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The Five Key Beliefs that Motivate Student Writers

By Dave Stuart Jr.

The other day, I was preparing a two-hour keynote for a group of high school and college writing teachers in Hailey, Idaho. My initial plan was to focus on quantity and quality. The argument: first, that anything we undertake to improve writing outcomes must take into account the toll on teacher stress and workload; second, that we're not going to improve student writing outcomes unless we start with generous amounts of writing across the school day; and third, that from that generous quantity of writing opportunities for students we can employ both feedback-free and feedback-efficient means for improving the quality of student writing.

But as I rehearsed my remarks during the week leading up to the keynote, I realized a large, missing piece.

Here is what I realized:

If I have two students at the start of the school year with equal writing ability, and I do what I can to give them more writing opportunities than they've ever had before, and I also do what I can to employ simple, effective means for teaching them to write better, I can still see two largely different outcomes at the end of the year based on the degree to which these two students are motivated.

Let's imagine that Student A thinks that writing is dumb, that it doesn't matter for his life, that he's good enough at it already and has no need to improve, and that I'm not all that great of a writing teacher. Meanwhile, Student B thinks writing is important, that it will be useful in many ways in her life, that she can always be improving her writing no matter how good she gets, and that I've got what it takes as a teacher to make her better.

If both Students A and B sit in the same class and have the same quantity and quality of writing opportunity, who is going to be better at the end of the year? Of course, it's Student B, and here is why: Student B is going to do the work, and she's going to do it with care. Those two simple things — doing the work, doing it with care — are the why of student motivation.

And so it was that I added a third part to the talk: before we worry about quantity and quality, we need to make sure we're clear on the five key beliefs* underlying student motivation. When applied to writing, they go like this:

  • Credibility: My teacher is a good writing teacher. She's a writer. She knows how to make me a better writer. She cares about me.
  • Belonging/Identity: I'm a writer. People like me write. I belong to this academic community of writers.
  • Effort: I can get better at writing through the application of my effort. I can build language knowledge — vocabulary, mechanics — if I try.
  • Efficacy: I can succeed as a writer. I can succeed at the writing opportunities that this class affords me.
  • Value: Writing is important. Writing is relevant to my life. The writing we do in here matters.

I am so thankful for the providence that prodded me to add this student motivation piece to the talk. Thank you to the Passports and Passages steering committee for having me.

*There's a wonderful depth of science and art behind cultivating the five key beliefs mentioned in this post. I periodically run an all-online, schedule-friendly course for teachers on these beliefs — it's called the Student Motivation Course. If you'd like to be kept in the loop about the next offering, join this waitlist.

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