb (2020) finds that offering tutoring appointments via telephone, rather than via Zoom or other computer-based options, actually “helps tutors meet underrepresented student populations where they are.” She notes, “Putting modifications like the telephone in place may help make room for experiences that differ from established institutional conventions” (Nejezchleb, 2020, p. 49). How does this awareness point us towards a different understanding of crisis in Writing Center work?

  2. How do technical difficulties affect Writing Center staff—or, who gets to be a tutor? Building on the last paragraph, much writing center work makes use of peer tutors and contingent faculty as sources of labor, but we should not assume that tutors themselves enjoy perfect access to the trappings of smooth synchronous, online tutoring. When providing synchronous, online writing tutoring, are tutors in your writing center expected to use their personal devices to do so? Are all dorms and buildings supplied with equally reliable wi-fi connections?  

  3. How might awareness of privacy and mental health concerns further shape synchronous, online tutoring? In some ways, this lesson plan presumes that the more interface features (camera, audio, chat, and other affordances) we have good access to, the better. That presumption can be questioned from the perspective of critical interface studies, however: while video cameras allow for body language cues to circulate and provide important communicative context, for example, many users report that they dislike seeing themselves on camera or that they prefer not to reveal the interior of their homes. In “Brave and Safe Spaces as Welcoming in Online Tutoring,” Destiny Brugman (2019) articulates the subtle changes in ownership and pressure when seeking tutoring online:

    The power shift that happens moving from the physical space to the online space has often given me more power, control, and agency to either take the feedback I’m being given or toss it out. I feel less pressured to take the advice of my tutors, because it appears more obvious to me that I am the host, and it feels as though I can welcome them to work on the paper with me without fear of appearing unwelcoming, as it might feel when I’m in a face-to-face session where the tutor can see my reactions to the feedback they give me.

    Public conversation about the prevalence of “Zoom burnout” has also been widespread since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a phenomenon that may be gendered (Gupta, 2021). Neurodiverse tutors and tutees may also have preferences that help them get the most out of their training while looking out for their own mental and emotional well-being, and it is important to remember that those preferences may actually include limiting some of the interface features available to us. What steps could we take to acknowledge intentionally-chosen interface limitations that may serve students’ well-being?

  4. What are the roles of emergent technologies in shaping writing tutoring? While it may seem at first that technologies like video-conferencing software simply enable writing tutoring to happen in different modalities, there is really more going on when we incorporate these newer ways of conducting tutorials. The modes and materialities of tutoring—software and hardware, synchronous and asynchronous—do not just convey tutoring: they also shape it. In fact, sometimes our writing center tutoring practices bend to the will of new technologies like video-conferencing software. For instance, most video-conferencing software interfaces put tutor and tutee face to face due to the typical orientation of computer cameras, while a classic writing center preference is for a side-by-side orientation emphasizing noncombative confrontation, but peer status and collaboration (Feibush, 2018). Classic writing center approaches have the tutee retain ownership of their writing by making sure they are the one to hold the pen or do the typing. In a shared online document, like a GoogleDoc, should we modify these approaches (Summers, 2013)? Software companies often launch updates in the form of “improvements,” but practitioners should keep an eye on all developments as changes that may have pedagogical implications. Do we allow emerging technologies to continue to shape writing tutoring, or do we insist upon the Writing Center’s time-honored approaches and techniques? 

  5. What does writing center work—even in the midst of technical difficulties—provide beyond writing tutoring? The discussion questions above invite us to think about the underlying goals that many writing centers and writing center practitioners work towards—the aims and agendas that undergird the more overt, daily practices of writing tutoring. For instance, that even—and especially—in moments of technical difficulty, it may still be possible to further the values of accountability and community, finding ways to follow up, persist, hack, and work around. How do technical difficulties prompt us as writing center tutors and directors to refocus on these underlying goals of writing center work? 


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