Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2011

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Teaching and Learning

First Advisor

Sunstein, Bonnie

First Committee Member

Schuh, Kathy

Second Committee Member

Severino, Carol

Third Committee Member

Trachsel, Mary

Fourth Committee Member

Hlebowitsh, Peter


Although researchers in composition studies have examined the instructional conditions that help students revise successfully, there is little published scholarship about how college students use feedback from a peer tutor in the revising process. Thus, I designed a qualitative, collective case study to investigate how students revised after writing center conferences. I used the conceptual framework of activity theory to analyze the entire system of student revision. I used the concept of situation definition to examine how students' understanding of writing conferences and rhetorical concepts, such as revision, changed (or did not change) during the writing conference. I analyzed the revisions with a taxonomy from a study by Faigley and Witte (1981).

The findings of this study were centered on two different groups of students who had writing center conferences: those who had specific goals for their writing conferences and those who did not. Students who did not have specific goals for their conferences ceded authority to the writing consultant (the title that this writing center used instead of "peer tutor") who they believed could identify and correct sentence-level errors. When these students revised, they almost always integrated direct feedback about how to correct errors in grammar and mechanics because they believed that their instructors valued writing that was free of errors. But these students only integrated indirect feedback about microstructure revisions if they believed that the revisions were important to other aspects of the activity system such as their instructors. Students rarely made macrostructure revisions, but writing consultants rarely discussed this kind of revision.

The writing consultants and the students without specific goals for their conferences had different situation definitions of the purpose of a writing conference and how to meaningfully revise their writing. The writing consultants did not try to promote situation re-definition by moving the discussion away from the text toward a conversation about the strategies that the student used to produce the draft. The conducted the conference at the level of the student in order to fulfill the student's agenda. This contradicted the main philosophy of the writing center, which was that a conference should be a productive conversation about the ideas in a piece of writing.

The second group of students, who had specific goals for their conferences, consisted of writing consultants who also had writing conferences with other writing consultants. Writing consultants shared the same situation definition of the purpose of a writing conference and this led to them having productive conversations that framed the act of revision in a more complex way than "revising for the instructor." However, their conferences were focused on how to revise the text, so the consultants also did not try to promote situation re-definition to help their peers develop new writing strategies.

The faculty in this research study had differing conceptions of the purpose of the writing center, but their situation definition was closer to that of the students who believed that the writing center was for helping students edit their texts. Instructors used the writing center as a resource to help their students revise their writing, but those who believed the writing center was only for basic writing assignments did not use the writing center or relied on writing consultants with specialized knowledge to help them.

An important implication of this research is that peer tutors should be trained to elicit the students' situation definitions of what a writing conference is for and what it means to meaningfully revise. In this way, peer tutors can structure an activity that focuses on helping students to develop situation definitions that are more appropriate for successfully revising their academic writing and for completing future writing projects. Writing centers can also work to help instructors develop more appropriate situation definitions of what a writing conference can do for their students.


activity theory, composition, peer tutoring, revision, vygotsky, writing center


xii, 300 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 271-278).


Copyright 2011 Samuel Van Horne