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Tutoring Strategies to Enhance Tutees’ Emotional Well-being in the Writing Center

Updated: Aug 27, 2023

By Iman Khan


Learning and motivation are unquestionably tied. It should not be a surprise when the same concept spills over into writing. Good writing, and by extension, good writers are those who are motivated and emotionally present. In the context of the writing center, considering the importance of the role that tutors at the writing center play in influencing students and their writing, we can conclude that tutors are the most capable of enhancing the emotional wellbeing of their tutees. It seems like it may be too heavy of a job for a peer tutor, however, once strategies like motivational scaffolding and positive reinforcement come into play, the academic research and literature proves that employing these strategies is not laborious at all. This is further supported by primary research based on interviews conducted with tutors at the AUS writing center who proved that most aspects of these strategies can play out subconsciously as well. Taking a deeper dive into the tenets of motivational scaffolding and positive reinforcement, the literature provides evidence in support of these strategies working to enhance emotional wellbeing, which may translate to more effective sessions as well.

Keywords: motivational scaffolding, positive reinforcement, emotional wellbeing, tutor, tutee, writing center

Tutoring Strategies to Enhance Tutees’ Emotional Well-being in the Writing Center It was the last half of the year 2018, and the first half of the academic year as a Grade 11 student. I sat down in my English class, taking The Great Gatsby novel out of my school bag and arranging it neatly on my desk—so as to not get called out by my teacher—alongside my notebook and laptop. It was the assigned novel for the Grade 11 English class for the winter term of that academic year. As I was getting settled in, my teacher grabbed a paper from on top of a stack of others, and called out to the class, “I want to read out to you a little part of the only essay that received an A grade in this class!”. Not thinking much of it, I just fiddled around with the things spread across my desk. About half a minute in, I recognizedthe paper being read out as my writing. I immediately felt my face burn up and my palms become sweaty as I entered a state of embarrassment and ecstasy simultaneously. The crucial part of the experience, however, was still yet to come. A week later, sitting in a circle with fellow classmates during homeroom, our wellbeing teacher asked us to go around and voice an accomplishment we were proud of recently. Without hesitation, I decided to share what my English teacher—a week prior—seemed to be so proud of as well. Instead, I was met with mocking laughter from my wellbeing teacher who did not think it was an accomplishment worth sharing. To add salt to the wound, she carried on without offering a motivational comment like she did for all the other students.

Needless to say, it severely impacted not only my writing, but also my emotional wellbeing for a while. Ever since the event, I have been particularly hyper aware of the importance of acknowledging emotions while engaging in conversation. In the context of the writing center, I recognize that emotional wellbeing may also present itself as a literacy challenge for many students who approach writing sessions, especially those who already struggle with high anxiety and/or low self esteem. When seeking assistance from the writing center, many writers experience anxiety or uncertainty, particularly if it is their first visit. Insecure about sharing their work, writers may become less engaged in the session and more concerned about how the tutor may judge their writing abilities as a result (Motivational Scaffold, 2021). Consequently, my research will focus on the importance of tutoring strategies that if tutors keep in mind, may benefit their tutees by enhancing their emotional wellbeing during sessions; the strategies my paper will discuss are motivational scaffolding and positive reinforcement.

Motivational Scaffolding

Motivation scaffolding is one strategy— incorporating many smaller ones—that tutors can use to enhance emotional wellbeing. However, as is emotional wellbeing, motivational scaffolding is an abstract concept; but when its five tenets are understood and implemented, it has the ability to cultivate writers confident in their capabilities. To understand the concept, it is crucial to be aware of the meaning behind the term that has been coined “scaffolding”. The term was first definedby David Wood,Jerome Burner, and Gail Ross in 1976 when they published an article analyzing the effectiveness of collaborative behaviors mothers use when teaching their children (Mackiewicz & Thompson, 2013). In the context of their article, scaffolding referred to when an adult nurtured their child’s confidence by modeling tasks that the child could not perform while focusing on and building confidence in what the child did have the capacity to do. Once the child was able to do the task independently, the adult would step out. Scaffolding, and motivational scaffolding in particular, is not too different in the academic context. It has widely been reconstructed and implemented in tutoring instruction across multiple disciplines.

There are five main strategies that form the basis of the concept of motivational scaffolding. These strategies, though varying in nature, all contribute to creating a comfortable and caring environment for students. These strategies incorporate: showing concern, giving praise, establishing writer ownership and control, using optimism and humor, and using empathy or sympathy. Jacqueline P. (2021) at The University Center for Writing-based Learning expands more on what each of these strategies encompass. Showing concern can be as simple as a tutor wanting to make sure that the tutee understands the tutor’s feedback or the concepts covered during the session, for example; it helps the tutee understand that their tutor is concerned for them and is dedicated to helping them improve. Secondly, giving praise can also help encourage writers. It is employed quite similarly to the positive reinforcement strategy that will be discussed later on in this paper, in that it encourages the repetition of a good practice by offering praise for it. Thirdly, it is important to establish writer ownership and control by motivating tutees to voice opinions and concerns they may have about their writing, which gives tutees significant control over the direction of the session. The fourth strategy is one that may come naturally and may seem like an innate character trait to many. Whether people who utilize this strategy realize it or not, using optimism and humor can—to a great extent—lift nerves and edginess. Out of the five, this strategy can be managed most subconsciously. It immediately makes the tutor appear more down to earth, genuine, and just human. The last of the five strategies is showing empathy and sympathy. Though it is quite self-explanatory, this strategy helps students realize that the writing center is a judgment-free place and that their tutors will try theirbest to have their concerns heard and understood (Motivational Scaffold., 2021).

To be able to understand how motivational scaffolding influences emotional wellbeing, we should explore positive politeness strategies. Mackiewicz and Thompson (2013), in their article, explore the findings within Brown and Levinson’s article on politeness strategies published in 1987, and connect them to motivational scaffolding strategies. Mackiewicz and Thompson (2013), synthesize Brown and Levinson’s findings into the context of writing center interactions by dividing politeness strategies into two categories: positive politeness and negative politeness. Positive politeness strategies could be corresponded to sympathy, praise, humor, and establishing writer ownership in motivational scaffolding. The authors explain that tutors can express sympathy through positive politeness by acknowledging the writer’s situation and voicing out that they wish that the challenging situation was otherwise, while giving praise in positive politeness can be as simple as saying “that's a good change!”, for example (p. 48). However, it is important to note that praise should be offered on student performance rather than their own characteristics; the distinction here lies between process praise versus person praise. Praising the person insinuates that intelligence is “fixed”; you have it or you do not (Dweck, 2007). Dweck (2007) further mentions that praising the person and not their behavior or process causes both high achieving and low achieving students to avoid challenging circumstances, because “if success meant they were smart, then struggling meant they were not” (Dweck, 2007, p.3). There are different ways this can be done as well; praise can be formulaic or non formulaic. Formulaic praise can be an effortless “that's good!”, while non formulaic praise could be stated something like, “I think it has a subtlety to it, which is very nice. And I think that's a difficult thing for lots of students to achieve in their writing." (Mackiewicz & Thompson, 2014, p. 64). Additionally, humor can be used as a positive politeness strategy as well, which also helps the tutor and the tutee establish common ground. The authors, once again, share Brown and Levinson’s finding on using humor as a motivational tool “since jokes are based on mutual shared background knowledge and values, jokes may be used to stress that shared background or those shared values. Joking is a positive politeness technique, for putting [the hearer] ‘at ease’” (Mackiewicz & Thompson, 2013, p. 48). Finally, tutors can project positive politeness by establishing writer ownership and control through cooperation; this happens when both parties are conversationally cooperating to include both the tutor and the tutee in the goals of the session (Mackiewicz & Thompson, 2013). The takeaway from positive politeness techniques in motivational scaffolding is that they are driven by emotions and are based on tutor-to-tutee interactions and rapport-building; while negative politeness—as will be discussed in the following section—are more focused on the goals of the session.

Writer ownership and control can also be established through what is called negative politeness. Mackiewicz and Thompson (2013) write that negative politeness strategies involve using strategies that threaten face such as when a tutor offers a suggestion or criticism, but at the same time “acknowledge the interlocutor’s (the student’s) want to be independent and free from imposition” (p. 49). This could be done through using phrases such as “do you think…?” instead of phrases like “you should…” before offering a piece of criticism or advice. Phrases such as these ensure that tutees know that their tutors are not trying to take over or appropriate their writing. Tutors should also try to avoid the pronoun you in order to impersonalize the face-threat. Impersonalizing face-threats goes hand-in-hand with subjectivizing their suggestions by phrasing their criticism in a way that states that it is what the tutor would do if they were in the tutee’s position. For example, a tutor—when making a suggestion— could use “I would…” instead of “You should…”. It has been found that this negative politeness strategy combines and balances the need to be concise and clear with being polite (Mackiewicz & Thompson, 2013, p. 49). Therefore, in all contexts, it is important to use negative politeness strategies to make sure the goals of the session are being met, which positive politeness driven strategies do not have the capacity to do as well as negative politeness ones.

Finally, Thompson (2009) notes that non-verbal and verbal aspects of motivational scaffolding can also be utilized. Picking up on the five strategies of motivational scaffolding: using humor, negative and positive feedback, and showing sympathy and empathy all fall under verbal motivational scaffolding. Though self-explanatory, verbal motivational scaffolding could be employed in phrases such as, “Wow, good job identifying that!” to offer positive feedback and praise or “I understand it’s difficult to hear, and probably even more difficult to do, but…” when sympathizing with the student. On the other hand, non-verbal motivational scaffolding can occur through interactive gestures that build rapport with the tutees (Thompson, 2009, p. 428). This could be done through exaggerated hand movements used humorously, open palms pointing towards the tutee when revisiting something the tutee mentioned in an “as you said…” manner, reaching out to touch an arm when sympathizing, or high-fives while praising a behavior. Lastly, verbal motivational scaffolding strategies are generally harmless in all cases: however, when engaging in non-verbal ones, it is crucial to gauge whether or not the tutee would be comfortable with it first.

Interviews with tutors at the AUS writing center revealed that even though they may not have explicitly been aware of the five tenets of motivational scaffolding (or what the entire concept is at all), once explained to them, they realized that they do incorporate the strategies into their session (see Appendix A). A tutor who has been tutoring for almost a year stated that she was not aware of motivational scaffolding at all but uses praise and humor—especially—quite a lot. She claimed that to her, “praise comes most naturally and has almost become a habit” (personal communication, November 30, 2022). When asked whether she believed that the tutees feel or look visibly relieved after she incorporates the strategies, she said: “Usually, if they come in frazzled it's very obvious. They can not organize their thoughts, but at the end, they are visibly calmer and more put together.” (personal communication, November 30, 2022). One other interesting and eye opening takeaway from this interview was when the tutor mentioned that she does not like partaking in non-verbal motivational scaffolding, she stated that: “it crosses boundaries, especially if I do not know the person” (personal communication, November 30, 2022). This is understandable considering the cultural environment AUS exists in. Even though in more western contexts, non-verbal strategies also exist and are employable, this tutor brought attention to the cultural restraints to some motivational scaffolding strategies. The interview also proved the viability of incorporating the strategy into tutoring sessions on the basis that they are not too beyond the scope of tutoring practice. This was a tutor who was not aware of the strategy, yet found herself to be incorporating them into her sessions without knowing that she was engaging in a practice and utilizing a strategy that enhances the tutee’s emotional wellbeing.

Positive Reinforcement

When looking at strategies that can be used to enhance emotional wellbeing, especially in academic contexts, it is near impossible to ignore positive reinforcement. Like is the case in motivational scaffolding strategies, positive reinforcement is used widely not only in parenting but also in academia. Positive reinforcement involves the use of a reinforcer to encourage desirablebehaviors through variousstrategies. Most famously, in the classroom environment, we have seen—and perhaps even experienced once as kids ourselves—teachers providing stickers to a student once they have completed an assignment (Larriba-Quest, 2017). In a tutoring scenario,however, it would be much more effective and appropriate for tutors to use praise as a tool in positive reinforcement to encourage certain writing habits. Although the ‘giving praise’ tenet of motivational scaffolding overlaps significantly with positive reinforcement, several limitations and incentives to implementing positive reinforcement can be uncovered since it is a much broader topic than just giving praise.

To examine the effectiveness of using positive reinforcement in tutoring sessions, it would be worthwhile to explore the types of positive reinforcement. According to Toms (2010), positive reinforcement can generally be split into four types: verbal, non-verbal, qualified, and delayed. Verbal reinforcement, needless to say, involves using words or phrases like “Good job!” or “Excellent!” to reinforce a student’s behavior. Although these are very formulaic—but effective—phrases and terms to use in verbal reinforcement, this can be done through longer, non-formulaic phrases as well (as discussed in the previous section on motivational scaffolding). Non-verbal reinforcement can be simply achieved through nodding or offering a smile to portray to the tutee that they have done something correctly. Qualified reinforcement occurs when a tutor wishes to praise some parts of a tutee’s response while bringing attention to the part that needs improvement. In practice, it may sound something like, “You're right when you say…, but…”. Finally, delayed positive reinforcement happens when the tutor draws attention to the positive features of an earlier response to help the tutee navigate through a current obstacle. Delayed positive reinforcement may be phrased like, “Earlier, you told me…, that was great, so now you could…”. Whatever the situation calls for, it is useful to know that many different types of positive reinforcement exist that tutors could employ using their own judgment.

It is important for tutors to be aware of the incentives for using positive reinforcement, but it is equally crucial to be aware of the limitations in order to avoid the adverse effects of positive reinforcement. Sturman (2020) writes that while giving tutees too little praise may keep them from developing their writing skills to their maximum potential, giving tutees excessive praise can, in fact, make them overly reliant on tutoring or instill a false sense of confidence in their abilities; similar to how false and ambiguous praise might result in ineffective improvements. Skinner’s (1968) studies further add to this argument and mention that positive reinforcement can be overused in any situation and students may grow dependent on reinforcement. As a solution, Skinner (1968) proposes that “the student will be less dependent on immediate and consistent reinforcement if he is brought under the control of intermittent reinforcement.” (p. 157). The problem does not occur only with constant reinforcement, though. Immediate reinforcement could also present itself as an issue. According to a study conducted by Merrill et al. (1992), students who were so used to getting immediate positive reinforcement from their tutors, immediately started making repairs to both their existent and non-existent errors “if it [the positive reinforcement] was delayed by as little as a second after the step” (p. 318). There are seemingly a lot of adverse effects to using positive reinforcement incorrectly, hence, tutors should be able to tell when to use the strategy and use it effectively.

Toms (2010) writes that a big part of knowing how and when to use positive reinforcement lies in practice; nonetheless, she provides some guidelines. Using positive reinforcement would be called for when the tutee appears frustrated. In this case, saying something like “I know this material is really difficult, but you’re getting a little further with each problem” could motivate the student to keep trying (p. 44). Tutors could also judge the use of positive reinforcement depending on how well the tutee seems to know the content. When working on something the tutee is comfortable with, it would be a good idea to take a step back from the reinforcement, and the opposite if the student is working on something they are not confident about. Furthermore, when it appears that the tutee may be looking to the tutor too often for confirmation and reinforcement, it is a telling sign for the tutor to back away from the positive reinforcement. In a tutoring scenario, it may play out in a situation where the tutee keeps asking the tutor whether what they are doing is correct, to which the tutor can reply with, “what do you think?”, essentially allowing the tutee to think for themselves without offering positive reinforcing behavior. Therefore, using positive reinforcement provides its challenges; however, when implemented correctly, positive reinforcement can increase the time a student is willing to spend on a difficult task, increase a student’s sense of self worth, and help students develop the courage to be imperfect and the willingness to try (Dweck, 2007). According to Toms (2010), it is a tool so potent that studies show it has an even greater impact on students' learning than the caliber of a teacher's instruction.

In the local context at AUS, based on interviews conducted with tutors, all of the tutors were aware of positive reinforcement as a strategy to some extent (see Appendix A). The response given when asked about whether or not they were aware of positive reinforcement appeared much more confident than when they were asked about motivational scaffolding. A tutor who has been working at the writing center for almost five semesters stated that:

I do use positive reinforcement when it's something that we are working on so

when they do not have a topic sentence, I give them an example and tell them if

they want to try it. When they try it and it's good, I reinforce by saying “Yes, this is

good!”. So usually it's positive reinforcement on something that we are working on

in the session. (personal communication, December 7, 2022) The tutor also added that she utilizes a “sandwiching” technique where she sandwiches negative comments between her positive comments. She states that if a tutee would ask her “Is this good?” she would reply with something along the lines of: “Yes, you have this part but you're missing that part. So if you add this, it's going to be great!”. When asked if she felt that the tutees were less anxious or visibly relieved after she used positive reinforcement strategies, she commented: “Yes, I think it's not ‘less anxious’ but more like a burst of a small sense of accomplishment. Especially if they did it themselves, they say ‘Really? I did it?’, which I think is very worthwhile.” (personal communication, December 7, 2022). The tutor ended the interview by stating that it makes us better tutors to be more in touch with our tutees and how they're feeling. She said it matters greatly if tutors are using these emotional wellbeing strategies with intention and regulating when and how much of the strategy they implement, because the important factor is the tutee and what they need (personal communication, December 7, 2022).


Even with all the benefits of motivational scaffolding and positive reinforcement explored, there seems to exist a common argument made against emotional wellbeing strategies in academic settings; they are too focused on emotions and not enough on student performance. In the context of the writingcenter, it could be arguedthat these strategies may cause a hindrance to the real goal of improved student writing. However, there exists convictions rooted in academic literature that strategies like motivational scaffolding and positive reinforcement ultimately can lead to successful writing sessions. According to Mackiewicz and Thompson (2013): Scaffolding can influence solidarity and rapport with students and, at the same

time, according to its definition, guarantee in-the-moment success as long as the

tutor is present, writing tasks undertaken in writing center conferences should be

less frustrating [and] less anxiety-provoking. (p. 46)

Moreover, Mackiewicz and Thompson (2013) also find that utilizing motivational scaffolding to build rapport and solidarity with students also keeps them engaged in writing center sessions and affects tutee engagement positively. To further support the idea that emotional wellbeing strategies like positive reinforcement are not too centered on emotions and can deliver positive influences on student performance as well, Hidi and Boscolo (2007) state that motivation influences students' interest in the tasks they are performing, their self-efficacy in successfully completing those tasks, and their ability to self-regulate their performances.

Based on all the evidence on the successes and benefits of emotional wellbeing strategies, there is little reason for these practices to not be implemented at the writing center or for tutors to not be skilled at applying them. Although, based on the interviews conducted with tutors at the AUS writing center, it appears that the AUS writing center and its tutors already implement these strategies (whether they are actively aware of it or not). However, due to the extensive nature of the interview and time constraints, only two tutors at AUS were interviewed; hence, I may be making a generalization when I claim that the AUS writing center as a whole and all of its tutors implement and apply the strategies that enhance emotional wellbeing. Nonetheless, since I interviewed a tutor who had five semesters worth of experience and a tutor who is comparatively less experienced—both of whom employ motivational scaffolding strategies and positive reinforcement in their sessions— I am hoping that their tutoring practices reflect the practices of the majority at the AUS writing center at least. For future research, it would be interesting to incorporate the findings from interviews of a larger group, in order to more appropriately and confidently conclude whether or not the AUS writing center is one that implements the explored strategies. Despite the limitations, based on the limited but strong evidence that tutors at AUS already do implement and apply these strategies, hopefully the evidence rooted in academic literature gives the AUS writing center more conviction in continuing the practices they already have.


Assistant, K. L.-Q., M. Ed , Graduate. (2017). Reinforcement in the Classroom: Articles:

Indiana Resource Center for Autism: Indiana University Bloomington. Indiana Resource

Boscolo, P., & Hidi, S. (2017). The Multiple Meanings of Motivation to Write. https://sig-writing.publication-

Dweck, C. S. (2015). The Perils and Promises of Praise. Semantic Scholar.

Mackiewicz, J., & Thompson, I. (2013). Motivational Scaffolding, Politeness, and Writing

Center Tutoring. The Writing Center Journal, 33(1), 38–73. Mackiewicz, J., & Thompson, I. (2014). Instruction, Cognitive Scaffolding, and - ProQuest.

Merrill, D. C., Reiser, B. J., Merrill, S. K., & Landes, S. (1995). Tutoring: Guided Learning by

Doing. Cognition and Instruction, 13(3), 315.

P, J. (2021, March 9). How To: Motivational Scaffold. UCWbLing.

Skinner, B. F. (1968). The technology of teaching. Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Sturman, H. (2019, July 29). The Importance of Positive Reinforcement. Praxis.

Thompson, I. (2009).Scaffolding in the Writing Center. Written Communication, 26(4),417–

Toms, M. L. (2010). Put the Pencil Down: Essentials of Tutoring. North Carolina State


Appendix A

Interview Questions:

1. How long have you been tutoring at the writing center?

2. Are you able to tell when a tutee may be struggling with anxiety and/or low self esteem? How so?

3. Do you acknowledge their anxieties and try to make them feel better? How so?

● Follow up question: Do you think it's important to do so? Why?

4. Are you aware of motivational scaffolding strategies? (If not, I will explain it to them)

5. Have you ever used motivational scaffolding strategies with your tutees?

6. If they answer yes to question 5: Do you feel/can you tell that the tutees are relieved/less anxious after you incorporate the motivational scaffolding strategies into the session?

7. Are you aware of positive reinforcement? (I am sure most of them are, but will explain if they aren't)

8. Have you ever used positive reinforcement with your tutees?

9. If they answer yes to the previous question: Do you feel/can you tell that the tutees are relieved/less anxious after you use positive reinforcement during the session?

10. Finally, do you think that all tutors at the writing center should be incorporating these strategies into their session? And why? (those who may not currently be aware of them or simply aren't using them)

Follow up question: Do you think the strategies could also benefit students not struggling with anxiety and/or low self esteem?

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