Campus Learning and Writing Center tutors participate in University conference

student peer tutors Lauren Sciabbarrasi and Xinyi Chen

Penn State Scranton students Lauren Sciabbarrasi, left, and Xinyi Chen were among about 50 University students, staff and supervisors who presented at the annual Penn State All Learning Centers Conference. Also presenting at the conference was Rachel Veniamin, not pictured here.

Credit: Provided

DUNMORE, Pa. — Student peer tutors in Penn State Scranton’s Learning and Writing Center recently had the chance to showcase their research to a University-wide audience.

Along with Writing Center Coordinator Kate Lafferty-Danner, students Xinyi Chen, Lauren Sciabbarrasi and Rachel Veniamin were among about 50 University students, staff and supervisors who presented at the annual Penn State All Learning Centers Conference.

Typically held at University Park, this year’s conference was entirely virtual. It also marked the first time students were allowed to present their research at the event.

All three campus students did a great job with their presentations, according to Lafferty-Danner.

“Since we were fully remote this year, we thought it would be very easy to include our peer tutors, who are essential to the work we do at the Learning and Writing Center and have a wonderful perspective on ways to improve our services,” Lafferty-Danner said.

“It was a great opportunity for students to present at a conference that is usually just for staff and supervisors because it can help prepare them for future presentations and it gives them exposure to presenting to an audience that is not just their peers," added Lafferty-Danner. "Plus, it helps them to see their role as a peer tutor not just as a job, but as contributing to the larger field of Learning and Writing Center studies. We want our peer tutors to see themselves as leaders, as an important component to our services and as a valuable resource to all our campuses.”

Veniamin said she thoroughly enjoyed participating in the conference.

“It was quite casual, and they had fun games in between the presentations,” said Veniamin, an English major heading into her senior year. “It was interesting to hear everyone's research. Those who listened to my presentation seemed interested, and some even asked for the presentation slides.”

The conference started about 20 years ago with the goal of gathering staff and supervisors who work within learning and writing centers from across all of Penn State’s campuses. It makes for an ideal venue to share trends, best practices and unique research happening across the centers, and it’s great for networking, Lafferty-Danner noted.

“Especially with the shift to remote, we’ve found that having more communication with other campus’ learning and writing centers has been incredibly useful, and some of us have been meeting on a biweekly basis over the past year to discuss everything from shared tutor training to how we handle hiring students,” Lafferty-Danner said.

At the conference, participants presented their findings from research studies geared around various aspects of tutoring. The student presenters were all paid for their time as part of their tutoring positions.

Lafferty-Danner and Veniamin teamed up to present "Assessing Students’ Writing Needs Outside of the Tutoring Session: A Survey.” Chen presented "Strategies and Tools for Math Tutors,” while Sciabbarrasi, who recently graduated from the campus after a highly distinguished academic career, presented “Assessing, Understanding, and Combating Writing Anxiety in the Penn State Scranton Writing Center.”

Chen, a junior who will transfer to University Park this fall to complete her studies in actuarial science and mathematics, conceived the idea for her study through her daily experiences as a Learning Center math tutor.

“I always try to find some resources that would be helpful and easier to make the tutees understand the concepts and have more practice problems. Also, especially in this special remote time, tutoring in math is hard, so I want to share the tools and strategies I used with others,” Chen said. “The conference was informative and I enjoyed all the presentations. It provided many new aspects and ideas that I never thought of before. And the response to my presentation was good, which I was happy to hear.”

Veniamin, a math and writing tutor, decided to present the results of the study she conducted her sophomore year in English 250, the class all writing tutors are required to take before assuming their duties. For it, she surveyed campus students to determine what areas of writing they struggle with most, and what types of beneficial programs the Writing Center could offer outside of a tutoring session. She found that students particularly struggled with forming theses, citations and general grammar, and that they felt they could benefit from additional services like workshops.

The results from Veniamin’s study proved so helpful to Lafferty-Danner that she ended up putting some of the ideas into practice after taking the Writing Center coordinator position in early 2020. Out of that came their conference collaboration.

“Working with Rachel was a great experience,” Lafferty-Danner said. “I’ve never collaborated with a student before, but Rachel was excellent to work with and I was truly honored to present with her. I hope to do more student collaborations in the future.”

Now, she’ll have the opportunity, given student research will become a permanent fixture of the conference.

“There were numerous comments in our post-conference survey about how involving peer tutors this year made the conference even better, so that is going to be something we will continue to do,” Lafferty-Danner said. “Their perspectives are very valuable, insightful and useful for our centers!”

For Chen and Veniamin, the conference has only enhanced what’s already been a highly beneficial part of their overall undergraduate experience.

“I’ve enjoyed my time tutoring, because I can not only help my peers with their problems but also review and consolidate what I have learned,” Chen added. “I’ve learned to communicate better with others and think about problems from a different point of view.”

“My time in the Learning and Writing Center has been great,” Veniamin said. “Everyone is so friendly and helpful, and it’s wonderful to be able to help students. It has helped me to become more confident, and has greatly helped me to improve my own writing.”