Developing Students’ Intrinsic Motivation to Write

Developing Students’ Intrinsic Motivation to Write

Today, the Common Core standards in the United States call for an increased emphasis on student writing in multiple subject areas. Some students may welcome more writing opportunities at school, while other students may dismiss writing as frustrating and burdensome. In their article, “The Bright and Dark Side of Writing Motivation: Effects of Explicit Instruction and Peer Assistance,” authors Fien de Smedt et al. explain that student motivation to write plays an important part in students’ actual writing performance. Previous studies have shown that students who have stronger beliefs in their own writing abilities and who are motivated to write actually have better writing performance (1). In contrast, students who have weaker beliefs in their own writing abilities and who are less motivated to write often display a dislike of writing in school (1). The question for De Smedt et al., then, is: How do we increase students’ motivation to write, and thus help them become more willing and better writers?

For their study, De Smedt et al. investigate how teachers’ explicit instruction of writing strategies and peer-assisted writing (students working together in pairs) affect students’ motivation to write. In particular, the authors examine how these teaching choices effect the development of two different kinds of writing motivation: (1) autonomous motivation, which involves students writing because they enjoy it and because they see intrinsic value in writing, and (2) controlled motivation, which involves students writing because of external pressures or because they feel internal pressure (such as guilt) to write. De Smedt et al. note that it is important to distinguish between these two types of motivation given that previous studies have shown that autonomously motivated students tend to have better writing performance, while controlled motivation “has been associated with more negative outcomes” (2).

The authors worked with 11 teachers and their 206 5th- and 6th-grade students over a five-week period. The teachers and students were placed into one of five categories for the study:

  • No intervention aka “Business as Usual”
  • Explicit Instruction and Independent Student Writing
  • Explicit Instruction and Peer-Assisted Writing (students writing in pairs)
  • Independent Writing (with no explicit instruction)
  • Peer-Assisted Writing (with no explicit instruction)

The four intervention groups carried out 10 designated writing lessons, while the “Business as Usual” group simply continued the school year as planned by the teacher. All the teachers and students completed pre-assessments before the intervention began. The teachers were asked to “evaluate their education and training for writing instruction” (4) and students took a pretest to measure their initial levels of confidence in their writing abilities and their motivation to write (6). After the 5-week intervention, the students completed a second questionnaire to measure their confidence in their writing abilities and their autonomous and controlled motivation to write.

The Findings

  • Students in the experiment groups completed 10 writing lessons in 5-weeks, whereas the “business as usual” classes completed only 1 writing assignment in the same time period (7).
  • Teachers reported that before the experiment, they felt “unprepared to teach elementary students to write” and “evaluated the quality of their training in writing instruction rather low” (4). However, teachers did report having positive attitudes toward writing.
  • Students in the experiment group who completed 10 writing assignments independently and without explicit instruction reported less controlled motivation than students in the “business as usual” groups (11). I.e., students in the “business as usual” felt more external pressure to write, rather than intrinsic motivation.
  • Girls reported being more autonomously motivated than boys (they reported intrinsic motivation to write and found writing enjoyable) (10).

Students who worked on writing in pairs (peer-assisted writing) without explicit instruction were more autonomously motivated than students who worked independently without explicit instruction (10).

  • Students who worked on writing in pairs without explicit instruction were more autonomously motivated than students in the “business as usual” groups (9).
  • Students who did receive explicit writing instruction and then worked independently reported higher levels of controlled motivation than students who worked independently but did not receive explicit instruction (9). De Smedt et al. remark that students who received explicit writing instruction may have felt more external and self-pressure to write because even though direct teaching has been shown to help students become more proficient writers, it possibly “reinforces the impression that to write effectively, and to succeed in writing, they must apply the writing knowledge and strategies taught” (11). Indeed, students may “feel guilty when not writing as taught by the teacher” (13).

“[P]roviding ample writing opportunities in which students can write together with a peer enhances their motivation to write out of inherent satisfaction, pleasure, or recognition of the value of the writing activity” (10).

De Smedt et al. acknowledge that providing students with explicit writing instruction is necessary for students’ development as proficient writers. That said, they also recommend that teachers provide students with many opportunities to write without having direct instruction in order to develop students’ intrinsic motivation to write. Moreover, they recommend that teachers also allow students to work on writing in pairs throughout the school year, again as a way to help them develop autonomous motivation to write.


Paper Title:  The bright and dark side of writing motivation: Effects of explicit instruction and peer assistance

Authors: Fien de Smedt (Ghent University, Belgium), Steve Graham (Arizona State University), and Hilde Van Keer (Ghent University, Belgium)

Full Paper: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00220671.2018.1461598?journalCode=vjer20

Published: The Journal of Educational Research, 2018, Pages 1-16


Photograph: Thanks to Neonbrand on Unsplash

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