Writing Support for Higher Ed STEM Students- A Tutor’s Perspective

Topics: Blog, Editorial

Academic integrity continues to be a problem across all disciplines that require intensive writing and extensive student projects. From my experience tutoring two students in the STEM field, I have witnessed their struggle with academic integrity and observed their development with keen interest. Specifically, both students find it challenging to understand the policies and expectations around academic integrity, specifically around plagiarism. This resulted in their failure to complete their courses successfully.  To reduce their chances of academic dishonesty, they reached out for tutorial support. Academic programs that emphasize academic integrity are more likely to have students who understand what is being asked of them and who espouse these values.

Nevertheless, as we know, not all experiences are equal. I intend to share my students’ stories with educators around the world so that they, too, can leave a positive mark on their students who may face the same challenge. This post will briefly highlight the students’ background, identify specific challenges they faced, discuss observations and developmental strategies used to help them, and share recommendations for instruction.

My first student is in his thirties and takes a project management course. He is a technician at IBM, a leading technology company, and has more than four years of experience in technological support. His experience and accolades are a testament to his exceptional skills and expertise in the field. However, the technician landed in one of my online writing classes. He asked for extra tutoring on writing skills. He strongly pleaded for specific training on citing and crediting the authors’ work, reporting that he got an F grade the previous semester because of this. He reports he felt “intimidated” by the work. The technician enrolled again in the project management course this summer to give himself a second chance. When asked to submit a weekly article review with APA citations and at least two peer-reviewed articles, he felt “overwhelmed” again. Since June, I have been working with the technician sharing tips and demonstrating how to compose reviews, reports and include proper references.

The second student is in his forties and takes an engineering management course in a Master of Business Administration (MBA) program. He is a bioengineer working with hospitals with over ten years of mechanical engineering experience. As the technician, the engineer is a well-renowned expert in his field. Although the engineer had ten years in the field, he reports there is “low demand” for extensive writing in his work and describes the engineering management class as “tedious.” Unlike the technician, the engineer had some exposure working in groups to produce project portfolios for designing high-tech devices such as smart pill bottles. However, he explains he has not had much practice with academic writing, which jeopardized his grades. I have been working with the engineer since May, building upon his knowledge and guiding him through the process of quality academic writing.

My strategies with both students are very similar. I use emotional support strategies and offer supplemental resources for them to explore, such as Purdue University’s citation guidelines. During my first online meeting with them, I shared my concern and empathy for their frustration with academic writing and explained that many students across multiple disciplines face the same challenges. STEM students are not alone. However, all STEM students who find themselves in this situation must take active responsibility to find help and avoid risky short cuts such as reusing their own past work as in one of the engineers’ assignments. Finding tutors who can help with and train students in proper academic writing is one great option these students chose.

In addition to emotional support and exploration of online resources, I supplement my instruction with the use of graphic organizers for writing papers or reports. For example, the technician knows a lot about how software designers develop websites and launch them for use by organizations. He used the knowledge from his work to explain the process in detail, ‘filling in the blanks’ of the graphic organizer. To properly cite a source in writing, he would have

  1. A topic sentence or argument,
  2. A quote or evidence from your source,
  3. An in-text citation,
  4. An explanatory sentence, and
  5. A concluding sentence.

Graphic organizers and similar tools help my students develop a rhythm for writing academic papers. This strategy also worked well for the engineer’s weekly article review and final project papers. He was able to ‘fill in the blanks’ and refine his work with me to make it more presentable. As a result, both students are now at a better place, reporting better grades and good standing to pass their courses.

I encourage educators at all levels to adopt strategies like those I use with students. The use of emotional support, graphic organizers, and supplemental resources have shown to be effective in empowering students in producing quality academic work. My STEM students, in particular, struggled with writing at first but benefited immensely from these strategies.

About the Author
Seabelo Chabo John, MAT, is a Doctor of Education student in the Department of Administrative and Instructional Leadership at St. John’s University – School of Education. His research interests include academic integrity education and diversity in education leadership. He received his BA in Business at Rhodes College and his MA in Teaching at Johns Hopkins University – School of Education. Seabelo worked with international students at Johns Hopkins University in various capacities including academic writing, research, and presentations. Before Johns Hopkins University, Seabelo worked for four years as a mentor, tutor, and program coordinator, at the Refugee Empowerment Program serving K-20 refugees. Through Frog Tutoring, he continues to serve as a leading higher education online instructor and tutor for college and graduate students across all disciplines. Seabelo’s blog posts are his own and do not represent his employer’s opinions.