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What can you learn from learning centers?

When you’re writing your dissertation, in its grip you’re probably on the lookout for any resource that holds out the slightest smidgen of help and solace. One of these is learning centers, or writing centers, as they are often called. Learning centers constitute one of those university auxiliary supports that espouse noble goals. They aim to help the graduate student get through that dread writing and do it right. They sound good, with individual tutors who lovingly go over your work and spruce it up.

In my work as an academic coach and editor primarily assisting doctoral students, many have told me of the problems and splendors of learning centers. If you are wondering about the value of learning centers, perhaps my observations will help and save you the time you should be devoting to your Chapter 5.

Uh, Uh

Many learning centers are regrettably inadequate. One staff member, usually a graduate student, is assigned to every 627 others writing their dissertations. Appointments must generally be made four weeks in advance, and then the “editing” covers only the first few pages, with polite and encouraging notes to continue on your own.

From the work clients have shared with me, the editing mainly pinpoints formats and grammar. I’ve seen an occasional document, though, in which the staff member comments on clarity and logic of thinking, but such observations are rare.

If you’re a very fast learner, learn well from printed sources, and want to or have already digested the entire APA or Chicago manual of style, you may choose to bypass the learning center. Or if you know a good high school English teacher or want to invest in Writing a Dissertation for Dummies or any of the APA quick-fix guides, the few writing center edited pages may help you complete the formats and grammar on your own.


On the other hand, students have also praised their university learning centers. They may not be understaffed and overstudented. A large enough roster of employees may be able to handle the students who come begging for help. Some learning centers also have full-time employees who have graduate degrees themselves, who have been in the position for many years, and who are highly proficient in their knowledge and editing (I’ve seen samples from these staff members too).

Even if the learning center guides edit only a few pages, you can follow their models. Often they also explain in marginal notes why they’ve revised a sentence or passage—according to the university guidebook or an APA rule.

Your assigned learning center editor may also be kind and supportive. Comments I’ve seen congratulate the student on stage or progress and genuinely encourage the student to keep going. We all need such words.

Some learning centers list additional and very helpful resources: videos on the mysteries of the automatic table of contents and creating dot leaders, blogs on APA esoterica, what to do when your chair suddenly takes an extended leave to study aboriginal fossils in New Zealand, forums of other students’ suggestions and solutions, notices of dissertation seminars and bootcamps.


Judge for yourself whether your university learning center will help you. Your response may depend on your levels of confidence and proficiency and the amount of oxblood tracked changes your chair has returned. At the least, investigate the learning center, talk to students who’ve used it, and see what you can find out about it from blogs and forums. You may decide the learning center isn’t worth your time or attention. Or you may be pleasantly surprised to discover a needed ally. in the trek to completing your dissertation. Either way, your exploration will help you decide how to best use your time as you march toward completing your dissertation.

© 2016 Noelle Sterne

Adapted and expanded from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).

Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and emotional counselor, Noelle has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at

The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.