The Best Way to Encourage Reluctant Writers

In 2009, Chris Hulleman of The University of Virginia and the Motivate Lab ran a study in which reluctant and developing ninth-graders were put into two groups in their science classes. One group (the control) supplemented their work in class with a 1-2 paragraph response each month that summarized what they’d learned while the other group (the value group) supplemented their work with a 1-2 paragraph response explaining how the topics they’d covered in class could potentially be relevant and valuable to them.

Outside of the paragraphs, everything else about their instruction was exactly the same, and yet the results at the end of the semester were anything but similar. The students in the value group saw their grade point averages soar nearly a point higher than the control and the grade gap between white and black students in the value group shrank by a staggering 65%!

Results of the study from The Motivate Lab

The most common reading I’ve seen of this study is that it is another in a long line of studies confirming just how important perceived value is to learning. That is true–it does help to confirm that–but at this point that is also not particularly groundbreaking; thanks in large part to Dr. Hulleman himself and a host of other researchers like Camille Farrington and writers like Paul Tough, we have a good sense for just how essential value is to learning.

For me the true brilliance of this particular experiment is instead that it makes what I think is a really important and novel point about value. As teachers we often feel that it is our job to show students the value of the content of our classes, and there is a lot of truth to that; in fact, I wrote a whole post on that a few months ago that I still stand by. But there might be someone who in many cases is even better than us at getting students to see the value, especially when it comes to reluctant students who might be wary of the teacher: the students themselves. In this experiment we see a huge jump in how developing and reluctant students viewed a class after they argued to themselves about why its valuable. I doubt any one paragraph assignment from us, no matter how well-crafted, could have the same effect.

The idea that students would be best suited to make a case for a class’s value makes a lot of sense too because value is a highly individual thing. What is terrifically interesting to one person is often terribly boring to another, and we all have different priorities and goals. Further, value is intangible, meaning we can never really know exactly what a student values. We can hypothesize it based on the slices of information we have, but in the end those are nothing more than pseudo-educated guesses.

At the start of this year, I decided to experiment with practical applications of this idea of getting the students to do more to sell the value of school to themselves. Some of the changes I’ve made include:

  • I mentioned this in a previous post, and I now start each new unit by asking what the value of learning the topic is. If it is a narrative unit, I ask why we need to tell stories. If it is a research paper, I ask about where we research in our lives outside of school. I used to lecture students about the values of these behaviors, but I’ve found that since I turned the conversation over to them, with me acting as a scribe, the conversations are deeper, longer, better, and have essentially 100% engagement.
  • I also strive show them as many real world examples of what we are discussing as possible. We look at commercials and politicians when we talk about arguing and talk about recent movies, books, and TV shows that we’ve been hooked by when discussing how to get a reader’s attention in an introductory paragraph. When using these real-world examples, I generally don’t make the direct connection for them in the way I used to. Instead I let them come to the realization that learning about persuasion is valuable because whether they like it or not marketers, taste-makers, and those on social media are trying to persuade them right now.
  • I have long asked students for feedback at the end of each unit, but I always asked about it from the perspective of what could I–the teacher–do better. Now I ask it from the perspective of what in the unit was useful for them–the students. This is a subtle shift, but I’ve found it hits two goals with one activity: It gives me the feedback I want about my units and it gets them writing a paragraph eerily similar to the one in the experiment above where they discuss the value of the classwork.
  • Lastly, in student reflections, I ask them to reflect on the most valuable parts of the class and what value they’d like to see come in the future.

My data about the effectiveness of these changes is anecdotal and limited, but what I’ve seen has been really exciting. I have noticed that missing assignments are down and grades are up, especially amongst my generally most reluctant students, and it feels like the students are more engaged (I’ll admit it is hard to say if that is related to the activities above, though I suspect they play a role). That being said, there is one concrete piece of data that gives me the best hope that I am on the right track. For the first time in my entire career, I’ve made it through nearly an entire year without hearing a single utterance of that terrible question–When will I ever have to use this in the real world?–and that alone makes me think that student-generated value will be a fixture of my classroom for a long time to come!

Thanks as always for reading!

Yours in teaching,

Let me help you!

Teachers are busy–too busy–so we need to share with each other. That is why this blog exists. I’ve studied and written about writing instruction for over ten years and would love to share what I’ve found with you. Join my mailing list now and I will send you a thoughtful post about teaching writing each week. As a thank you, you will also receive a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing and deals on my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy on best practices in writing instruction.

One response to “The Best Way to Encourage Reluctant Writers”

  1. […] written on this before, but when students explain the value of writing instead of me, it makes it more likely they will […]


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