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October 2005

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Mona Pelkey

Establishing Guidelines for the Email Tutor

By Elke A. Kleisch, National-Louis University

Technology has broadened the scope of how we deliver learning assistance to students. Casazza and Silverman recognize, "New technology is evident in computer-assisted instruction, distance learning through E-mail, interactive learning experiences with specialized software, and writing networks in which students and faculty share their compositions via the electronic highway" (1996, p. 268). As online learning assistance develops, we must develop new ways to integrate technology to help students develop their skills.

Online writing assistance provides students with a resource to improve their writing skills with the flexibility and convenience of an online environment. "For students involved in earlier generations of open and distance education, regular opportunities for interaction with their tutor and other students were simply not available" (Littleton & Whitelock, 2004, p.173). However, online writing assistance is not limited to distance learners - working adult students, off campus students, and others consider the email-tutoring environment a practical option. While online tutoring is a relatively new approach to learning assistance, the tutor should not forget the pedagogical goals of tutoring as well as his or her role as a tutor. Furthermore, as acknowledged by Barker (2002), "Online tutors need to have a range of different technical and communication skills" (p. 7).

Some research has been conducted on online tutoring where tutors are 'present' in the online tutoring class in both synchronous and asynchronous environments. In these environments, students not only interact with the tutor but also the instructor as well as other students. However, few studies have addressed the issue of the email tutor - tutors who provide writing assistance asynchronously via email.

The following provides some guidelines for tutors to consider when providing writing assistance to students via email. Primarily, this paper will address three main categories in an email tutoring setting: structuring the environment, creating a dialogue, and engaging in professional development.

Structure the Environment

Set the Tone

Setting the tone in an email tutoring session involves establishing the role of the tutor and the expectations of the tutee, portraying the image of the learning center, and creating a welcoming environment for the tutee. A tutor can set the tone for the student before, during, and after the online tutoring session with numerous ways. First, many online writing labs set clear guidelines for submitting papers via email. For example, the OWL writing lab requires specific questions to accompany the paper (Anderson, 2002). Other writing labs may limit the length of the assignment; e.g., students may not submit papers online papers that are more than four pages in length. Still others limit the type of assistance the writing lab provides. For instance, one may limit the assistance to papers; others may allow general writing questions to be sent to a tutor. Regardless of the requirements of submission, tutors should know these rules and remain consistent about implementing them.

Second, the email tutor should establish his or her role as well as that of the student. According to Ryan, Freeman, Scott, and Patel (2000), "One of the major roles of an online tutor is 'that of educational facilitator: to contribute specialist knowledge and insight, focus the discussion on the critical points, to ask questions and respond to students' contributions, weave together disparate comments and synthesize the points made to foster emerging themes (as cited in Barker, 2002, p.7). Equally important, the student should participate in the tutoring session, not unlike the face-to-face session, albeit asynchronously. This requires the tutor to utilize his or her pedagogical knowledge in guiding the student to reflect upon his or her work.

Keep in mind that these guidelines should correlate with the rules, mission, and goals of the center, and should be equivalent those that apply to face-to-face tutoring sessions. For example, in the face-to-face environment, students cannot just drop off papers for someone to proofread and to be picked up later by the student. An email tutor should use these same rules in an online tutoring environment and reinforce these rules with each student and throughout each session.

However, guiding students in learning about their role in the tutoring session, an email tutor should also remember to set a welcoming tone. For example, when I receive an email simply stating, "Please proofread my paper," I usually respond with an answer such as, "I will review your paper and provide you with feedback within 48 hours. Is there a particular area you would like me to address?" This establishes the purpose of the tutoring session without an aggressive tone and places the responsibility on the tutee for identifying areas of concern. However, a tutor may need to state explicitly the parameters of email tutoring. In these cases, a written explanation of the email tutoring process should be available to send to the tutee.

While email tutors do want to remain firm in establishing their role in the email tutoring session, they also want to make the student feel safe to ask questions and comfortable in using online services in the future. One way is to encourage students to ask questions. Usually, I include in my response email that I welcome questions should the tutee need clarification of any of my comments, if my comments spark additional questions, or if I did not address a specific question.

Manage Time and Address Responsibility

The time spent reviewing papers online can be considerable, and it is up to the tutor to set the expectations of the tutoring session. Do not feel the need to provide feedback for every page in a student's twenty-page paper. Remember, tutees should do most of the work on their own. Use open-ended questions to guide the student in reflecting upon his or her work. In addition, the tutor can provide specific examples of an area for the tutee to address and allow the tutee to look for additional examples. For instance, I often find fragmented sentences in papers. In an emailed paper, I may highlight several instances within the first one or two pages, and direct the tutee to find additional instances throughout the paper. At this point, I would also refer a student to an online grammar website where he or she can learn how to identify and correct fragmented sentences. This firmly places the responsibility of the tutee for identifying and fixing fragments or other grammatical issues.

Utilize Technical Skills

It is essential that email tutors remain aware of the functions of word processing programs and other software. There are a variety of ways that tutors can provide feedback including highlighting, different colored text, comment and note areas, strike-through text, line breaks, or responding in all capital letters, to name a few. It is important to remain consistent in the method of feedback. Furthermore, the email tutor should provide a key or explanation if he or she uses different methods. For example, if a feedback paper contains several different color highlights or text, the tutor should provide a key as to what each color represents. Basic instructions on how to access and understand comments and suggestions is also important as I address the next area of consideration for email tutors - establishing a dialogue.

Establish a Dialogue

Utilize Communication Skills

Jackson (2000) talks about the importance of tutors developing an online 'voice.' He asserts, "We want our presence to be known without really establishing our presence; we want writers to discover their writerness not because of us but because of the questions they ask, because of the guidance they give us." This speaks to the process of placing responsibility on the tutor to gauge his or her writing through the comments and suggestions made by the tutor. As Jackson (2000) points out, the tutor can accomplish this utilizing the same techniques as in a face-to-face tutorial.

The types of comments that tutors make also vary. Tarvers and Buswell (2000) identify two types of comments made by email tutors: overview comments and intertextual comments (p. 7). Overview comments are those that comment on the organization and overall impression of the paper. Intertextual comments are those that are related to specific areas of the paper. Additionally, Jackson (2000) discusses the concept of writer-centered metacognition in which the tutor structures the tutoring environment so that the tutee reflects upon his or her learning and writing process. A combination of different types of responses will help the tutor maintain an ongoing dialogue with his or her tutees.

One problem associated with the asynchronous nature of email tutoring, as identified by Weedon (2000), is that, "The opportunity for discussing the comments with the tutor in a face-to-face interaction is in many cases not available" (p.186). Therefore, several researchers caution of the possibility of misinterpretation of the tutor's comments (Barker, 2002; Weedon, 2000). Weedon (2000) further states, "The assumptions that a tutor makes in terms of a student's previous experience can thus help or hinder the student from making the most of the comments" (p. 186). As a result, the tutor should elicit feedback from the tutee as to his or her understanding of the comments and suggestions made.

Having an ongoing dialogue with students is important; however, what about the tutees that do not send follow up questions - they simply take the tutor's suggestions and do not communicate with the tutor until their next paper is due? Additionally, as Jackson points out, "writers do not always come prepared with specific questions" (2000, p. 3). As a result, some may argue that email communication is one-sided rather than a dialogue between tutor and tutee. However, Tarvers and Buswell (2000) state, "e-mail writing conferences can be a dialogue, even if the emails seem to mostly be going one way" (p. 6).

In my experience with email tutoring, I often do not hear from students except the one or two drafts when their paper is due. However, for some, I have noticed a change in their papers and in the manner in which they submit their papers. For example, I have worked with several graduate students from the same program. As I respond to them, I refer them to their APA manual, leave them with questions, and offer my suggestions. As their program continues, their submissions have changed from the "Please proofread my paper" to "Could you please review my APA citations, especially my reference page. Also, my paper sounds a bit choppy on the second page… I am open for suggestions. Thanks for the referral to the APA manual, I understand it better now." This suggests that this student did take the feedback and apply it to future tutoring sessions, thus implying that a dialogue, in fact, has occurred. However, this does not occur in all instances; the tutor should develop his or her online tutoring skills to become proficient in obtaining additional responses and information from the tutee.

Utilize Referral Skills

The email tutor should also be familiar with the resources available to the student. In addition to feedback, a tutor can also provide online links to grammar websites, APA websites, or resources related to other institutional resources such as the library, for example. The email tutor should keep a list of online and other references for specific courses or questions. These will be helpful for future sessions with other students. Referring students to other appropriate resources will help create an open and ongoing dialogue with tutees.

Get Feedback from the Student

After sending feedback, the tutor may consider following up with the student a day or two after sending his or her feedback. Weedon (2000) emphasized the importance of developing a method of receiving feedback from students about the comments they received. She contends that it is important to get feedback about whether comments are helpful to the students. She also suggests exploring whether the student interpreted comments the way that the tutor intended. Receiving feedback is an important component for the email tutor to develop his or her online tutoring skills.

Engage in Professional Development

One of the key components of being an effective tutor is keeping one's skills up to date. This includes technical skills and pedagogical knowledge. The tutor coordinator should provide opportunities for the tutor to update his or her personal, professional, and technical skills.
My final suggestion is to maintain contact with other tutors. Collaboration is important for to develop more effective communication methods or discuss issues and concerns. A tutor can also become a member of a listserv or organizations dedicated to providing learning assistance to students. These avenues provide valuable information for the tutor to improve his or her tutoring skills.


Email tutoring is becoming a popular choice among many different types of students. However, the tutor should establish clear guidelines before, during and after the tutoring session. The email tutor should consider how to structure the environment, establish a dialogue, and engage in professional development. There guidelines will not only help the tutor to create an effective tutoring session, but they also help support the established goals and mission of the center.


Anderson, D. (2002). Interfacing email tutoring: Shaping an emergent literate practice. Computers and Composition, 19, 71-82.

Barker, P. (2002). On being on online tutor. Innovations in Education and Teaching International. Retrieved on August 15, 2005 from

Bennett, S. & Marsh, D. (2002). Are we expecting online tutors to run before they can walk? Innovations in Education and Teaching International. Retrieved on August 15, 2005 from

Casazza, M.E. & Silverman, S.L. (1996). Learning assistance and developmental education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fox, S. & MacKeogh, K. (2003). Can elearning promote higher-order learning without tutor overload? Open Learning, 18(2), 121-134.

Jackson, J.A. (2000). "Interfacing the Faceless: Maximizing the Advantages of Online Tutoring." Writing Lab Newsletter 25.2.

Littleton, D.P. & Whitelock, D. 2004). Guiding the creation of knowledge and understanding in a virtual learning environment. Cyber Psychology & Behavior, 7(2).

Tarvers, J.K. & Buswell, E. (2000, November). The tutor's computer ate my paper' and other notes from a pilot study of e-mail tutoring. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Writing Centers Association, Baltimore, MD.

Weedon, E. (2000). Do you read this the way I read this? British Journal of Educational Technology, 31(3), 185-197.

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