Semicolons Like Superglue! And Other “Stickable” Things

Editor’s note: Abby Shantzis and Lena Stypeck are tutors at the University of Maryland Writing Center and have developed some exciting strategies for using analogies as a tool in tutoring sessions. Timely advice as we start the fall semester!

Analogies in the Writing Center

lena and abby

Abby and Lena

Over the past three years, Lena has been especially interested in how students best retain information. As a University of Maryland Writing Center (UMD WC) tutor and now high school English teacher, she’s constantly worried that her efforts are for nothing–what’s the point of explaining something if your client is just going to forget the second they leave you? The issue of retention came to her attention when one of her regulars returned making the exact same mistakes as before, completely oblivious to their previous sessions’ discussions. Lena began to question her own tutoring abilities: If this client had forgotten everything they’d talked about, did her other clients forget, too? How bad of a tutor was she if her clients weren’t learning anything? Was she actually fulfilling the UMD WC’s mission to make better writers, if writers were coming back with the same mistakes? These terrifying–and potentially self-destructive–questions paved the way for research on analogies, which she used to combat student retention issues.

UMD Writing center entrance

UMD Writing center entrance

Analogies are powerful tools for a tutor’s arsenal. They allow us to process information in structured, relatable ways while being concise, understandable, and humble. And as online tutoring becomes increasingly prevalent (not to mention demanded), analogies, which transfer gorgeously to an online arena, become even more attractive tactics. Lena and Abby, two tutors from UMD, can confirm this firsthand through their research and their experiences.

Why Analogies?

Like many other college writing centers, UMD’s allows for 30-60 minutes with a client. If you’ve tutored at all, you know this isn’t very much time. By the time you’ve greeted your client and finished building rapport (4 minutes), walked them to your station (1 minute), uploaded and opened their paper (2 minutes), and gone over the rubric/prompt (5 minutes), you have just 18 minutes left to begin reading and providing feedback. Not to mention your feedback often has to be explained or discussed. Yikes!

As tutors, our natural reaction is often to rush through material and do some of the work for our clients. However, this is dangerous for two reasons:

  1. If clients aren’t interacting with the feedback (whether that’s writing notes, verbally repeating, asking questions, or all three!), they aren’t cognitively interacting with new information and are therefore not processing new information.
  2. If tutors are giving feedback too quickly, we don’t think of ways to make our feedback memorable.

We have one way to provide memorable feedback in a short amount of time: analogies. Analogies such as “semicolons are like superglue, and commas are like Elmer’s glue. Connect two complete sentences together with a semicolon (superglue) because they are longer and heavier” can help clients move information from their working memory into their permanent memory.

Analogies do the following:

  1. situate new information into existing schemas or reconstruct schemas to accommodate new information,
  2. build pictorial representations of information,
  3. assign meaning and purpose to concepts, and
  4. structure information in ways that make sense.

These four factors are key to moving information from a client’s working memory to their permanent memory, and ultimately making new information more “stickable.”

Analogies Online

Working online, Abby has found obstacles and solutions similar to Lena’s. Here is one of her earliest online tutoring (chat- and whiteboard-based, synchronous, no audio/visual–think Google Docs) appointments:

The appointment slot is half an hour long. After unavoidable time spent logging on, building rapport, explaining the interface, uploading the paper, and asking enough questions to discern the client’s concerns, there are suddenly only ten minutes left to work on the paper. The student expresses concerns about commas. Abby quickly realizes that, in an online setting, she can’t use her finger to point to the subjects, verbs, and objects on either side of a comma splice; she instead copy-pastes her client’s sentence into another area of the online document, points out all the parts of speech (in writing), types explanations about commas and semicolons and periods, and finally sends over a link to a worksheet on comma splices. By the time the entire process is over, not only is Abby too rushed to give her client the options she deserves (i.e. “you could use a semicolon or a period here, and it really depends what you’re trying to do with the sentence”), but the session is over. All they really accomplish is the elimination of one comma splice, and Abby has the sneaking suspicion that her client won’t retain a word of it (if they’d read it at all).

Lena and Abby were among the first to work with online tutoring at the UMD WC, and one of the earliest lessons they learned was that time management and information retention issues like these are not an inadequacy on the part of online tutoring, but inexperience of tutors in a new medium. In many cases, transferring face-to-face tactics straight to online tutoring is a recipe for disaster – in Abby’s case, trying to explain a concept she was used to supplementing with specific tones and gestures online led to getting flustered, overly formal, and far from concise.

Fast-forward a couple years, a lot of online tutoring research and experience, and more than a few conversations with Lena later, Abby would handle the same situation very differently: she’d use an analogy. Instead of launching into a wordy explanation about commas and semicolons and clauses, she might use an analogy (borrowed shamelessly from another tutor) comparing semicolons to superglue and commas to Elmer’s. When there’s no audio/visual component, online tutoring is the art of explaining writing with only writing – what better strategy to call upon than one that connects concepts, builds mental images, and organizes information using only words. Analogies are a tactic that transfers beautifully from face-to-face tutoring to online tutoring, and the time-saving benefits of using them, while useful in a face-to-face session, are nothing less than vital in an online setting.

Still Need Convincing?

We think analogies save time and build understanding offline and can have even greater impact online…if you’re still skeptical, let us try and convince you. (For this activity, you will need one piece of paper and a writing utensil.) Below you will find two columns of information: On the left is a list of writing “rules” copy and pasted from published writing guide books; on the right is a list of the alternative analogies you could use to explain each concept.

  • Step 1: Read column #1 in its entirety. After you are finished, minimize your screen so you can’t cheat, and write down as many “rules”/pieces of advice as you can remember. (Get more than four and you are a physiological marvel.)
  • Step 2: Read the column #2 in its entirety, minimize the screen, and write down as many analogies/”rules” as you can remember.
  • Step 3: Which column allowed you to not only retain, but also understand more writerly advice?

Our research shows that when presented with analogies, clients are able to not only recall, but also understand new concepts more readily. Although our research attempts to help tutoring sessions result in more stickable learning, everything is still ongoing; if you complete the “working memory challenge,” feel free to email us your results (or just your favorite analogies) at Lstypeck@gmail.com or Abbyshantzis@gmail.com. We’re interested in seeing if our theories and previous findings still hold true.

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What do you think? Have a question for Abby and Lena? Try their strategy? Comment below!

1 thought on “Semicolons Like Superglue! And Other “Stickable” Things

  1. By understanding analogies, we’re helping ourselves, as well as the tutee, to better both their writing and ours. By using analogies, the tutors may give a new perspective and understanding to the tutee, which could help them in the long run.

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