A Simple Plan for Significantly Increasing Student Motivation to Write

I have long been interested in motivation. Why is it that one person will spend 20 or 30 hours a week training for a marathon and someone else will stay up late for weeks on end carefully sanding and breathing in lacquer fumes to refinish an antique table? Why do some students throw themselves into school, or theater, or a sport while others who engage in the same things put in almost no effort at all? And why can some push through even the stiffest adversity while others fold at the first flimsy obstacle they see?

I find these motivational questions endlessly fascinating, and luckily for me the last few years have seen a plethora of new developments and discoveries concerning motivation. A few of the most important for educators include:

  • The University of Chicago, among others, makes a compelling argument in this meta-study that external motivators–both positive and negative–generally decrease future student motivation because they replace the internal joy we get from accomplishing something with a need for receiving or avoiding something externally. One notable exception to this is that for repetitive, rote, and required tasks, external motivators are often needed because these things simply do not inspire internal motivation.
  • The recent book The Motivated Brain explains that the release of dopamine comes not when we get something we want, as was long suspected, but instead when we are in the pursuit of something we want. The new theory is that dopamine is part of a “seeking” system in our bodies designed to get us to constantly seek new information and accomplishments, as from an evolutionary perspective, the creatures that always seek are the ones that live longer and do better. This seeking system explains why seeking-style hobbies like marathon running or refinishing a table appeal to so many and why smartphones and social media are so addictive. In all of these, when we seek something new–whether it is running an extra mile or to see who our Twitter notification is from–our brains reward that seeking with a small shot of dopamine, encouraging us to do the same action again in the future.
  • A large study of critical traits for the 21st century commissioned by the Dept. of Education confirmed what a lot of teachers already know: when students feel that their teachers care and are paying attention, those feelings turn into significantly more motivation to engage with the course work and succeed in it.
  • And of course, there are Daniel Pink’s three keys to what inspires internal motivation: having purpose, having autonomy, and having the belief that we can reach mastery.

But amongst all of this research I’ve read on motivation, potentially the most useful piece is this short post from the University of Virginia’s groundbreaking Motivation Lab called “I Could Be Changing the World Right Now, But Instead I’m Solving for X.” In it, Motivation Lab director Chris Hulleman discusses the expectancy-value theory, which for a theory from a bunch of university professors, is remarkably straightforward. It goes…

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From “I Could Be Changing the World Right Now, But Instead I’m Solving for X” by The Motivation Lab

This simple formula did more for my understanding of motivation than anything else I’ve ever read. It makes perfect sense (and is heavily supported by research). If we view something as highly valuable but we see little chance of success, we tend to never get around to it. If we believe we can do something but it has little value, we tend to also approach it with disinterest. It is only when we believe we can succeed  and something is valuable that we tend to become seriously motivated to do it.

With this theory in mind, I have begun my composition classes the last two years with an effort to get every student to believe that writing is valuable to him/her/them and that he/she/they can grow as a writer. Since I started doing this, I have seen a dramatic shift in student motivation that has in turn led to dramatic growth in my student’s writing. Here is what I do:

How I Get Students to See the Value of Writing

On the first day of class, I start with a Kelly Gallagher-esque discussion concerning how learning to write will likely make their lives better. In this discussion I come armed with reasons (like this this or this) for why writing is a valuable skill–and if there is a moment, I might insert them organically–but my real goal is actually to step back and let the students lead. I do this by asking them the following questions:

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The reason to have the students lead is that I want to plant seeds within my students for why writing is valuable to them. Most of them are likely well aware of the idea that writing is important and my reasons for its value will only go so far. In the end, what is important is that it needs to be truly valuable to them or they won’t ever engage more than they have to in order to get the grade they want.

My next step after planting those seeds is to tend to them in ways that will hopefully help them to germinate, including the following:

  • I have the students create goals for the semester. When doing this, it is important to spend serious time on the creation of these goals to signal that they matter, as students are often wary of goal-setting because they do so much of it in school. My approach is to have the students do a one page free-write on what they want to accomplish followed by short mini-conferences where I discuss the goals with each student. I also make their goals a part of the grade on the first major paper.
  • I create early assignments that have lots of autonomy, as this invites students to take the content from class and bridge it with topics that they are interested in. Last year, I had one student who had never written more than two pages on any assignment ever write ten pages on his first assignment because he got to write it about the construction of skyscrapers (which he loved). This set a tone of engagement that lasted even in later papers that didn’t involve heavy construction equipment.
  • Lastly, I focus my early conversations, conferences, and paper feedback on what value they hope to get from the class. The regular returning to this theme impresses upon students that my desire for them to find real value in the class is real and not just a line.

How I Show Students They Can Do It

Once I begin to get students thinking about the value of writing, my next step is to show students that they can indeed do it. I’ve written before about how the majority of students who enter my composition class don’t identify as writers. While they can technically write, most have little confidence in their ability to write well enough to be considered an actual writer.

If Hulleman’s theory is correct, as long as these students doubt whether they can succeed in writing, they will likely not have motivation to do more than the bare minimum. With that in mind, my earliest writing assignments all revolve around showing students that they can indeed succeed in the world of writing. To do this, I build activities where effort is almost inevitably going to end up in small victories. For example, here is the assignment tied to a lesson I give in first week called the “Big Three.” This lesson focuses on three areas where small changes can make massive differences in the quality of a piece of writing: use of “to be,” sentence length, and word choice. The placement of these at the beginning of the year is not an accident. Most students struggle with at least one of these rhetorical skills, and yet they are quick fixes that once noticed by the students tend to lead to noticeable improvement in their writing.

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In the construction of the assignment, the students are asked to take a piece of writing that is already done and improve upon it with the goal in mind that if they engage at all, they will walk away with a win, regardless of their starting ability. It also subtly impresses upon them the importance of revision, though that is a story for another post.

When creating these “easy win” assignments, it is important to remember that shifting a student from believing they can’t write to believing that with effort they can become writers doesn’t usually happen with one success. It generally takes a series of small and big victories before students show any significant shifts in their identity and motivation. Further, they often don’t see the victories, so it is important for us to narrate and celebrate the victories to make sure the students don’t miss them.

In the end, I have found that if careful attention is paid to both value and student expectations, the pay-offs can be immense, and with a little luck you will get more than a few end-of-the-semester reflections like the following:

“Before I took this class this semester I thought that being good at writing was just a trait that only certain people were born with. I now know that that is not the case. I’ve learned that anyone can be a good writer if they are willing enough. Before this class I only used medium length sentences, and it made my writing sound boring and dull. I still haven’t perfected the task of varying my sentence length, but I have definitely improved. I also used to use a lot of “to be’s”. On each page of my writing I would use the verb at least 30 times. I still use it a lot, and maybe too much, but I have at least gotten better at realizing how much I use it, and how it can affect my writing…In the future I intend on taking more writing classes. I still have a lot to learn, and a lot to work on, but I do think that I could get there someday if I try hard enough.” –One of my Comp students from last year.

Thanks as always for reading.

Yours in Teaching,

Matt

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