Equity Within Student Writing Centers
Written by: Thea Louise Thomaseth Bugge
Increasing the scope and scale of writing center research can potentially increase student equity in higher education. The writing center is a resource at institutions that provides students help on their writing-based assignments from trained peer tutors. One of the many goals that writing centers have is to increase equity for its students through coaching and targeted learning in tutoring sessions. Much of the research on writing centers thus far has been surrounding how to make centers as utilized and helpful as possible to underrepresented students.
Much of the recent discussion and research about writing centers have focused on making them as equitable and inclusive as possible. Just within the past five years, researchers have published antiracist training recommendations, recommendations for writing centers as safe spaces for LGBTQ+ students, how to utilize multilingualism within the writing center, and more. Much of this research has been dedicated to providing recommendations for best practices. Implementing these recommendations can be a great step towards student equity. But too little research has tested the actual effectiveness of these recommendations. Further research needs to prove whether these recommendations work so that institutions can effectively utilize resources to increase student equity.
At the time of this article, there have been no systematic reviews and a lack of state-wide or larger-sample studies about the effectiveness of writing center practices. This is a problem as it allows biases to impact leaders' understanding of the overall successfulness of writing centers. Small, localized sample sizes of students can lack enough diversity to prove trends across the diverse national student body. While these studies may be able to account for intersectional equity-related factors at some schools or local areas, the existing challenges may be unique to that area. This can leave out stakeholders' understanding of important intersectional issues that may impact writing centers at schools with different student population diversity. They also don’t account for demographic student body changes over time.
Some types of writing center research can be limiting. Studies following one class over time, for example, may limit insight to factors relating to that specific class. Even if that student population is large and follows them over their expected four years expected graduation terms, they may not be representative of the general student population. Factors such as class-culture, admission rates, overall diversity, and methods of instructions may be unique to that class, leaving the research results unreliable for the general population. Demographics are changing in the United States, schools will have to adapt and cater to an increasingly changing student population any given year.
Shifting student demographics means that the writing center has to be able to adapt to diverse student needs. Some research has shown that students with higher academic skills and motivations were more likely to use the writing center (2015). A different study found the opposite. They found that students that had indicated that they needed more help with writing in a freshman survey, non-native English speakers (ESOL), and students with low SAT scores were more likely to use the writing center (2019). Based on the limited large-scale research done thus far, there is a clear need for increased data collection at writing centers across all of higher education.
The writing center is a great resource that can be a piece of the puzzle to improve student equity across all sectors of higher education. They are not the key to solving every issue, but they are student-centered and can provide students' academic support. Research on effective practices for writing center-equity is abundant, but unfortunately lacking both in terms of scale and diversity of study participants. Gathering data on how writing centers are effective and how best practices are installed paves the way for institutions to leverage their existing programs into truly serving their students.