Improving Communication Between Experts and Novices

Room 42 is where practitioners and academics meet to share knowledge about breaking research. In this episode, Dr. Awad Scrocco discusses how expert feedback across diverse contexts includes some common features and how we can use insights from this research to improve the way experts can engage novices in learning irrespective of the teaching environment.

Airdate: December 22, 2021

Season 2 Episode 14 | 48 min

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Transcript (Expand to View)

[00:00:11.750] – Liz Fraley

Greetings and welcome to Room 42. I'm Liz Fraley from Single-Sourcing Solutions, I'm your moderator. This is Janice Summers from TC Camp, she's our interviewer. And welcome to Diana Awad Scrocco, today's guest in Room 42.

[00:00:24.250] – Liz Fraley

Dr. Scrocco is an associate professor of English at Youngstown State University, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in professional and technical writing, writing pedagogy and research methods and healthcare communication.

[00:00:37.800] – Liz Fraley

She's currently the director of Professional and Technical Writing program, and before coming to Youngstown State, she earned her PhD in literacy, rhetoric, and social practice from Kent State University. She's collaborated with Joanna Wolfe at Carnegie Mellon to establish the first communications center on the Kent State University campus.

[00:00:57.630] – Liz Fraley

Her recent research has appeared in Praxis, a writing center journal, Journal of Argumentation in Context, and Communication and Medicine. Her 2012 article, in Teaching English in the Two-Year College [TETYC] was titled, ‘Do You Care to Add Something?,' articulating student interlocutor voices in writing response dialogue. A lot of words that we're going to learn about today in our session, that was hard to get through.

[00:01:25.950] – Liz Fraley

She examines how written teacher comments on student drafts can encourage student writers to consider plans for revision. This article won the 2013 Mark Reynolds TETYC Best Article Award, and currently she's working on a project exploring how experienced tutors support novice tutors while using an innovative tutoring model at the Carnegie Mellon Writing Center.

[00:01:48.640] – Liz Fraley

Her article, ‘What's Your Plan for the Consultation?,' examining alignment between tutor and supervisor session plans and tutor-writer session conversations is currently under review, and it's coming out soon… Or you're working on it still?

[00:02:03.510] – Diana Awad Scrocco

I'm still working on it.

[00:02:04.660] – Liz Fraley

Alright. I'm looking forward to it. But this is what we're going to talk about today. She's here to help us start answering the question, “How do we improve the transfer of expert knowledge to new learners?” Welcome.

[00:02:17.610] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Thank you.

[00:02:18.990] – Janice Summers

Welcome Diana, we're so excited to be talking to you today. Thank you so much for donating your time to come and share your wisdom and knowledge. So we're talking about not just how experienced people teach novice people. We're talking about how people with expertise teach other people with expertise to then teach. So it's cascading. So it's up above, right? So interesting.

[00:02:51.160] – Janice Summers

Now, this is in a classroom situation or is this in professional situation?

[00:02:58.770] – Diana Awad Scrocco

I've looked at various contexts. I was graduating with my PhD and starting to interview for jobs. I had to look at all of the research that I had done and I had to answer the question, “What's the common thread?” Because sometimes you're so embroiled in the details of what you're doing, you don't see that all the time.

[00:03:18.980] – Diana Awad Scrocco

What I figured out was that whether I was looking at a college writing teacher who was writing comments on her students papers or a writing center where tutors were working with supervisors or tutors were working with writers, or in my dissertation research, I was looking at experienced physicians and how they communicated with brand new physicians, resident physicians.

[00:03:41.260] – Diana Awad Scrocco

All of the research that I was doing was looking at how those with expertise were providing feedback to those who had less expertise in a particular area. And, of course, the area of interest is writing, so less expertise in writing within a field or within academia, that sort of thing.

[00:04:04.710] – Janice Summers

Okay. This is more than just the verbal feedback that they give?

[00:04:11.250] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Yeah. So some of it's verbal. In the different context where I've done this type of research, I've looked at different artifacts. So that article that Liz mentioned that I published and won an award for that one was looking at written teacher comments on student writing, student drafts in a writing class at a university.

[00:04:35.610] – Diana Awad Scrocco

A lot of my writing center research has centered around feedback that tutors provide orally to students who come to a university writing center. I've also looked at an article that I published about a year ago with a colleague from Kent State; looked at chat conversations between writing tutors—

[00:04:59.860] – Janice Summers

The dialogue.

[00:05:01.440] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Dialogue. Exactly. But written, right?

[00:05:03.970] – Janice Summers

Right. That's an interesting dynamic, because a chat dialogue is going to be different than an oral dialogue that we have. Definitely different than just comments that you're writing and then I go and absorb that later.

[00:05:16.470] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Exactly. I was just going to say the third type of artifact that I've looked at in my dissertation, which I later went on to publish some of that, was oral conversations between experienced physicians and less experienced physicians. And those are all oral conversations, though they were in some cases centered around what the resident was going to write in their notes like that. But the actual interaction that I observed and recorded and transcribed was oral in nature. So I've looked at all of it. I don't know if I've looked at all of it, but a mixed bag.

[00:05:55.540] – Janice Summers

Well, those are the most common things that I can think of, where you get feedback and give feedback.

[00:06:00.570] – Diana Awad Scrocco


[00:06:02.850] – Janice Summers

Was there one mode that was more impactful than others or, what were you seeing?

[00:06:11.490] – Diana Awad Scrocco

I don't know that I would say that… I don't think I have a blanket statement that one is more impactful than another, but each one has affordances and each one has constraints. So for example, written comments that teachers traditionally write on their students straps are inherently a one-way dialogue, not even a dialogue, a one-way street, let's say.

[00:06:35.450] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Where I receive—and I do this every semester, I just wrapped up a semester last week—where I receive a bunch of student drafts and I type or write a bunch of comments on them, or even if I record audio, which is something common that people will do in lieu of writing them, it's still me, mainly providing my commentary on the student's draft.

[00:06:56.100] – Diana Awad Scrocco

And the downside to that is that the student doesn't always have an opportunity to reply back. And I personally try in my classes to mimic—and there's a lot of research on this—to mimic the two-way dialogue by, for example, having them, if they do a revision, maybe provide a written reflection on what they revised in response to the comments I provided. So there are ways of mirroring a conversation that you might have about someone's writing, but that's the biggest limitation to written comments.

[00:07:27.990] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Now oral comments. Teachers do conferences, the physicians in my dissertation study sat and talked with their novices. The pro to that, the affordance of that is that there's a lot more back and forth. There's a lot more dialogue. The limitation, of course, is that there's no record of what was provided in terms of feedback.

[00:07:50.470] – Janice Summers

So how are you going to remember? Because that's one of the challenges. There's so much that the mind is processing, the cognitive process of the mind at the time that we're having a conversation. There's a lot we're taking in that we don't realize, and there's only a small portion that is totally present to the conversation and none of that's being stored in your long term memory.

[00:08:12.930] – Diana Awad Scrocco


[00:08:13.670] – Liz Fraley

Anywhere you can refer to, even.

[00:08:15.820] – Janice Summers

Right. So that you can remember later, because sometimes this constructive feedback is to help us improve.

[00:08:23.130] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Absolutely. Right.

[00:08:24.280] – Liz Fraley

That's always to help us improve.

[00:08:26.100] – Janice Summers

Right. How are we going to remember? But the active dialogue allows us to have clarifying conversations.

[00:08:34.290] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Absolutely. And so one of the benefits of the context when I did that research in a hospital setting between doctors was… The feedback that they were getting was in situ, it was in context. And essentially what these resident physicians, these brand new doctors would do is they would go in, they would see a patient independently in an outpatient clinic setting.

[00:08:56.760] – Diana Awad Scrocco

And then they would come into this big conference room where I was recording them. And they would have a conversation with an expert doctor, present the patient and ask them questions about how should I treat it or here's how I'm thinking of treating it. What do you think? And they would go through— and what I ended up studying was the argument structures that were built into those conversations. I used classical rhetoric to consider those.

[00:09:18.880] – Diana Awad Scrocco

But back to the feedback thing, though, they were then able to take that feedback that they just went over with the experienced doctor and go right back into the room with the patient and later go right to their notes that they were going to record everything, and they could just apply that feedback immediately.

[00:09:38.910] – Diana Awad Scrocco

That's another affordance of the way that that context functioned was that they didn't have to remember something like, I think sometimes when we do conferences with students, we do a conference, and then they go and take their other classes and they go and they go out with friends and then they return to the draft a week later and say, “Gosh, I got a revise now and turn it into my professor. What did she tell me or what did you tell me that I need to do to make this better?” And it's hard to call up those details of this, and that's where written feedback sometimes has an advantage.

[00:10:11.370] – Janice Summers

Yeah. Because it kind of backs it up. And it's interesting because when we do training, when we train people, it's very interactive and it's very “let me teach you this and then go apply it” because of that ability to really embrace what they're learning. Because an application, it sits with us better, right?

[00:10:34.040] – Diana Awad Scrocco


[00:10:34.910] – Janice Summers

And for longer periods of time.

[00:10:37.650] – Janice Summers

Now, what about the one way written communication? It's a one way conversation, like you said. What were your findings in that, are there things that work better than others?

[00:10:53.670] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Yeah. That was what I was interested in studying. So I started that when I was in graduate school and I was in a class learning about how to provide written feedback. It was a writing assessment class, and it was my project for the class.

[00:11:06.890] – Diana Awad Scrocco

And what we had been reading all semester was decades of research in my field of writers and composition that said, “When you're writing comments to your students, make sure that you're attempting to establish a dialogue, even though you can't always have that true dialogue.”

[00:11:23.570] – Diana Awad Scrocco

And so there are all sorts of suggestions about how to do that. There are all sorts of really major studies in the field that say to frame things as questions and try to be open-ended with things and that type of feedback. And my question was, my research question for that project was, does all that stuff work in the real world?

[00:11:46.440] – Diana Awad Scrocco

So we can talk theory about what students prefer in terms of feedback. We can talk in theory about what might encourage students to think about their revisions and mimic a conversation on the page. But does it actually do that?

[00:12:02.350] – Diana Awad Scrocco

So what I did for that study was I basically had a couple of students who were willing to participate who received comments from their teacher that day. I wanted it to be very timely, and I took them into a room, and I recorded them thinking out loud as they were reading the comments. And then what I did in my analysis was I coded the types of comments that the teacher provided.

[00:12:27.640] – Diana Awad Scrocco

So things like, were they open ended? Were they more directive or less directive? Were they primarily imperatives or more flexibly-worded qualified statements? And then I looked at how the students reacted. So as they were reading through their teachers comments, I asked them, “Just verbalize, whatever is going through your head, I want you to just say what's on your mind.” It was a think-aloud protocol methodology. And that's basically the…

[00:12:59.070] – Diana Awad Scrocco

And then I wanted to see, what was the connection between them? Did comments that she, the teacher, made on their drafts that were more open-ended, did they respond in kind? Did they say—

[00:13:12.350] – Janice Summers

They perceive it that way.

[00:13:13.840] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Yeah. I wanted to see, do these comments actually mimic a conversation or encourage a conversation? And I found that for the most part, they did more so than the closed comments or the imperative or more directive.

[00:13:29.430] – Diana Awad Scrocco

So essentially, my study confirmed that all those other studies that said these forms of feedback are better to encourage students to reflect on and prepare for revision, that they actually were for the most part. Of course, there were exceptions. And it was a very small exploratory study, it was just a handful of four or five students.

[00:13:48.750] – Diana Awad Scrocco

But in the case of writing those comments, when the teacher followed the best practices of the field more closely, she got better results in terms of the student responding in kind.

[00:14:09.370] – Janice Summers

And now what about the chat?

[00:14:14.450] – Diana Awad Scrocco

I mean, similar findings in terms of when the chat— that's a slightly different context. We have a tutor who's working with a writer, and the tutor has been trained in a traditional writing center context to provide feedback, and that feedback that they're trained to provide is very similar to what I just described. Teachers are encouraged to provide more open-ended feedback. You want the writer to feel autonomy and authority over their own writing, you don't want to take over. So those are all types of principles that writing center tutors are trained with.

[00:14:52.820] – Diana Awad Scrocco

But it is different in that modality. So we looked at a couple of different things in that study. One of them was what's called netspeak, which is in my mind a bit of a dated term. But it's the idea that when we are texting or writing in an IM [instant message] situation or even email, that we use different forms of communication.

[00:15:17.010] – Diana Awad Scrocco

And one of our questions for that study was, what are the affordances? What are the possibilities with that? What benefits can those bring, but also what drawbacks? So one of the things we found, for example, was that when the tutors would fall into more casual netspeak trends, like using abbreviations or not using punctuation, the student did the same.

[00:15:38.770] – Diana Awad Scrocco

And I think that's a pretty common phenomenon that people who are in conversation, whether it's oral or written, will mimic each other's language; that's been shown in other research. And we found that it was the case there. And one of the things we asked was another smaller exploratory study, since these studies require so much transcription and coding of sentence level, they don't involve hundreds of participants.

[00:16:04.150] – Diana Awad Scrocco

So we raised the question; we couldn't confirm it with that study, but we raised the question of, is that appropriate, or should we be using that texting or instant messaging chat space to model academic writing? Because we noticed that the tutors who wrote in standard edited English, the more that the tutees wrote back to them in more formal, academic written English.

[00:16:39.640] – Diana Awad Scrocco

And I guess the question comes, should that be what they do to encourage students to practice that form of writing? Or on the flip-side, maybe the netspeak, the casual online language and online format actually establish better rapport with the students.

[00:16:57.860] – Diana Awad Scrocco

One of the benefits of a writing center compared with getting feedback from a teacher is that they feel more comfortable. They're talking to a peer, they're talking to someone who's a good writer and has been trained, but it's more on their level and they feel a little more comfortable opening up and being honest with them. And maybe in a chat situation or even nowadays, Zoom, things like that… Maybe that is okay to be a little less formal, less strict about the writing.

[00:17:27.150] – Diana Awad Scrocco

But in terms of the feedback itself, we found something very similar to what I found with the written comments on students drafts, that more open-ended comments and more flexibly-worded suggestions versus “You should do this.” More like “You might consider this.” That those did elicit more feedback and response from the student and they at least… We didn't study whether they revised the way they were advised to revise, but it seemed like they were better prepared to do those types of revisions.

[00:18:04.570] – Janice Summers

That is an interesting thing. It is a really interesting thing that you brought up because we all learned from mimicry. This is how we learn from our very early development ages and it doesn't change. No matter how old we get, it doesn't change, right? Bad habits are really easy to pick up. Slang is so easy because it's a lazier way to communicate.

[00:18:33.010] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Or more fun.

[00:18:34.130] – Janice Summers

And it's more fun, right. Because you can just be like…It just is, it's more fun.

[00:18:39.260] – Diana Awad Scrocco


[00:18:40.330] – Janice Summers

So it's interesting—

[00:18:41.340] – Liz Fraley

You're changing expectations too, right? And you can be more or less inclusive in language can be used that way.

[00:18:48.960] – Diana Awad Scrocco

True. Absolutely.

[00:18:51.130] – Janice Summers

But the question is, because if you're trying to teach writers to be better writers, then I just wonder, in that scenario… It would be interesting to find out how the receivers of the information felt if they were paired with a tutor who was more formal as in how they provided the feedback mirroring the behavior that they wanted them to have, but in an open-ended way, because I think you can be formal and yet accepting and warm and receptive. Versus someone who used a lot of shortcuts.  And find out what happened.

[00:19:31.270] – Liz Fraley

That's the question I was going to say. Do you look at the papers that come back after and do you see a difference based on that interaction?

[00:19:40.890] – Diana Awad Scrocco

And I guess the other question becomes, what is our goal in that consultation? Is our goal to make sure that the writing ends up better? Is our goal to make students feel comfortable and not like they have to be on their best behavior using their best… Because writing is a very personal thing, it's a very vulnerable thing. And one of the things that… at Carnegie Mellon I ran a writing center for a little bit of time, and that's a big thing that we train the tutors to do. I did that in graduate school as an assistant director.

[00:20:19.030] – Diana Awad Scrocco

How do we get our tutors to make the writers feel comfortable so that if they're leaving class and feeling like not entirely certain about their writing, but also not comfortable talking to their instructor, that they do have a safe space where they can do that? Rapport is a really important part of that.

[00:20:35.470] – Janice Summers

Especially for writing, because you're teaching future technical writers as well. And I think technical writers who have been out practicing for a while tend to have a little thicker skin. But there's a lot that they're learning there. They're learning how to take criticism, but when they're writing, they're putting a little bit of themselves in it because there's no safety net, right? There's no safety net when you're writing, it is all you, it's all on you. So I can see that sensitivity of exposure. And then for tutors learning how to edit and critique, just a fascinating situation.

[00:21:14.260] – Diana Awad Scrocco

I mean, there's layers of issues here. It's not just me saying “Just make sure that you're always writing and using the right punctuation” and things like that because you don't want tutors fixating that on that either. I mean, you want tutors to feel comfortable talking and chatting and whatever they're doing to provide good feedback, good insight on the draft and on the writing process, but not worrying about their every word.

[00:21:40.670] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Like one of the things that at all the writing centers where I've tutored and or directed, you have a very open floor plan so that the director or the assistant director can keep an ear on how things are going, but you're not supervising them, at least not regularly, like you're not on top of them listening to every person. So they're able to be casual in the oral conversation. So one could argue, why not also in the chat? Why not allow that informality to develop between the two?

[00:22:11.470] – Diana Awad Scrocco

But to your point, the question becomes, can modeling more formal writing transfer over into their writing and can that be a good thing? And so that's something we haven't studied, but it's certainly something I think that that study raised in terms of questions that could be explored in the future.

[00:22:30.370] – Janice Summers

And can that be perceived by the receiver as warm and not cold? Because that's the important thing because for the receiver to really understand the feedback and to implement the feedback, I'm sure it's better if they feel constructive rather than destructive. 

[00:22:54.960] – Diana Awad Scrocco


[00:22:55.730] – Janice Summers

So it would be interesting to see what their perception would be in both situations.

[00:23:01.180] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Absolutely. It would be. And I mean, a lot of research on feedback between experts and novices in different contexts looks at the preferences that students have. Now, one big caveat to that is that their preferences do not always equate to what's best for them. Graduate students will always talk about writing feedback, providing feedback. I say, it's just like children who don't like broccoli.

[00:23:27.800] – Janice Summers

I was going to say broccoli.

[00:23:31.140] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Yeah, who like broccoli? Although I love broccoli. Just because a student… This is one of the inherent flaws for example, of student evaluations, we want to know what students think, what they think matters, but their reactions to classes, to feedback, to strategies that we use are not always based on whether they're learning or not. They're based on their reactions and that sort of thing. And there's an emotional component. So it matters what they think, and I don't want to minimize that, but it also matters what happens in their writing.

[00:24:04.880] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Sometimes we give them feedback that makes them uncomfortable. I've received feedback—we talked about this last week—that has made me feel uncomfortable because we all want to be praised and told that our work is perfect and that sort of thing. But it's not always perfect, and we all need to work on our work and our writing. And so does that translate to something that is better at the end of the day? And revision studies are really hard to do. That's why a lot of my studies end with, how has the feedback been received? What conversation does it mimic?

[00:24:37.740] – Diana Awad Scrocco

And does it seem like the revision is going to be better?

[00:24:40.280] – Diana Awad Scrocco

But actually following up and seeing whether the revision is better is a much trickier thing to do and hasn't been studied quite as much, and that's definitely something that is always on my mind for a future study. Once I figure out what form of feedback I think is better, then the next step is to run a study where you look at that feedback and then track it with the revision and see if it actually helped the writer become better, even if they didn't like the feedback or felt offended or… Not even offended, just hurt by it or whatever it might be.

[00:25:14.090] – Liz Fraley

Whenever you get feedback, that's the first instinct. You're just like “It wasn't perfect. Oh, my God. My feelings are hurt.” And you're going to go through that.

[00:25:22.450] – Diana Awad Scrocco


[00:25:23.010] – Janice Summers

Yeah. That's normal human emotion, I think. Yeah, we're emotional beings.

[00:25:28.670] – Diana Awad Scrocco


[00:25:29.930] – Janice Summers

And in writing, no matter what writing you're doing, a piece of you goes into it. A piece of your ego is involved.

[00:25:36.600] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Oh, absolutely.

[00:25:37.890] – Janice Summers

Even if you're doing technical writing, minimalism technical writing, there's still a piece of your ego. You take a certain perspective of pride, and that's why you're doing what you're doing, too, right? Because you have a sense of pride and ownership of what you're writing. But as a result, when we get feedback, hurt is the first reaction. That's natural. But then you construct with that.

[00:26:05.090] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Bingo. You took the words out of my mouth. And that was what the three of us discussed last week was, I think, in terms of future research that is on my mind… And something actually came to my attention. I think I told those of you last week that one of my students in a final reflective letter at the end of the semester last week said, “I loved the peer review. I loved that you provided me with tons of feedback all semester. I wasn't always sure what to do with it, though.”

[00:26:28.890] – Diana Awad Scrocco

And I thought, “Wow, what a great point.” And so one of the things I'm thinking about this week as I'm trying to sort of prepare and think about next semester is what can I do to scaffold and provide my students with more direct guidance on how to use that feedback? And so I'm going to do a little bit of a lit review after the new year and see what kind of scholarship is out there about the best ways to do that. And there's stuff out there. I know there is.

[00:26:51.280] – Diana Awad Scrocco

I haven't spent a lot of time with it, but I do think it's time.

[00:26:55.320] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Providing students with tons of feedback or writing center students that are coming or people in a hospital setting or anywhere, providing them with a lot of feedback isn't enough. We can't end it there unless they're a very experienced writer who's had a lot of practice with it. But I think for students, it's important to give them some guidance on how to use it.

[00:27:15.750] – Janice Summers

And what to do with that. Here's your feedback. Here's some ideas of what you can do with that.

[00:27:21.240] – Diana Awad Scrocco


[00:27:23.030] – Janice Summers

So now all of the modes, modalities, there's not one that rises above the other, or is there?

[00:27:33.650] – Diana Awad Scrocco

I would say that chat is probably the most limited. And I think we did that study back when I was in graduate school, which is coming up on ten years now, back when Zoom and Webex and all of these… Skype was around, but I don't think that it was as affordable, and I don't think universities had it as much.

[00:27:55.270] – Janice Summers

It wasn't as common. We had Skype when it first came out.

[00:28:00.040] – Diana Awad Scrocco

 And that's one of the good things that came out of the pandemic, is this ability to be face to face with people even though we're across the country from each other. And so I think in an ideal world, if I had to say what modality was the best, it would be a combination of oral conversation about writing coupled with—like I see here, “live transcript available”—coupled with some written record of what happened.

[00:28:28.350] – Diana Awad Scrocco

And so I do this a little bit in my classes. My teacher projects with my students where instead of always just doing a peer review where they write feedback to each other and I write feedback to them, we'll do a group peer review where they're put into small groups and they look at a couple of different of their peers drafts. They write feedback, I write feedback to everybody in the group, and then we meet as a group and we talk about it.

[00:28:52.260] – Diana Awad Scrocco

And so they have a written record of the main suggestions from each member of the group, but they also have an opportunity to look at that feedback and ask questions about it and even sometimes push back on some of it. I always tell my students I'm not like the writing goddess who should tell you all of the things you have to do in your writing.

[00:29:10.110] – Diana Awad Scrocco

I'm a critical reader, I'm experienced, I have education and background in this, but I might make a suggestion that you are simply unable to implement because that information is not available or you just don't want to. And that oral conversation provides an opening for us to talk about that and for them to say, “You suggested I do this, but I'm not really able to do that because of this other reason.” And I said, “That's a valid point. Cut that suggestion.” Or “You made this comment, and I don't know what you mean by it. Can you elaborate on it?”

[00:29:44.020] – Diana Awad Scrocco

We can do that. So I think the combination of oral and written is probably ideal.

[00:29:50.150] – Liz Fraley

Yes, I can see that. I'm all mesmerized by it now. But I'm thinking, too, in the professional technical writing world, the technical writers are kind of like the writing center tutor. You're explaining things to an end-user who doesn't know anything, but you rarely get the feedback back from them. Because writers aren't usually the ones talking to the customer.

[00:30:17.570] – Liz Fraley

So the best you can do is look at some of the written bug reports that come in maybe, or… I don't know who you talk to even half the time, that's part of the problem. But improving that communication back to the SME [subject matter expert], I can see all of this. I think you need to have it this way. Well, I appreciate that you want every little detail in this documentation, but that will take it sideways, and it helps us learn how to give and receive feedback better, helps us improve those conversations as well.

[00:30:48.830] – Liz Fraley

I mean, I'm not good at it in any respect. I'm really not ask, Janice.

[00:30:57.050] – Janice Summers

That's a really good point for the practitioners out there is that paradigm shifts quite a bit because their job is writing communication information for an end-user who they don't have a direct link to, they don't have that one-to-one link to. They're the advocate for that person. So there's different tactics I think that technical communicators can employ to solve that gap, at least to better solve that gap. But internally, when they're dealing with subject matter experts, all of this iterative back and forth in that conversation, the written and the oral feedback, that's where you get to similar to what the doctors were doing.

[00:31:42.560] – Janice Summers

That's the way I look at it. And that's what I think the practitioner can take away, is this implemented in that situation? They're the young doctors coming on board and dealing with the seasoned doctor.

[00:31:58.970] – Diana Awad Scrocco

No. It sounds very similar. They're in this context, they're doing their work, and at the same time they're having to learn and absorb as much of the expertise from those experts as possible.

[00:32:10.850] – Janice Summers

Right. Interesting. And in that one they have to negotiate what is really necessary for an end-user versus what the subject matter expert, the product manager wants to promote feature-feature versus what's needed for the patient.

[00:32:32.180] – Liz Fraley

Isn't that true of all the experts? Your expert knows a whole bunch more. The expert doctor is not going to explain the intricacies of neurosurgery to the patient. They might get some of it in a certain limited area. Here's the implications and things you need to know, but you're not going to like, you push this button, you do this and that. There's a threshold and a limit to that. So it's really interesting, though. Gives me all kinds of ideas.

[00:33:00.790] – Diana Awad Scrocco

A lot of this knowledge that these experts have, no matter what context they're in is tacit. Sort of what you're getting at is that it's not even always something that they think to articulate or to say. That was one of the big findings in the study with the doctors was that there were times where the resident might have had confusion or they were struggling with something where the expert would a get a signal that they needed to really elaborate on and explain something in more depth.

[00:33:33.600] – Diana Awad Scrocco

But a lot of times it was more tacit feedback that relied upon their expertise and their experience and didn't always flesh out specifically what their line of argument was and what they needed to do. And I think it served the immediate purpose of, we need to treat this patient effectively, like we need to make sure a guy who seems to be having a heart attack gets to a cardiologist and gets the right stuff done to him.

[00:34:01.260] – Diana Awad Scrocco

But does it serve—and this is an open question, I think. Still, even after having done and published some of that research—does it serve the purpose of really teaching the novice, which is an equally important purpose in that context? And I think in some cases the answer was no, but that's my hunch, judging their teaching wasn't really the purpose of my research.

[00:34:28.170] – Diana Awad Scrocco

But after spending so much time with those transcripts, I think in some cases the answer was no. The patient was treated effectively and well, and they did okay. But did that resident really get what they needed to get out of that conversation?

[00:34:41.650] – Liz Fraley

Or is that knowledge—so in the writing center paradox, you got three levels—is that training the things that the patient needs to know in order to learn and be participant in their ongoing health and treatment? Are they being taught enough? Or how is that knowledge transfer happening? It's a really interesting place to be research-wise. I'm looking at you.

[00:35:05.870] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Yeah. For sure. And in fact, at the end of your research you always say, “What are some areas of future research?” And one of the things that I said at the end of my dissertation was that it would have been interesting. But IRB[Institutional Board Review]-wise, it was very tricky to then go back into the room with the resident and see what transferred in terms of the advice they were given to this conversation with the patients, like the conversation they had after talking to experts and also would have been interesting but of course, I didn't have access to their medical records to see how that transferred into the writing because that's, of course, ultimately what I was really interested in but didn't have access to.

[00:35:42.340] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Did they take what they learned in that expert conversation, and did they just basically copy exactly what the expert said? Did something happen in between? Where did it land in the record? And that's always an interesting question, too.

[00:36:00.100] – Janice Summers

But you could probably mirror something like that and you're teaching the tutors to tutor. And I'm just thinking about how… Our understanding evolves. That's what we do. So people who are trained a certain way and a certain methodology and modality, and we continue to learn, but we have in our DNA, a different way of doing things. And then the younger generation comes up and they take it and they evolve. And this is how we continue to evolve.

[00:36:34.490] – Janice Summers

It would be really interesting to see what happens when you have a more seasoned person teaching a tutor how to be a tutor and then that tutor internalizes it and then transfers it to the novice like that one, two, three and what new life it takes on in each iteration.

[00:36:54.190] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Great question.

[00:36:56.620] – Janice Summers

That would be fascinating.

[00:36:59.770] – Liz Fraley

Because that's partly an institutional knowledge question.

[00:37:04.030] – Janice Summers

And it goes beyond, “What did you hear me say?”

[00:37:07.100] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Right. So that's actually at the heart of this project that I'm working on is the Carnegie Mellon Writing Center that I helped to start several years back. The tutors spend some time with a supervisor and more experienced tutor, PhD students, something like that. And they prepare for their consultations. It's a little different than most writing centers.

[00:37:29.710] – Diana Awad Scrocco

In most writing centers, just the student walks in and the tutor tutors them right on the spot. And so that's what I'm looking at in that project in my next stage here now in revising, is to look more closely at the literature on tutor training and see, is what's happening there different from what happens in most centers. And I think it is, but is it better?

[00:37:52.640] – Diana Awad Scrocco

And what strategies? Because there were, I think, 13 tutors involved in that study. Among those 13 supervisors, did some of them do a better job at certain points in preparation for certain consultations, and what are the markers of a good preparation conversation before a consultation? And what are the markers of one that maybe is setting up the tutor for a less effective session? So that's something that's been on my mind. So back to your question, Janice, of the different iterations, how does that play out?

[00:38:32.250] – Liz Fraley

Well, two things come to mind with that: previous conversations we've had… We talked to Lucía Durá [Program Director of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at University of Texas at El Paso], who was looking at the outlier things like what works, not what makes it work average, but what are the extra things that made this one work better than that one?

[00:38:47.280] – Liz Fraley

And I was thinking of Bill Hart Davidson [Associate Dean of Graduate Studies in the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University and senior researcher at Matrix] and talking about that threshold of learning and how that gets established. And then when you pass it, what happens? It's really interesting. You're all connected to all of these things.

[00:39:05.510] – Diana Awad Scrocco


[00:39:07.730] – Liz Fraley

Sorry, Janice, you are going to say?

[00:39:11.260] – Janice Summers

Well no, because now it's completely all of what you were saying . No I was just going to say that in that scenario, you'd be able to see the work results. In the doctor scenario, you couldn't follow the patient, but in this scenario, you can follow the paperwork. You can follow the writing. Yeah. That's all I was going to say about that.

[00:39:34.490] – Liz Fraley

That's one of the things that does make it difficult when you're looking at medical training and medical research and situations. There's all other issues involved in that.

[00:39:43.490] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Yes, for sure, the confidentiality and just the disciplinary. I mean, I remember having the experience of, I had to present my study to a board at the hospital, an IRB board in person. And I had never done that before, an IRB. And they were very skeptical that there was any value to the research because they're so used to medical research and scientific research. It's just so different to have a social science, and ultimately they approved it. I made my case, I gave my rationale and they accepted that it was valuable and could potentially offer something interesting.

[00:40:17.980] – Diana Awad Scrocco

But I wasn't going to press my luck by asking to look at the records after they grilled me on that.

[00:40:28.580] – Janice Summers

But you can take it and apply it to someplace else. That's the nice thing. It's like it doesn't have to be exactly what I'm doing and exactly what I'm working on. This is one of the nice things that research from all of the professors that we talk to. The research isn't directly related to writing a user manual for a smartphone, but all of this stuff transfers over. All of it impacts, these wisdoms that you find in the research is directly related to any type of technical professional writing.

[00:41:08.670] – Janice Summers

Because it is all about communicating and informing others and how to do that better, and this in particular is how to take that feedback and how to give feedback, because that's a two-way street.

[00:41:24.090] – Janice Summers

Because even your writers, your novice writers need to give feedback with a tutor. And how to do that effectively for better results and to elevate the project, that comes out of this type of research, right?

[00:41:41.980] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Yeah. For sure. And then how to teach newbies right to the field. For example, I've been teaching our Practicum course this year. It's a whole year preparation that we have for our new GAs [graduate assistants]. All of this research, I think, has played into that as well, understanding so much of the literature that's out there and also having done some of that original research myself, so as to be able to demystify the process of writing feedback or giving oral feedback or doing conferences with students, so that then that next generation— it's like the people mentoring the experts, the experts, then providing to the writers, the writers knowing what to do with it.

[00:42:27.910] – Diana Awad Scrocco

There are so many stages in the process, because being a good writer, which our graduate students are, doesn't automatically mean that you know how to teach someone else how to be a good writer.

[00:42:38.160] – Diana Awad Scrocco

So it's a long, complicated process and we're all always learning more. I told my grad students, like I learned all these things from my students' final reflections. Just because I've been teaching almost 15 years doesn't mean I have figured it all out because these are human beings, and I'm a human being, and writing is really complex. All of those complexities mixed up in one means you never figure it all out. If you think you have, it's time to quit.

[00:43:05.610] – Janice Summers

Right. Exactly. It's the time where you become obsolete, when you think you figured it all out, because it is. And it's something where you're writing for technical and professional writing, you're writing for humans, and as humans we continue to change and evolve. How we communicate and how we absorb communication, how we internalize that, and then what we do with that, that changes. And that's changed also by the writing that's given to us, which is interesting.

[00:43:38.010] – Diana Awad Scrocco

And just everything about our context that we're writing in. I mean, the pandemic, communicating in these new ways that we've never communicated in before. All of these things influence how we write and what considerations we make, how we provide feedback, how that feedback is received.

[00:43:55.440] – Diana Awad Scrocco

When I first started teaching on Zoom last year—we were remote the whole year—I felt like in the fall, and I think it was mainly because of the types of classes I was teaching, that not much was lost, honestly in Zoom.

[00:44:07.430] – Diana Awad Scrocco

In the spring, I had a lot more undergraduates and lower-division classes, and I felt like the experience was a lot different, and I felt like a lot more was sacrificed and that being in-person with them would have been much better. So I think just because we can see each other and talk to each other doesn't mean this is equivalent to us sitting in a room together.

[00:44:28.890] – Janice Summers

Well, there's nothing that can replace three-dimensionality.

[00:44:32.190] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Yeah. I agree.

[00:44:34.830] – Janice Summers

There isn't. And that's how our brains work. That's how we take in information, because it's not just audio. It's not just visual. All of our senses are involved when we're in a room with someone communicating. And that's why communication is richer. But learning how to communicate effectively and facing challenging situations and still communicating effectively, I think, is a wonderful exercise for all of us, right?

[00:45:08.210] – Diana Awad Scrocco


[00:45:10.590] – Janice Summers

And I like the fact that you're saying it's not just one way. Feedback isn't just one way. It's all of these exercises put together. And the feedback. I think being able… What I'm getting from you is having a place where there's feedback in a loop that can continually go is important.

[00:45:38.250] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Absolutely. And I think that I like the word loop, because if you can provide that feedback and then get feedback on your feedback, which feels very meta, I think that's the ideal situation. So like you were asking what modality is best? And I think one of the reasons that I said both oral and written is that it provides that loop back.

[00:45:58.710] – Diana Awad Scrocco

So students say to me, “You wrote this and I sort of get it, but I don't know what to do with it” or “I sort of get it, but this part of it doesn't make sense to me or I don't know how to apply it.” And then that teaches them something about their writing, and it teaches me something about my feedback in terms of what I can do to help that particular writer, but also what I can do to help other writers in the future.

[00:46:21.860] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Oh, gosh. That method didn't work. That type of question wasn't as open-ended as I thought, they took it as more directive. And that's not how I was trying to come across.

[00:46:31.600] – Diana Awad Scrocco

And so yeah, I think providing that feedback loop where they give me their writing, I provide them with written and oral feedback, they tell me how they took it and how they understood it and how they used it, and then I use that feedback to give them better feedback and others better feedback. And so it's this constant process of improving over time.

[00:46:51.050] – Janice Summers

It's like all writing is iterative. We keep going over and over, and that's how conversations are. And that's how we continue to evolve and improve.

[00:46:59.520] – Diana Awad Scrocco


[00:47:00.930] – Janice Summers

This has been such an interesting… I'm getting this big red letter “Time's Up.” So that means I'm over time.

[00:47:10.210] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Well, yeah. It's been fun. I love talking about this. This is one of my favorite topics.

[00:47:15.080] – Janice Summers

This is such an interesting conversation, and I'm looking forward to future research, or if somebody wants to take things and go and start some other research building on work that you've done. And I can't wait to see more work that you're going going to do.

[00:47:28.770] – Liz Fraley


[00:47:30.150] – Janice Summers

This is very interesting. Thank you. So much for joining us.

[00:47:35.690] – Diana Awad Scrocco

Yeah, absolutely. I appreciate it.

In this episode

Dr. Diana Awad Scrocco is an Associate Professor of English at Youngstown State University where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in professional and technical writing, writing pedagogy and research methods, and healthcare communication. She is currently the director of the Professional and Technical Writing Program. Before coming to Youngstown State University, she earned a Ph.D. in Literacy, Rhetoric, and Social Practice from Kent State University and collaborated with Joanna Wolfe at Carnegie Mellon University to establish the first communication center on the campus.

Dr. Awad Scrocco’s recent research has appeared in Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, Journal of Argumentation in Context, and Communication and Medicine. Her 2012 article in Teaching English in the Two-Year College titled, “Do You Care to Add Something? Articulating the Student Interlocutor’s Voice in Writing Response Dialogue,” examines how written teacher comments on student drafts can encourage student writers to consider plans for revision; this article won the 2013 Mark Reynolds TETYC Best Article Award. Currently, she is working on a project exploring how experienced tutors support novice tutors while using an innovative tutoring model at the Carnegie Mellon writing center. Her article titled, “What’s Your Plan for the Consultation? Examining Alignment Between Tutor-Supervisor Session Plans and Tutor-Writer Session Conversations” is currently under review.

Although Dr. Awad Scrocco conducts research in a range of academic and professional settings, including the composition classroom, writing center, and teaching hospital, the common thread running through these research contexts is expert-novice interaction and feedback. For instance, an article from her dissertation research on preceptor-resident physician conversations in a teaching hospital analyzes how expert physicians draw on common lines of argument to explicate notions and engage novices in clinical deliberation. Another publication from this study investigates how expert physicians actively engage novices in clinical decision-making by using guided, open-ended questions, proposals, and assessments. Dr. Awad Scrocco’s research suggests that expert feedback across diverse contexts includes some common features, providing insight into how experts can engage novices in learning irrespective of the teaching environment.



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