Research is at heart of grad student writing center

At the Center for Communication Excellence, graduate students assist their peers in writing better with techniques and training grounded in data.

The center, housed in the Graduate College in Pearson Hall, held 1,347 one-on-one mentoring sessions last year, part of an array of ways it helps graduate students and postdoctoral scholars hone their communication skills.  

"I have used the CCE to assist me with my writing and I feel it has been the best experience and peer support I ever had at ISU," a graduate assistant in English wrote earlier this year in support of the center's proposal for new computers.

Students aren't the only benefactors. The center also is helpful for faculty, who often can't provide a similar level of individualized attention to graduate student writing.

"It alleviates some of their burden," said assistant director Sarah Huffman, one of the center's two full-time staff.

Here are a few things to know about the center, which is embarking on its third school year this fall:


The center, formed as the result of a task force that explored how to improve graduate student writing, is research-based.

"We have a lot of research projects that are ongoing that then feed into the development of materials," director Elena Cotos said.

Before they begin working with students, peer mentors take a three-credit course, a hands-on immersion in mentoring strategies and providing critical feedback that involves observing existing peer mentors and mock training scenarios.

"This is pretty unique," Huffman said.

After each consulting session, student clients fill out a survey to assess the assistance they received, data that's used to continually shape the program, Huffman said. The center also conducts weekly ongoing training for its consultants.

Common conventions

Research into similarities in academic writing conventions across numerous areas of study also informs the center's practices. Cotos and Huffman studied collections of publications from 30 varying disciplines to identify common constructs in research writing as well as discipline-specific conventions.    

Even as peer mentors gear their advice toward specific norms in a given discipline, they draw on conventions applicable across areas of study, a model that's at the foundation of the center's programming.

That research also is the basis of the center's research writing tutor, an online tool that gives an automated analysis of student research writing.

"It actually gives feedback on every single sentence," Cotos said.

How it works

The free sessions at the center cater to all manners of academic writing. Consultants work with writers at any stage of a project, from brainstorming and outlining to polishing a finished section or incorporating faculty feedback.

Appointments are booked online, and sessions are generally in-person.

In addition to interdisciplinary consultants, the center offers consultants in general English writing for international students, online consultants for distance students, consultants for dissertation and thesis work, and discipline-specific consultants in agronomy and agricultural and biosystems engineering. Chemistry consulting sessions will start this spring, Huffman said.

In 2016-17, peer mentors consulted with 532 students from 44 academic departments. Fifty-nine percent of students seeking support were nonnative English speakers.

Sixty-nine percent were doctoral students, and 29 percent were seeking master's degrees.

Other support

The focus isn't solely one-on-one help.

Trained facilitators lead groups of graduate students who review each other's writing. Peer mentors are embedded in some writing-intensive graduate courses. Plus, the center has held boot camps for students working on a thesis or dissertation, seminar series on various writing needs and one-minute reviews of job application materials at the Graduate Professional Student Senate annual conference.

New this semester, the center has an English-speaking consultant to help improve the verbal skills of both nonnative and native speakers. That dovetails with courses in oral communication for international teaching assistants the center administers.

Cotos said she takes pride in the center's flexibility and is always interested in new collaborations.

"We're really open and looking for opportunities to engage with students in different venues," she said.