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Mandatory Visits to The Writing Center: Incentives or Deterrents

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

by Alaa Itani


Today, most writing centers discourage professors from requiring their students to visit the writing center as mandatory visits are often associated with the remedial nature most contemporary writing centers seek to avoid. The shift away from mandatory visits was aligned with the shift towards collaborative writing centers where intrinsic motivation is emphasized. Mandatory visits were therefore seen as undermining tutees’ self-motivation to visit the writing center of their own volition. However, recent research has challenged this belief, consistently showing the effectiveness of mandatory visits in the long term. Looking at these conflicting beliefs, questions are raised regarding whether mandatory visits to the writing center incentivize students to develop their writing skills or deter their writing development through an authoritative use of the writing center.

Keywords: mandatory visit, voluntary visit, writing center, peer tutoring

Mandatory Visits to The Writing Center: Incentives or Deterrents

Staples stapling, keyboards clattering, and pens clicking; that is how I imagined the Writing Center when my professor first told my class to go there. “Don’t forget to visit the Writing Center", he said, for what seemed to be the 58th time in Academic Writing I, an introductory writing class at the American University of Sharjah (AUS). Encouraged to visit, it took me two semesters to visit the AUS Writing Center. Later that semester, I was surprised to hear that students taught by other professors were required to visit the Writing Center at least once during their freshman semester. Having not been required to visit the Writing Center, I recognized why this presented itself as a literacy challenge to some students, particularly freshmen. The challenge lies in the lack of incentive for students to visit the writing center despite the potential of benefitting from it. The challenge is further fueled by the fact that some students required to visit the writing center feel they are being forced to go against their will whilst some students not required to visit the writing center feel they are missing an opportunity to benefit from a valuable resource.

As valuable resources, some contemporary writing centers introduce themselves to students through encouraging professors to make a writing center consultation mandatory as part of their first-year introductory writing class. Even though professors are sometimes encouraged to mandate writing center visits, whether professors choose to incorporate the requirement into their courses falls under their authority. As such, this paper will explore why mandatory visits should be implemented into the curricula of introductory writing classes as they encourage future voluntary visits by establishing a strong introduction to the writing center, recalibrating some potential misconceptions, and appealing to students through a preview into the atmosphere of positive, collaborative learning at the writing center.

Mandatory Visits: Incentives

Mandatory visits can establish a strong introduction to the writing center, normalizing writing center visits and laying the groundwork for future visits. Familiarizing students with the writing center, mandatory visits equip students with the information needed to access the writing center when they need help with writing future papers. This is notably true during future semesters as supported by Pfrenger et al. (2017) and Young (2014), who consistently found that students who visited the writing center on a mandatory basis as part of their introductory writing courses tended to visit the writing center at higher rates in future semesters even when the sessions were no longer mandatory. When AUS students were asked if they felt forced to visit the writing center because of their mandatory visits, multiple students responded that they felt forced the first time but that they returned to the AUS Writing Center of their own volition (Appendix A). Once students are acquainted with a tutor in their first semester, they are inclined to feel more comfortable with going to writing centers further on in their studies. Pfrenger et al.’s (2017) findings are significant because they demonstrate that mandatory visits lay the foundation of a relationship between the student and the writing center, encouraging students to build upon this relationship through future, voluntary visits. When asked whether their mandatory visit encouraged them to or deterred them from returning to the Writing Center, 76.2% of AUS students said it had encouraged them, supporting Pfrenger et al.’s (2017) findings (Appendix A).

However, such findings raise the question of whether more frequent visits to the writing center are directly related to the development of better writers. According to Pfrenger et al. (2017), “requiring students to visit the writing center did not predict first semester pass rate, but did improve their second semester outcomes” (p. 26). This is further supported by the findings of Gray & Hoyt (2020), who reported that students attending the writing center on mandatory sessions “earned higher essay and course grades” as compared to other students who did not visit the writing center even when encouraged to (para. 1). The relationship between mandatory visits extends beyond academic success; Smith (2010) found that students who were required to visit the writing center had higher retention rates, submitted more self-motivated writings, and felt more connected to their college community. These results showcase both the curricular and extracurricular benefits of mandatory visits throughout students’ undergraduate studies, demonstrating the long-term benefit of both mandatory visits as a strategy and the writing center as an institution.

Not only does implementing mandatory visits facilitate future sessions by normalizing writing center visits, but it also recalibrates some potential misconceptions about the writing center. These misconceptions are mostly in regard to the type of people who visit the writing center and the type of help offered there. By visiting the writing center on a mandatory basis regardless of how well-written their paper is, students come to realize that all students can visit the writing center, correcting the common misconception that the writing center is only for unskilled writers struggling to complete their papers and pass their writing courses (Gray & Hoyt, 2020; Gordon, 2008). The correction of this misconception is supported by the findings of Aunkst (2019), who found no significant relationship between writing self-efficacy and students’ help-seeking behavior, measured by the number of draft review requests to the writing center. These results are of great importance, showing that writers’ skill level is independent of their writing center visits, and consequently, that the writing center is not exclusive to students with poor writing skills.

When asked to what extent they agree that the Writing Center is for students with poor writing skills, AUS students averaged 2.54 on a 7-point scale (SD = 1.71; Appendix A). Generally, it seems that AUS students view their writing center as inclusive of students with varying writing skills and such a misconception is not as prominent. Still, some students do not identify as the writing center’s target consumers due to their belief in the adequacy of their writing skills. In her article, Madison Sewell (2016), a tutor at the University of Central Arkansas, recalls her first experience visiting the writing center as required by her instructor for an assigned speech. Sewell was first frustrated that she was required to visit the writing center as she felt misplaced, having competent writing skills and high writing grades. However, soon after her session, Sewell describes her realization that great benefit “could come from having a peer review your work—no matter if you are a great writer or if you’re not so great” (2016, p. 27). Allowing their misconceptions to be corrected by a mandatory session at the writing center like Sewell, students become more willing to visit the writing center when they need help with their papers as they do not feel like going to the writing center is a testament to their poor writing skills (Crumrine, 2002).

Apart from rectifying the misconception that visiting the writing center entails self-identifying as a poor writer, the first visit to the writing center can also encourage future visits by appealing to students through a preview into the atmosphere of positive, collaborative learning (Gordon, 2008). In their study, Gray & Hoyt found that “attending mandatory tutoring raised student perception of the writing center by a substantial amount” (2020, p. 3). As such, a preview sets an inviting impression of writing center sessions as being productive, collaborative, and nonjudgmental whilst establishing a clear precedent that tutors should not be mistaken for editors. In the interviews conducted by Pfrenger et al. (2017), one of the students who visited the writing center described how her collaborative experience during her first mandatory visit encouraged her to return to the writing center on voluntary visits. In the interview, the student stated that she had found her mandatory session useful as it gave her “direction on what to fix” and set her “on the right track” (Pfrenger et al., 2017, p. 26). By giving the students direction on what to fix rather than directly fixing any writing errors, the writing center manages to uphold its image of being a nonjudgmental safe house for collaboration (Nielson, 2018). When AUS students who were required to visit the Writing Center were asked how their mandatory visit changed their perception, 72.7% said that their perception of the Writing Center became more positive after their visit. The remaining 27.3% said that their perception of the Writing Center remained unchanged (Appendix A). Perhaps unexpectedly, no student reported that their perception of the Writing Center became more negative after their required visit, supporting Young’s (2014) findings that mandating visits does not have negative effects.

Neither Young’s students nor AUS students are alone in their positive experience: a study conducted by Barbara Gordon (2008) showed that 81% of students recommended the implementation of mandatory writing center visits in courses. In AUS, 56.8% of students recommended mandating visits to the Writing Center. Of the AUS students who made the recommendation, 49.2% were required to go to the Writing Center, an indicator of the effectiveness of mandatory visits (Appendix A). Having understood the dynamic of writing center sessions through experience, students are likely to refrain from visiting the writing center to “fix” their papers and instead seek the writing center when they need help with improving their writing skills. Doing so allows both the writing center to fulfill its purpose in a more efficient manner and the tutees to set more reasonable expectations for future sessions at the writing center.

Mandatory Visits: Deterrents

Even though mandatory visits introduce students to the writing center and correct their misconceptions, some argue that they can be counterproductive. In his article, Bourelle (2007) reports incidents of students visiting the writing center with a primary intention of fulfilling their instructor’s requirement rather than engaging in a productive tutoring session. Bourelle (2007) describes how students would come to the writing center at the University of Nevada because “they just want the ‘confirmation slip’ needed to prove to their teachers that they came” (p. 3). These students were often unengaged during their sessions and unreceptive to the tutors’ attempts to spark discussion and facilitate writing. To see if Bourelle’s findings extended to AUS, tutors at AUS Writing were asked to rate tutees’ average level of engagement in mandatory and voluntary visits. On a 7-point scale, tutors rated the level of engagement in voluntary visits as higher than that of mandatory visits, supporting Bourelle’s (2007) claim (M = 5.85, SD = 0.875; M = 4.10, SD = 0.912). See Appendix B for sample questions.

Students who are rated as showing a lower level of engagement often hold two contradicting beliefs that might give rise to their unmotivated attitude. First, they often believe that their writing is good or average (Gray & Hoyt, 2020). Second, they tend to think of the writing center as a remedial place where poor writers go to improve their writing up to the standard. According to Gray & Hoyt (2020), “[T]he general perception from students is that tutoring is only for low-performing peers: those among them who require developmental support to catch up with peers who perform at a satisfactory level” (para. 2). As described by Sewell (2016), who identified as a good writer, the writing center was “the place where ‘the bad students’ get sent by disappointed professors, the place where the less-than-qualified frantically seek help from all-knowing tutors” (p. 27).

As such, simultaneously holding these two contradictory beliefs of being a good writer and being in a place for inadequate writers gives rise to cognitive dissonance, which students tend to reduce by setting themselves apart from those they view as “poor” writers. These students often resort to developing a rigid, resistant attitude to explicitly distinguish themselves from other students who need help or because they are unaccepting of criticism. Often, it is their predetermined view of the writing center that obstructs their openness to engage in discussion and writing development (Sewell, 2016). In a survey, tutors at the AUS Writing Center generally agreed with the statement that students required to visit the writing center are often unreceptive and unengaged during their sessions (M = 4.80, SD = 1.24). The survey was mainly distributed through Whatsapp groups and was filled out by a sample of 20 tutors working at the AUS Writing Center (See Appendix B for survey questions). Such resistance counters the fundamentals of collaborative learning instilled in the writing center, hindering the progression of the session and the development of the tutee’s writing skills. In contrast, students who visit the writing center voluntarily are more intrinsically motivated during their sessions, resulting in more productive sessions (Salem, 2016).

Looking at resistant students who visit the writing center to fulfill a course requirement rather than to improve their writing skills, it becomes clear why some would argue that mandatory visits can be counterproductive. Mandatory visits for freshman students enrolled in introductory writing courses would overfill the writing center with students who do not be intend to use the center for its true purpose of writing development (Bourelle, 2007). Gray & Hoyt (2020) faced the same obstacle when conducting their study on mandatory visits as the chair of the English Department at their university, Dixie State University, “was concerned with upset students, over-worked peer tutors, and the writing center’s ability to accommodate one to two hundred additional appointments” (para. 6). The influx of students resulting from the mass number of freshmen visiting the writing center acts as a hindrance to other developing writers who struggle to find an available session in an overbooked writing center.

In her article, Gordon (2008) named overcrowding as the single greatest obstacle caused by mandatory visits, describing how students “were experiencing frustratingly long wait times, and the press of people necessitated hurried, truncated conferences that displeased writer and writing consultant alike” (p. 154). Students’ waiting times at the writing center become increasingly frustrating and inefficient because students are inclined to write their papers shortly before their deadlines, overwhelming the writing center periodically throughout the semester. The overwhelmed writing center can also be reflected in the tutors, who “bear the brunt of these periodic inundations” (Gordon, 2008, p. 155). When asked to rate the extent to which mandatory visits overfill the AUS Writing Center, tutors averaged a 5.6 on a 7-point scale, supporting Gordon’s claim of an overflooded writing center (SD = 1.19; Appendix B). In Gordon’s article (2008), one of the tutors describes how she was “frazzled, frustrated, and feeling like a robot” after a long day of flooding mandatory visits (p. 155). Gordon’s findings are important because they show that mandatory visits hinder and debilitate the writing center’s performance, leading to fewer satisfactory sessions. Although Gordon (2008) names the flooding of the writing center as problematic, it is important to note that she attributes this obstacle to the number of students visiting the writing center at once rather than the overall increase in the number of visits due to mandatory visits. As such, instructors can encourage their students to visit the writing center at different times throughout the semester or assign students individual deadlines to limit the number of students who can visit the center at one period in time.

Not only do mandatory visits lead to unreceptive students hindering other students’ learning by not productively using the valuable resource at hand, but they also make it more difficult to establish the writing center as a positive, collaborative environment. After conducting their quantitative analysis on positive attitudes to the writing center, Morrison and Nadeau (2003) recommended instructors strongly encourage students to visit the writing center but not mandate visits as part of the curriculum-based model. The act of mandating writing center visits has an authoritative undertone as “mandatory visits are associated with remedial writing centers” where students go to correct their “writing deficiencies” (Salem, 2016, p. 152; North, 1984). In her article, Gordon (2008) suggested that mandatory visits can make writing centers “hierarchical and disempowering” for both students and tutors (p. 161). The problems arising from this association is that it counters the writing center’s efforts to promote itself as a safe, inclusive, and non-judgmental house open for students of all skill levels (North, 1994). Instead, the focus on mistakes supports a remedial profile for the writing center, a stigmatized place where students would avoid visiting to save themselves feelings of embarrassment, humiliation, or shame resulting from having their weaknesses underlined and their mistakes corrected (Salem, 2016).

Mandatory Visits: Incentives or Deterrents?

Even though the first mandatory visits can be unproductive, they can be a worthwhile investment as they open the door for future voluntary visits. Since the primary job of a writing center is to build better writers, not better papers, the hindrance caused by the first session should be seen as a minor setback that needs to be overcome rather than a deterrent that will throw students off the path of writing development. In her article, Salem (2016) raises a similar argument when she claims that “writing center pedagogies are meant to uncover and encourage the personal writerly motivation that we presume to be in there somewhere, even if it is initially hidden” (p. 151). In this context, the writerly motivation can be hidden by the resisting, unreceptive attitude and is meant to be uncovered as part of the development process (Robinson, 2009). Seeing the first visit as an obstacle, Bourelle (2007) emphasizes the role of the tutor in changing the student’s impression of the writing center by showing them its value.

By giving them a positive, beneficial experience on their first visit, students are more inclined to return later for voluntary visits (Young, 2014). Good and colleagues (1981) supported this by highlighting the importance of changing the tutee’s unreceptive attitude into a more open-minded attitude through which collaborative learning can take place. According to Good et al. (1981), “the student needs to learn how to learn. This often implies changes in attitudes as well as techniques, and such changes can only be fostered over time, through debate, discussion, reassurance” (as cited in Derrick & Ecclestone, 2008, p. 54). After her experience at the writing center, Sewell describes how her assigned speech significantly improved and so did her attitude, emphasizing the importance of attitude in learning. Good et al.’s claims and their manifestation in Sewell’s experience merely serve as a reminder of the purpose of a writing center. A writing center’s vision lies in the long term and not the short term. In the short term, the first mandatory session will likely be unproductive and might not produce a better paper or a better writer. On the other hand, writing centers prove themselves to be places of “facilitation instead of punishment” in the long term (Pfrenger et al., 2017, p. 27).

However, this raises the question of whether any single session produces a better writer or whether it is the overall development of a student’s writing skills over a series of sessions. In the long term, the mandatory visit is the first step towards better writing. It is this initial visit that sets the foundation which students can build upon as they progress in their studies. Looking at the importance of the first session in setting students on the path to improving their writing skills, it is essential to provide as many students as possible with this opportunity. If not required by their professors, most students do not visit the writing center out of their own volition. In their study, Gray & Hoyt (2020) found that “none of the students in the four non-mandated courses attended the writing center during the semester” (para. 1). These students completed their courses without having experienced a session at the writing center, missing the opportunity to develop their writing skills even though writing center visits were encouraged by instructors. In his article, Bourelle (2007) describes an incident encapsulating such a scenario wherein a student visited the writing center nearing her graduation. Having done so, the student said she wished she “had known about this place before,” as she found the session helpful and “would have used it a lot” (p. 3).

Bourelle’s student is not alone: a study conducted by Salem (2016) shows that over a four-year period, only 22% of students at Temple University, Pennsylvania visited the writing center at least once, leaving a staggering 78% with no writing support. Even further, Salem (2016) noted that 16% of students who visited the writing center did so during their freshman year. Following freshman year, only “an additional 1-3% of students came for the first time” (Salem, 2016, p. 154). Even though Salem’s findings are limited by the fact that they only represent a single institution, they demonstrate two important points.

First, most students do not visit the writing center of their own volition as demonstrated by the 78%. Second, first-time visits significantly decrease following freshman year, indicated by the 16% in freshman year as opposed to the 1-3% in the following years. At AUS, 59.5% of students reported that they visited the Writing Center for the first time during their freshman year, a number which reduced to 27.8%, 11.1%, and 0% of students of visited the Writing Center for the first time during their sophomore, junior, and senior year, respectively. Collectively, these results show that increasing turnout rates is needed at universities as most students do not visit the writing center of their own will if given the choice. As such, visits can be required to increase turnout rates without any negative effects (Young, 2014). As per Irvin's “three or more visits” rule, students should optimally be required to visit the writing center at least three times for positive change to come into effect (Rendleman et. al, 2019; Irvin, 2014; Robinson, 2009). Looking at how first-time visits decrease after freshman year, and how “students in upper-level courses value the center less than students in lower-level courses,” it is important to strike while the iron is hot by mandating visits during freshman year through implementing mandatory visits into the curricula of introductory writing classes (Rendleman, 2013; Bishop, 1990, as cited in Gordon, 2008, p. 159).


Implementing mandatory visits into the curricula of introductory writing classes encourages future voluntary visits by establishing a strong introduction to the writing center, recalibrating some potential misconceptions, and appealing to students through a preview into the atmosphere of positive, collaborative learning at the writing center. The question of whether mandatory visits are worthwhile comes down to whether the short-term unproductivity of a session outweighs the long-term progress of a developing writer. Collectively, the review of literature in this paper has mostly demonstrated that mandatory visits are generally favorable and effective from a pedagogical perspective. In answering the research question of whether mandatory visits should be implemented, the outcomes of this research have shown that incorporating mandatory visits into curricula of writing classes is recommended as learning benefits outweigh the deficits of mandatory visits. The implications of this research in the context of the AUS Writing Center are more complicated as survey results indicate students’ preconceptions of the Writing Center are already positive and need not be recalibrated. In addition, 72.2% of students indicated that they had visited the Writing Center throughout their studies, a surprisingly high turnout rate. The survey was distributed through online platforms such as Gmail and Whatsapp and was filled out by a sample of 127 AUS students (See Appendix A for survey questions). As such, it is essential to take into account that these findings are limited by a small, restricted sample (N = 126) which might have skewed the data due to limited randomization of students whose responses were taken.

Despite these limitations, I think encouraging professors at AUS to implement mandatory visits to the Writing Center as part of their curricula in introductory writing courses is advisable. Whilst requiring some logistical cohesion between departments, research has consistently shown that such implementation is optimal for facilitating the development of better writers. To smoothen this facilitation, future research should look at some strategies tutors can implement in the first mandatory session to change tutees’ resistant attitude to a more receptive one, such as complimenting the strengths of the paper before addressing the weaknesses (Crumrine, 2002). Ultimately, as Crumrine (2002) mentions in her article, "[F]or every student who did not want to be there and did not seem to learn anything, there are two who did, and would not have otherwise come for help if they had not been required” (p. 9).


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Appendix A

Tutee Survey

Appendix B

Tutor Survey

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