#4. Writing Tutoring is Hard

The only way out of the Writing Feedback Death Spiral is to solve one-on-one writing tutoring. It’s a difficult problem because it requires simultaneously solving multiple complex challenges to break the death spiral.

First, the writing feedback experience must be made great. Students must feel the feedback is useful and valuable. The feedback must focus on the higher-order aspects of writing (content, structure, and clarity).

Second, students must be required to seek out and act on feedback. We’ve found making a great writing feedback experience isn’t enough. Students have a writing feedback mental model that’s difficult to break. Their writing feedback experiences to date have made them believe writing feedback is synonymous with surface-level issues such as grammar versus being synonymous with thinking. Educators and institutions must invest in improving writing skills by paying for one-on-one writing coaching and requiring students to receive and act on writing feedback.

We’re going to discuss the ten main considerations for solving one-on-one writing tutoring. We often hear that writing tutoring should be easy given that tutoring works for non-writing subjects. It turns out that writing tutoring requires a completely different operational model, delivery model, and set of tutors than tutoring for non-writing subjects. As such, let’s set the stage by talking about how tutoring for non-writing subjects works.

Tutoring for non-writing subjects

Tutoring for non-writing subjects such as math test prep, and language learning is a well-understood model. Tutors meet live with students and practice the subject (e.g., do math problems, speak in English). There are five primary tenants for how tutoring for non-writing subjects functions. All of these are different for writing.

  • Synchronous. Tutors interact with the students live as students are doing the work. Tutors can guide and correct the student by enforcing good behaviors and providing feedback and instruction on the spot.
  • Routine. Most tutoring can occur at set times, often at the same time each week. Some tutoring can be on-demand in preparation for exams, but it usually can be scheduled in advance.
  • No pre-work needed. Students can just show up for tutoring without having practiced during the week and will still get value out of it.
  • Right answers. Nearly all non-writing-intensive subjects have right answers and a correct approach to doing something. It’s simpler to spot issues students are having and provide guidance for these types of subjects. Having a right answer also makes it simpler to measure the results and to find tutors capable of teaching the content.
  • Students seek it out. Tutoring for non-writing subjects is a well-understood experience. There is a well-defined outcome (e.g., getting a homework problem right). Students will seek out help, whether it’s paid or provided by an institution. The educator and institution aren’t required to be in the loop.

The ten main considerations for solving writing tutoring

Writing is different. Tutors are unable to sit with students for hours while the students are writing something or making revisions. Practice is rare; students really only write when they have an assignment. Educators and institutions must be involved. Getting writing tutoring “right” requires solving a very different set of problems than non-writing subjects.

  1. There is a continuum of right answers. There’s always a way to make writing better. Writers have varying skill levels, and tailoring instructional, actionable feedback to each individual requires skilled, trained tutors.
  1. People. A founder of a SAT/ACT test prep company once told me that he could give nearly anyone his materials, and they’d be able to improve a student’s SAT/ACT scores. Tutoring for multiple choice is simple; tutoring for writing is not. Great writing tutors are hard to find, evaluate, and train as many skills are required. Writing has significant variability in the inputs tutors receive as there is a continuum of right answers. Tutors must be consistently able to spot the most significant gaps in student writing. Tutors must be thorough in how they provide instructional, actionable feedback while also using a tone that motivates students to act. At Prompt, we’ve found that fewer than 2% of our applicants are capable of consistently providing thorough instructional feedback.
  1. Trust. Educators and students must trust the feedback is correct. Delivering consistent quality is the most difficult part of the problem. Having a high rate of “disagreement” with the feedback erodes trust. Once you’ve lost trust, there’s no way to come back.
  1. Will. Students need to either want to get feedback or be required to get feedback. Then, the students need to be motivated enough and have the time to act on the feedback.
  1. Time. Students typically write just before a deadline. As such, students need to get feedback within hours, not days. Students need to be able to execute on their feedback quickly as they’re unlikely to have substantial time to spend on it before it’s due.
  1. Scale. Educational institutions can have hundreds or thousands of essays due on a single day, resulting in hundreds of hours of work (about 15 minutes per essay). Other days may have nothing due. Solving writing tutoring requires solving demand fluctuations to deliver a significant volume of high-quality reviews within hours.
  1. Ease. People only routinely do things that don’t feel daunting. Getting and receiving feedback needs to be simple not just for the students but also for educators to administer. It must fit naturally within a class without requiring changes to the curriculum or how an educator teaches. Students also need to feel making changes to their writing is doable. They need to feel comfortable acting on the feedback without significant intervention or the need to ask clarifying questions.
  1. Cost. The writing tutoring model needs to deliver significant value at a price educational institutions are willing and able to pay. This is difficult because writing feedback can take a long time and requires using highly-skilled labor.
  1. Asynchronous (mostly). Asynchronous written feedback is the best way to do writing tutoring as it provides students with actionable instruction to refer to while revising their essays. Some students can also benefit from synchronous touchpoints such as a live chat before writing, during writing, or while revising.
  1. Most students don’t know they need help with writing. In math, when you get a problem wrong, you know you’re wrong. In writing, there’s a continuum of right answers. Students may feel their writing is good because they’re receiving As and Bs, but many students currently don’t receive or act on feedback due to the Educator-Time Problem. As such, students tend not to actively seek feedback, and they’re unaware they need to improve.

Moving towards a solution

I know some of the ten things seem obvious. Over the past six years, we’ve had our share of “duh” moments at Prompt. For example, we used to tell students everything they needed to fix on their essays. However, when talking with students, we found they didn’t have the will or time to fix everything for lower-stakes essays. Instead, we learned to ask, “how much time are you willing to spend to fix your essay?” The answer was stunning and predictable – under 30 minutes. As such, we started only providing feedback on the two to three most important things a student could do in 30 minutes to improve the content and structure of their essay. Our philosophy is that learning to write is an iterative process where not every essay needs to be perfect, but rather students will improve different skills on different essays. Focusing our reviews on what students ultimately needed and desired also solved other problems – it brought the cost down and enabled us to deliver more reviews faster.

We believe Prompt is the first company to solve writing tutoring that focuses on Writing as Structured Thinking. We’ve combined our technological expertise with our robust knowledge of operations and the writing problem. We are exceptional at identifying great Writing Coaches, maintaining consistent quality, and returning feedback quickly. Our Virtual Writing Center makes it simple and cost-effective to implement writing tutoring in any educational institution or organization. It’s been a long road, but we’re excited to share our Solution for Improving Writing Skills in Education. Read on to learn more.

Next up: #5. The Solution for Improving Writing Skills in Education