Emily Tondy, Kent State University
Alyssa Gelet, Kent State University
Ana Wetzl, Kent State University
Tutoring represents a necessary service for students enrolled in open-admission institutions such as our regional campus which serves a diverse group of students, many of them in developmental writing courses. As the COVID-19 pandemic caused many universities to transition to fully remote instruction in March 2020, academic services were also asked to find innovative ways to assist these students remotely. For two English tutors, this meant improving the existing OWL, while also implementing a remote synchronous option to help students with their writing. The article reports on the two tutors’ efforts as they prepared for fall 2020 and on the multiple challenges they faced throughout the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters. As their end-of-semester reflections show, the campus took a while to respond to the new remote Learning Center offerings, and some offerings were more popular than others. The two tutors attempted to establish a new remote normal while also trying to balance their personal and professional lives. Working from home, however, left them feeling drained as technology limited them during synchronous sessions, and their Learning Center duties began to take precedence over their education and personal lives, impacting their mental well-being. The only positive aspect of the experience came from their collaboration, as the bond they had built from sharing the Learning Center space for years provided them with the strength needed to fulfill their duties. As the campus contemplates the move back to in-person instruction, the two tutors must now consider what their duties will be in fall 2021.
Keywords: COVID-19 pandemic, remote synchronous tutoring, work-life balance, burnout
Tutor Metamorphosis: Expectations and Reality when Tutoring Remotely
Open-admission state universities such as our regional campus rely extensively on academic services to support their students with their courses and thus improve retention rates and degree completion  . This is the main mission for our campus Learning Center where we have been writing tutors for years  . As the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the country, our university transitioned to fully online instruction in March 2020; the Learning Center was also required to switch to remote tutoring in an effort to minimize the human presence (and inherent virus exposure) on campus. The Center initially eliminated synchronous tutoring but maintained the online writing lab (OWL) for the remainder of spring 2020 and during summer 2020. The tutors hoped that the Learning Center would resume on-campus operations in the fall, but it soon became clear that it would continue to be remote for at least another year. The tutors and administration realized that they needed to somehow get back to synchronous tutoring, even though that meant tutoring in an online environment. Consequently, the tutors began to reimagine their roles; they worked with the English Coordinator and with the Learning Center director to reach students in new ways that capitalized on technological resources such as Blackboard, our campus online learning platform. Although writing assistance had been provided asynchronously online prior to the shift to remote, and the tutors had extra time during the summer to prepare for fall 2020, they nonetheless found themselves facing some challenges in terms of technology, loss of structure, and tutees’ resistance to change. The tutors also struggled to find the right balance between their personal and work lives.
The present article is based on lengthy reflections written by two of the authors, tutors Emily and Alyssa, during and at the end of the fall 2020 semester, and on the online conversations they had with the third author, Professor M, in December 2020. We discuss the remote tutoring work during the summer 2020, fall 2020, and spring 2021 semesters, as we look for the ways in which the pre-pandemic tutoring practices, routines, and experiences have shaped how the Learning Center adapted to the new situation. We first briefly describe the population that our tutoring center serves to provide some context for our experiences. We then review how tutoring abruptly changed after March 2020 as a result of the campus closure. We finally look at the impact that tutoring remotely has had on tutors Emily and Alyssa as student employees, students, and people.
The experiences we share and discuss in this article are not unique; in fact, we anticipate that many small-campus tutoring centers have struggled with similar problems when universities moved to online instruction. As we try to articulate and make sense of what we went through, we hope that tutors reading our article feel validated in their own struggles, too. We also hope that the article provides the tutoring center stakeholders with insight into what happens when tutors’ living rooms become the workspace, thus prompting stakeholders to provide more effective support for the tutors who may continue to work remotely.
Our Campus and Population
Our open-admission regional campus is located in the midwestern United States, right in the middle of the Rust Belt. We draw commuter students from neighboring cities and the surrounding rural areas, a population that is generally academically underprepared. According to the Department of Education (2020), the local high schools fail to get students ready for college; for one high school in a nearby city, for example, only 93 out of the 633 graduates earned a remediation-free score on the ACT test in 2020. Additionally, many of our students have other commitments that compete for their attention; students tend to be older, and most have part-time and full-time jobs in addition to families. In their 2020 article written about our campus, Ana Wetzl and Pam Lieske describe our population as “severely under-resourced and underprepared both in terms of material resources and time” (p. 34) for these very reasons.
When students come to college academically underprepared, they are often placed in remedial courses. Eric Bettinger et al. (2013) state that “more than one-third of all first-year students in college today are taking some form of remedial coursework in either English or mathematics; the share can climb to six out of ten students at some postsecondary institutions” (p. 94). Just like other open-admission institutions, our regional campus provides remedial instruction to a large percentage of students. In spring 2020, for example, our campus offered ten sections of English 11011, the mainstream composition course, and six developmental writing sections (four English 01001 and two English 11002). Our tutoring center aims to help students with all courses, but tutoring is particularly needed by students in English 01001 and 11002 because they tend to struggle with writing more than their 11011 counterparts. According to a study published by Pfrenger et al. (2017), about 30% of students at our regional campuses do not pass remedial writing courses. In fall 2020, that percentage was closer to 45% (Institutional Research).
We also know that tutoring can be particularly impactful on college persistence and student retention, which have been struggles for open-admissions schools such as ours. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in fall 2019, “at public 4-year institutions, the retention rate was … 61 percent at the least selective institutions (i.e., those with an open admissions policy)” (para. 2). Pfrenger et al. (2017) show that students who utilize tutoring services are more likely to stay in college and get higher grades than those who do not, regardless of the mainstream or developmental designation. In a different study, James Pacello (2019) shows that students in developmental writing courses value the input they receive when they work with tutors, especially during “the proofreading and revising stages of the writing process” (p. 13), and they consistently seek tutoring even after they finish all their first-year writing courses (pp. 13-14). Pacello’s participants see tutoring as “a resource that can help them navigate a wide range of writing requirements well beyond their developmental courses” (p. 14). Both Pfrenger et al. (2017) and Pacello (2019) speak to the important role that tutoring plays in students’ college experience.
Tutoring Services at Our Campus
Most tutoring on our regional campus has traditionally occurred in a face-to-face setting, but we have also offered asynchronous assistance via our OWL that has been in place since the 1990s. The OWL took a while to become popular, and, for years, it barely registered on the students’ radar, with only a handful of submissions each semester. As the campus began offering more online courses, however, we saw an increase in utilization to the point that about 50% of submissions were OWLs during spring 2019 and fall 2019 semesters. According to Wetzl and Lieske (2020), the composition professors valued our OWL and recommended it to their students even prior to March 2020. Wetzl and Lieske explain that most of the instructors they surveyed preferred this asynchronous option to on-campus tutoring, which we take as a sign that students received effective help from our OWL.
Without much time to prepare in March 2020, the tutors initially focused on the pre-established OWL that maintained its pace from previous semesters. At the beginning of the summer 2020 semester, however, it became clear that the Learning Center would remain remote for the foreseeable future. We saw several changes as well: two of the four English tutors were laid off as the university implemented strict pandemic-related budget cuts, and the English Coordinator (who is also one of the authors of this article) relinquished her duties in the Center to prioritize her classroom teaching. Tutors Emily and Alyssa found themselves working under a new English coordinator; however, they were familiar with him because they had taken his courses and had interacted with him on campus, and that eased the transition.
Planning for Fall 2020
As summer 2020 unfolded, tutors Emily and Alyssa worked with the newly appointed English Coordinator to prepare for a stronger Learning Center in the fall. This was a challenging task that was not unique to our campus; other institutions were also trying to reinvent themselves as they were attempting to provide students with a positive learning experience, despite the massive switch to the online environment. In his article about welcoming incoming college students during a global pandemic, Matthew J. Mowry (2020) states that “This academic year will mean radically reconfigured campuses, policies and traditions. While returning students will be adjusting to this new normal, schools must also determine how to orient first-year students” (p. 37). Writing about higher education in the United States, Abdullah Al-Bahrani and Rebecca Moryl (2020) assert that “student retention is an institution-wide responsibility” (para. 10) and call for different units within a particular campus to show students a united front meant to support them. They explain that students should feel like the “institution is united in efforts to support them and that there is a virtual campus and a virtual community of people caring about them and trying to make it possible for them to succeed” (Al-Bahrani & Moryl, 2020, para. 10). We knew that the Learning Center had to find a way to make this adjustment to remote instruction smoother for students.
Through deep conversations during summer 2020, the English tutors and the English Coordinator set out to reinvent the Learning Center with the students’ best interest at heart. As Alyssa reflects in her journal from summer 2020, “[i]t was a relief that our team was determined, and it helped immensely to have an equal opportunity to voice my ideas during meetings.” They met with faculty and staff remotely to update the website, making content more accessible by replacing broken links, simplifying confusing information, and increasing the amount of visual information available to students. The team’s goal was to present students with a user-friendly interface that improved access to tutoring; for instance, instead of having the information on the main page in paragraph form, now the page displayed a series of large tiles, each linked to a different service offered by the Learning Center such as synchronous tutoring, asynchronous tutoring, testing, and so on.
In addition to the website, other marketing efforts drastically changed as well. Prior to March 2020, the main methods for reaching out to students were flyers posted inside the campus buildings and short in-person course visits. Anticipating an almost-deserted campus in fall 2020, the Learning Center had to find new ways to promote its services. This was done mostly through social media; for example, tutors Emily and Alyssa joined our campus admissions team on Facebook Live a few times to discuss the services available to incoming and returning students. Despite these efforts, Facebook Live failed to attract a large number of viewers.
Introducing Synchronous Tutoring
In addition to maintaining the successful OWL service, synchronous online tutoring was introduced in an attempt to make the tutee’s experience as similar to the face-to-face sessions as possible. The tutors used technology, more specifically Blackboard Collaborate, to hold synchronous tutoring sessions with students. Our students were likely to be familiar with Blackboard Collaborate as our campus relied on it to deliver almost all courses once instruction moved to remote learning. With this service, students could schedule an appointment with an English tutor and discuss their writing projects in a virtual face-to-face, real-time setting.
As the Center started planning the synchronous services, tutors E and A felt like they were in a pretty good place, especially in comparison to other regional campus tutoring centers, because of their previous experience with OWL. They assumed that the new component—remote synchronous—would be somehow similar, and they could use their previous experience to make this a success. They were wrong. As Alyssa noted in her journal for spring 2021, “successful online engagement is marked most notably by preparedness; however, we as tutors were just as new to the sudden shift to fully remote tutoring as potential tutees, and we still find ourselves experiencing something new even well into the spring 2021 semester.” This is something that Michelle Velasquez Bean et al. (2019) also warned about, stating that “[t]utors sometimes have difficulty engaging tutees in the online platform. A tutee may not actively participate initially” (pp. 18-19). Furthermore, the tutors had forgotten that the OWL took years to develop, and its popularity increased partly because they were able to advertise it around campus. Reaching out to students and their professors proved more difficult during remote instruction, as the physical flyers were replaced by announcements on the campus app and on our website, two online resources that students find easier to overlook than the Center’s physical presence on campus prior to March 2020.
The move to remote instruction disrupted another marketing strategy the Center had been using: the in-person course visits. These were 10–20 minute sessions during which tutors were invited to visit various courses, mostly English 01001, 11002, and 11011, to speak with students about the services provided by the Learning Center. These course visits were important because they were informative and provided opportunities for students to ask questions regarding tutoring in a familiar and less intimidating setting. Additionally, the students could meet the tutors, making the visit to the Learning Center less stressful as they knew what to expect and could better prepare for the tutoring session. After the switch to remote instruction, it took the Center a while to figure out how to offer these visits for courses that met synchronously online, but by spring 2021, they were able to re-introduce this marketing strategy when asked by a professor to join her Blackboard Collaborate room. Just this one contact with the professor and her four Stretch courses led to a significant increase in synchronous tutoring from only two sessions in fall 2020 to a total of 31 sessions completed in spring 2021.
While most students may have scheduled synchronous appointments simply because the professor was pushing them to do it, the increase in visits equally demonstrated the important role that faculty plays in promoting student resources like tutoring. Pfrenger et al. (2017) also noted that professors’ support of tutoring services is instrumental in students’ willingness to seek help, and students find these visits beneficial enough that they continue using them (p. 25). The article also emphasized the influence that direct contact with tutors could have on students’ willingness to use our tutoring services. During synchronous sessions with tutors Emily and Alyssa, some students mentioned their previous hesitation towards tutoring and revealed being pleasantly surprised by the experience. While the students did seem to need that initial push from their teacher, some returned throughout the semester to set up additional appointments beyond what had been required.
Other Remote Services
A further innovation the Center implemented was the service of eQuestion(s) via email; this allowed students to send in quick questions as they worked on their writing projects. For example, they could ask about MLA or APA format or how to cite a source. However, if a student had a more complex question—one that could not be thoroughly explained in an email—the tutor would recommend setting up a tutoring session. While the concept was nice, students did not utilize it; throughout the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, the English tutors only received a total of seven eQuestions.
Another additional service involved the regional campus app. The Center used the app to provide writing tips to the campus community, such as how to write an introduction and conclusion, how to find sources, how to format graphs and images in papers, and so on. For special occasions like the National Day on Writing, World Book Day, and National Grammar Day, the tutors tried to engage the campus community by asking informal questions about topics such as favorite books and writers and favorite typos. Despite the effort on the part of the Learning Center, these posts were met with weak engagement; at most, they were acknowledged (liked or commented on) by five or six people each week, and most were faculty or administration, not students. Moreover, the app was abruptly terminated by the university in the spring 2021 semester, which put an end to the posts. These new services—eQuestions, and Campus App Posts—were all brand new to the tutors, but they generally failed to create the expected bridge between students and the help they needed.
Fall 2020 and Beyond
As tutors Emily and Alyssa reflect on their experience tutoring remotely during fall 2020 and beyond, they find themselves drawing comparisons between their experience in the Learning Center prior to March 2020 and their new remote reality. This section discusses these parallels to reveal their struggles as they felt like the move to remote tutoring resulted in a sometimes-overwhelming loss of control over the sessions and their lives outside of work, while their long-established collaboration remained one of their sources of strength when responding to such losses. Craving the pre-March 2020 consistency in their roles as tutors and students, they relied on one another to push through a semester that often felt frustrating and isolating.
When tutoring occurred on campus, the tutors could control many aspects of the tutoring session: they had a physical, shared space to meet the students; they had readily accessible and reliable technology; they received immediate assistance from the Computer Center team when technological issues arose; and they could more easily control the marketing efforts. Post March 2020, the new remote environment introduced a series of disruptive concerns as tutors and tutees alike had to function professionally within home environments wrought with noise, family, pets, and other distractions. Moreover, without access to the Learning Center computers, the campus Wi-Fi, and the tech support team, both students and tutors struggled with unreliable self-provided technology. The tutors were expecting some setbacks because of the unreliable Internet connectivity for which their rural state is famous for, but they were not expecting for technology to seriously disrupt synchronous sessions and sometimes even fail to work at all.
Additionally, prior to March 2020, the tutors felt that having in-person interactions in the Learning Center was the best way to reach students because of the emotional connection they could establish with the tutees. That, however, was elusive in the synchronous sessions when dropped Wi-Fi signals meant losing the connection altogether. Both tutors felt like the focus was redirected to fixing the technology issue rather than assisting the students with their writing. Moreover, most tutees preferred to keep their video camera turned off, and the lack of visual contact left the tutors feeling disengaged by the overall remote tutoring experience. As Alyssa reflects in her fall 2020 journal:
I could not as easily adapt to this issue [failed technology connection] with secondary reliance on body language as many students chose to keep their cameras off during the session. Working with delayed and bodiless voices greatly hindered my ability to provide the comfortability I could ensure with in-person tutoring, and it began to take more effort to work around these conflicts in order to rebuild that comfortable tutoring experience for the student.
Another loss to remote tutoring was the control over schedule and location. Prior to March 2020, the tutors could decide how much of their personal time was spent on Learning Center work. The business hours remained consistent across semesters, and so did the tutor workload. All in-person and asynchronous tutoring occurred in a fixed and well-advertised location that students and tutors could rely on. When the campus switched to remote mode in March 2020, the tutors had to work from home, and, instead of emphasizing shift work, they were expected to work together to cover all tutoring requests; during busy weeks, that meant working more than they had expected. They got paid for the extra hours, but, still, that made it impossible to anticipate how much they were to work on a certain week. This was not the case before March 2020 when they could simply walk out of the Learning Center when their shift was over.
The chaos increased in the fall 2020 semester when only two writing tutors survived the budget cuts, with their hours significantly reduced from as many as 28 per week in spring 2020 to only 10 in fall 2020. Even with the help of their new English coordinator, the reduction in tutors and hours made handling the students’ requests quite a challenge, especially as the number of OWL submissions remained constant from semester to semester. To say that resources were strained would be an understatement; it did not help that, to facilitate quick access to tutoring, the Learning Center webpage listed individual tutors’ work schedule and email, so students could contact the preferred tutor directly. As one would expect, the access to emails led some students to assume that help was available 24/7. Because the tutors were no longer located on campus in the physical space of the Learning Center, opening and closing hours were further made irrelevant. Consequently, the two tutors felt the need to respond to tutoring requests right away; Melissa Thomas et al. (2020) warn against this very issue, stating that “[s]tudents may email you with more specific questions about the material or the course outside of any tutoring sessions or test review sessions you have with them. Be sure to set limits with students when it comes to responding to emails” (p. 22). They also argue that “tutoring time should be limited to the duration of the scheduled online session” (Thomas et al., 2020, p. 22). While this is good advice, it was difficult to follow when the two tutors saw the OWL submissions piling up, as they were adapting to an entirely new reality themselves. Moreover, as Emily reflects in her fall 2020 journal, “Having doubled the Online Writing Lab duties due to the implication of new services, I began to feel as though my dedication to one—the OWL—was lessened by trying to promote and put more effort into other services.” By the time the spring 2021 semester rolled around, synchronous tutoring requests increased, adding to the workload. This sometimes resulted in OWLs having to wait even longer for a response, which added a new level of guilt for the two tutors while sabotaging any attempt to work only the allowed number of hours.
Losing the physical space represented another challenge. In the past, students knew where to go to get help; during the in-classroom visits, they were told that all they had to do was walk to the campus library and turn left. That aspect was lost when the campus closed in March 2020. This represented a double whammy because the Center had just changed locations in January 2020, and the tutors were starting to see the flow of students coming back when they had to switch to remote tutoring. They had put a lot of effort into advertising the new location with flyers and signs in all buildings on campus, arrows pointing to the Center, emails to students and professors, and course visits. Some professors even brought their students to the Learning Center for a brief visit or writing workshop. These efforts came to an abrupt halt when all tutoring functions became remote and students had yet another place to go to—the Learning Center web page.
Overall, while the OWL continued to be popular, it was much harder to get students to think of synchronous tutoring in an online format, despite all marketing efforts. Fall 2020 became an adjustment period that flipped everyone’s perspective on online learning. The possibilities seemed endless, and yet the Learning Center team felt restricted and unable to get the students’ attention. It seemed like the Center did not advertise the remote synchronous tutoring service enough to draw in students and get them to find their way to the virtual Learning Center. Tutors Emily and Alyssa received only a couple of requests in fall 2020. As online instruction became the new normal and students got used to it, so did remote synchronous tutoring, and spring 2021 brought more students to the virtual Learning Center door.
For our regional campus’s Learning Center, it took a village to effectively support students in a way that promotes academic success, especially when the pandemic scattered students, professors, and resources. What turned out to be very helpful in maintaining the quality of the tutoring sessions was the collaboration between tutors Emily and Alyssa, and their deep ties to the rest of the campus community. Prior to March 2020, the two had established a strong relationship with each other and with the other tutors, faculty, and staff. These relationships, especially the connection between the two of them, helped them weather the storm of OWLs in fall 2020, and the increasing number of synchronous requests in addition to the OWLs in spring 2021.
Prior to the shift to remote instruction, the tutors had collaborated in a rather informal manner when sharing the Learning Center space. Additionally, they had worked together closely to create a trove of resources to help one another better serve the student population. For example, they had worked on creating a Drive folder with online writing resources that they could all share with students during face-to-face tutoring and OWLs. Another project involved drafting a master document with comments for common writing concerns that they could reference when responding to OWLs. These resources would shorten the time it might take for tutors to respond to common concerns, allowing them to spend more time on other areas. They used Google docs to continue this work from home throughout summer 2020 and into the fall.
One missing aspect of the collaboration between tutors Emily and Alyssa was being physically present in each other’s lives. Prior to remote instruction, they often shared shifts; this allowed them to not only teach one another, but to also provide moral support for each other when work and personal lives were tough. After March 2020, the cut in tutor hours prevented the tutors from sharing the same schedule, which was done in an effort to have at least one English tutor available to students during the hours of operation. They nonetheless tried to maintain the collaboration through social media like Snapchat, and personal meetings via Zoom. These meetings allowed the English tutors to work closely with one another despite being physically apart. Throughout fall 2020, the two English tutors were able to center themselves on the foundations they had built together during the previous semesters.
Matters became more complex in spring 2021 once the administration decided to rehire the two other tutors who had fallen victim to budget cuts. When it came to tutoring, these were novices, as they had just started working in the Learning Center when the campus closed in March 2020. It became clear that they had to be completely retrained. During a regular, on-campus semester, new hires could directly learn from more experienced tutors by shadowing them, and by asking questions and getting answers in real-time as they all worked within the same location Moreover, new tutors would be slowly introduced to the OWL process, typically waiting between a half and a full semester before doing OWLs so they felt prepared and confident in their tutoring abilities. This mentoring now had to occur remotely, and tutors Emily and Alyssa had to learn how to mentor these novices despite the distance they now faced. The two worked closely with the new tutors who were able to shadow some synchronous tutoring sessions. One helpful aspect was the fact that all four tutors had worked together briefly prior to March 2020; the familiarity between the novice and experienced tutors significantly aided their effort to redefine their working dynamics.
Working from Home
As the campus closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, tutors Emily and Alyssa assumed that working from home was going to be difficult, but they were optimistic about the amount of time they would save because they would not have to drive to and from campus. There would be fewer distractions, no interruptions, all the time in the world to work on projects, and still have time to relax. They also knew that restructuring their homes to accommodate a full-time workspace would be a challenge, but they remained positive about it as they had the summer to get their spaces ready. What they did not anticipate was that this at-home workspace would contribute to the loss of motivation and aspirations for the future and cause more stress. Despite all the preparation they did over the summer, the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters contradicted all of the promising possibilities they thought remote tutoring and schooling would bring.
From the beginning, it became clear that remote tutoring invited an uncomfortable merging of the tutors’ professional, academic, and personal lives as they juggled multiple identities in order to keep up with the new needs of remote tutoring. Emily states in her journal from fall 2020:
[B]y working from home, my physical work environment was changed, resulting in it definitely taking more of my energy to get through the papers and do it in a way that was effective. As a result, the human aspect was seemingly taken out completely, only fueling my personal feeling of becoming a robot tutor, sticking to the rules, and surviving until the next deadline.
Although both tutors tried to balance their lives, it turned out that it was impossible to set limits so neither their personal nor their professional identities would become overbearing. Being remote and feeling stretched because of the reduction in staffing impacted the tutors’ ability to fulfil their other responsibilities. Like many other students, they experienced a decrease in information fluency due to distance learning in addition to a drop in productivity, while feeling nervous about isolation from professors and classmates. Alyssa documented the following in her spring 2021 journal:
I knew that I learned best in an in-person setting with the structure and environment it provided; hence, I was quick to worry when we first switched to remote. As I had anticipated, I struggled to maintain structure and balance within a fully remote space; during the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, I consistently made to-do lists and scheduled messages to myself in order to keep up, finding that even those attempts could not save me from feeling lost in my own responsibilities.
Despite continuous efforts to remain on track, the addition of various concerns like technology failures made distributing attention to tasks evenly even more difficult. In virtual settings, both tutors experienced audio disruptions, leading to interrupted communication between them and students during synchronous sessions. In fact, the tutors experienced both sides to this issue: as students, they found themselves sharing their tutees’ struggles, but they also understood the concerns that faculty faced when trying to provide feedback to students in synchronous tutoring sessions. Considering that technology represented Emily’s and Alyssa’s direct line of communication with faculty and students, this led to further isolation and information loss.
Toll on Mental Health
Feeling trapped in their own bubbles for safety reasons and adjusting mentally and academically to life during the pandemic appeared too stressful at times for tutors Emily and Alyssa. As Greta Anderson (2020) states in her article on this generation’s comfort level with college due to the pandemic, “Uncertainty, instability, and self-doubt have been common themes in the lives of college students during 2020 as their education and career plans shift due to the coronavirus pandemic” (para. 2). When the tutors left the campus in March of 2020, they assumed that they would be back in a month or so, but when it became clear that remote tutoring would continue, it was difficult to stay on the right track. Emily, a graduating senior transitioning into a graduate program, states in her summer 2020 journal:
Ending my undergraduate career in the spring of 2020 was difficult. There were so many emotions to process. However, starting a whole new chapter in my life in the fall was even more difficult. I found myself struggling to stay motivated all of the time. I found myself not enjoying the career path I had chosen because I was overwhelmed, and only surviving each week by meeting the deadlines, well, trying to at least.
The lack of motivation and mental strain Emily felt was shared by Alyssa and the rest of the country as well. Laurie Murphy et al. (2020) found that “of 2,086 undergraduate college students, 80% indicated that their mental health has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with 38% stating that they had trouble focusing on their studies, and 91% of students feeling stress or anxiety” (p. 2). The impact that poor mental health can have on academic success is well-known, but, with the ongoing global pandemic, students’ mental health has been slammed as they have had to navigate their shrinking environments and remote learning.
Both tutors Emily and Alyssa suffered from higher stress and anxiety levels during the fall 2020 semester which resulted in more academic delays, unorganized schedules, and procrastination. Anderson (2020) notes that during the fall 2020 semester, “[s]tress, anxiety and loneliness were the top challenges most students identified they were dealing with during the fall semester, and those issues outweighed stressors such as struggling financially or managing academic workload” (para. 9). Anderson further explains that the mental health of students in the United States continues to decline, and, often, the response is procrastination. Such concerns were also reflected by Emily who states:
Procrastination was a major part of the struggle while adjusting to my new remote location. My school schedule changed. Work and school were always separate, but due to the fact that my professional, academic, and personal life was all focused in one, small bedroom holding three people, any distraction, good or bad, was unfortunately always welcome.
On the other hand, Alyssa comments on her ability to start the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters with a stable routine that quickly fell through. She states, “I fell into a faulty routine; some days, I chose assignments over sleep. This tunneled mindset only served as a further hindrance, as I saw myself slipping into procrastination and fatigue that quickly blended into a long-term burn out that has persisted across semesters.” The tutors’ reflections show how the blurring of their daily lives contributed to the development of detrimental habits such as procrastination and hyper-fixation.
As for the two tutors’ personal lives, the remote environment only proved to hinder their overall sense of well-being during the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters. A study done by Changwon Son et al. (2020) with data from 195 public university students in the United States identified “multiple stressors that contributed to the increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depressive thoughts among students. These included fear and worry about their own health and of their loved ones, difficulty in concentrating, […] [and] disruptions to sleeping patterns” (p. 1). For Emily, depression and isolation fueled her already busy personal life; she goes on to say, “I was driving an essential worker and caring for my mother, which can be said to be a full time job.”
Trying to fend off the pressure of personal responsibilities, tutors Emily and Alyssa became hyper focused on helping students through tutoring and ignored their own needs. Despite deadlines they had to meet and tasks they had to complete for their own courses, they often chose to accommodate students and tutoring work even when they felt starved for time. Son et al. (2020) also report this problem, explaining that “To cope with stress and anxiety, many students, including the English tutors, have sought support from others and helped themselves by adopting either negative or positive coping mechanisms” (p. 1). For both English tutors, music and teamwork were key to making it through the semesters, as they tunneled their attention to completing their tutoring tasks. Other students went through similar experiences as well. In her article focused on student engagement and adaptability within a remote learning environment brought on by the pandemic, author Patricia Aguilera-Hermida (2020) states, “Regarding emotional challenges, students reported stress, anxiety, being worried about getting sick (coronavirus), and changes in their mental health” (p. 5). As is evidenced in her data, her participants felt displaced, discomforted, and disconnected from their education, much like tutors Emily and Alyssa. In fact, Alyssa added the following in her fall 2020 journal: “Many of these feelings were mutual for me. And yet, these feelings only increased as my determination to be a reliable figure as a student, a tutor, and a teaching assistant led to my overall health suffering the side effects of my unrelenting prioritization.” Both tutors tried to ignore their personal struggles and focus on tutoring, but they soon found themselves suffering from issues with sleep and feelings of being caught between tutoring and their own assignments. By the middle of the fall 2020 semester, continuing through to the end of spring 2021, the English tutors were both emotionally worn out and just yearning for a break, a little relaxation, and an escape from their realities.
We hope that the experiences discussed in this article provide tutoring center staff, more precisely undergraduate and graduate student tutors, with a reason to stop and look back at their own practices when tutoring during the pandemic. They may also help them process any lingering feelings of exhaustion and inadequacy. This is particularly important as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to burden the professional and personal lives of education professionals and those involved in student academic success programs. For programs that plan on maintaining a remote synchronous component to their tutoring offerings, the article may also help them identify the gaps in support that remote tutors may experience.
After the complete flip to remote instruction in March 2020, the Learning Center knew that challenges would arise; however, the team of tutors worked with the faculty coordinators and other campus members to update and reimagine how they reached students and, more importantly, how they provided synchronous tutoring. Through persistent discussion and interconnectedness, the Learning Center has been able to foster new means for tutoring to remain accessible; as students and tutors became more comfortable with online instruction, remote synchronous tutoring requests increased, a sign that the tutors were able to figure out how to make it meaningful and effective.
While issues of balancing mental, emotional, academic, and work-related concerns were more present after the move to remote tutoring, a balance of some form can be achieved through persistence and peer reliance. This was possible because of the relationship tutors Emily and Alyssa had developed while in-person, and because of the shared goal of wanting the students to succeed. Even though the tutors faced multiple challenges throughout the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, balance and success were found through teamwork as tutors were able to face complex challenges, adapt to new environments, and survive the pandemic.
As the campus is slowly opening, with some in-person instruction to be expected for fall 2021 and a fully in-person schedule for spring 2022, the Learning Center must decide whether remote synchronous tutoring will continue to be offered. It is unclear, however, whether the two tutors at the heart of this article will have a say in the final decision. Such an option may be beneficial for students whose busy lives may prevent them from attending on-campus sessions, but it would also require significant planning efforts on the part of the Learning Center team. Being able to offer remote synchronous tutoring from a well-resourced, quiet, and professional setting such as the Learning Center would surely benefit all those involved, and it would also provide the ideal space for the English tutors to continue to work together as a team. No matter the challenges that come with the return to normalcy, however, the tutors know that they can depend on one another as they navigate yet another change; ultimately, neither tutor would have it any other way.
- The National Center for Education Statistics explains that “[r]etention rates measure the percentage of first-time undergraduate students who return to the same institution the following fall, and graduation rates measure the percentage of first-time, full-time undergraduate students who complete their program at the same institution within a specified period of time.” ↑
- This article is co-authored by three current and former Learning Center staff: Emily Tondy is a graduate student who has tutored in the Learning Center since Spring 2019 and for eTutoring since fall 2020. Alyssa Gelet is an undergraduate honors student who has been tutoring in the Learning Center since fall 2019 and was also a TA in fall 2020. Ana Wetzl, an English faculty member, was the Learning Center English Coordinator between September 2012 and May 2020. ↑
- Our Online Writing Lab is an asynchronous tutoring service. Students use an online form to submit their work to be reviewed by a writing tutor. ↑
- Our campus offers two versions of first year writing: English 11011 and its developmental writing equivalent that stretches the work from English 11011 over two semesters under the denomination of English 01001 and English 11002. After passing English 11011 or English 11002, all students are mainstreamed into English 21011 where the focus shifts to rhetoric and research writing. ↑
Aguilera-Hermida, A. P. (2020). College students’ use and acceptance of emergency online learning due to COVID-19, International Journal of Educational Research Open, 1. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijedro.2020.100011.
Al-Bahrani, A. (2020, December 7). Using social media to retain and connect with students in the shift to online education: Faculty focus. Higher Ed Teaching & Learning. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/online-student-engagement/using-social-media-to-retain-and-connect-with-students-in-the-shift-to-online-education/.
Anderson, G. (2020, October 15). Students continue to be stressed about college, their futures. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/10/15/students-continue-be-stressed-about-college-their-futures.
Bettinger, E. P., Boatman, A., & Long, B. T. (2013, Spring). Student supports: Developmental education and other academic programs. Future of Children, 93–115. http//:doi:10.1353/foc.2013.0003.
Mowry, M. J. (2020). COVID 101: Introducing students to college in a pandemic. Business NH Magazine, 37(8), 37–39.
Murphy, L., Eduljee, N. B., & Croteau, K. (2020). College student transition to synchronous virtual classes during the COVID-19 pandemic in Northeastern United States. Pedagogical Research, 5(4), https://doi.org/10.29333/pr/8485.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). Undergraduate retention and graduation rates, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/ctr
Ohio Department of Education. Ohio School Report Cards, https://reportcard.education.ohio.gov/school/prepared/015222.
Pacello, J. (2019, Spring). Developmental writing and transfer: Examining student perceptions. Journal of Developmental Education, 42(3), 10–17. https://www.proquest.com/openview/b272533547aa432ef871a78a7a97b87e/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=47765
Pfrenger, W., Blasiman, R.N., & Winter, J. (2017). “At first it was annoying”: Results from requiring writers in developmental courses to visit the writing center. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 15(1), 22- 35.
Son, C., Hegde, S., Smith, A., Wang, X., & Sasangohar, F. (2020). Effects of COVID-19 on college students’ mental health in the United States: Interview survey study. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 22(9). https://www.jmir.org/2020/9/e21279/.
Thomas, M., Wear, M., & Dvorak, J. (2020, August). Online tutoring implementation guide (OTIG) for learning centers, ACTLA, (3), https://tutormatchingservice.com/client/pdf/Online%20Tutoring%20ITG%20Version%203.pdf.
Velasquez Bean, M., Aldredge, T., Chow, K., Fowler, L., Guaracha, A., McGinnis, T., Parker, L., & Saez-Kleriga, G. (2019). Effective practices for online tutoring, The Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED601995.pdf.
Wetzl, A., & Lieske, P. (2020). The benefits and limitations of online peer feedback: Instructors’ perception of a regional campus online writing lab. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal 18(1).