The Importance of Student Motivation

I’ve gone in several different directions with my research for the unessay project, because as a writing tool I think its results are significant and varied. I’ve looked at the general principles that underlie it–scaffolding and metacognition; I’ve tried to understand what qualifies as good writing, and whether or not the unessay promotes that; and I’ve looked at how the unessay might fit into an increasingly mechanized educational system, where machines are marking papers. The main thing I’ve found is that the rules constituting the unessay promote good writing. Dan and Michael have both expressed the uncanny differences between the essays they mark and the unessays they mark.  Student writing, when liberated from the stringent way essays are taught, becomes something completely different. The ideas are better, they flow better, and they can help the student build a foundation upon which he/she can come at the essay with more flexibility. The whole basis of education is to provide a space for students to push existing skills to their limits, with the intention of having those skills overlap with new skills, and so on and so forth.

After all that’s what this whole project is about. Its about developing a tool for educators, who are finding that an increasing number of their students are lost when it comes to the essay. Its form is foreign. And its rules and systems don’t resonate with their experiences or interests. An interesting article, “The Writing Approaches of University Students,” explores the processes and motivations of a group of university students. Conducted as a series of interviews, this study attempts to discover how process and motivation effects how individual students see themselves as writers. Do they think they are good or bad writers? Do they enjoy writing?

The article begins with an indictment of writing theory, which serves as the springboard upon which the case-studies are hurled: “Writing theory remains limited. One shortcoming involves the reductionistic nature of the traditional cognitive perspective, which results in isolating processes such as planning, translating and revision; doing violence to the nature of writing as an integrative process. Along the same line, the assumption that the writing processes occur in a tidy, linear sequence is questionable. Additionally, the role of writers’ intentions and beliefs as related to writing processes has not been a major consideration. Writing is an externalization and remaking of thinking, and to consider writing as separate from intentions is not to address composition as a reflective tool for making meaning” (Lavalle 373) The essay is taught in a series of rigorously ordered steps: you read, you research, you plan, you write, you edit. But what if you prefer to start at a different stage or treat the writing process as a circle instead of a straight line? The unessay is a tool designed for the discontented writer; it allows her to approach all aspects of the writing process however she chooses, and whenever she chooses. There is a sense that the decisions you make when writing are your own, when using the unessay. With the essay student motivation is relegated to extrinsic factors–grades, praise etc., Educational theory has long preached against the use of extrinsic motivating, with things like candy or objects. Intrinsic motivation is more effective, because it is a burning from inside the student, a hunger to achieve and do well as an end in and of itself, not as an obstacle in the way of the true goal: “When the student’s goal is just to comply with task demands, the learning activity involves a low level of cognitive engagement (e.g. memorizing or repetition) and a superficial, linear outcome (listing or organizing), a surface approach” (374). This is a severe issue involved with motivation. Students are not engaging with the essay; they are regurgitating information into a prescribed form. This creates a low level of engagement, and superficial retention of class material.

The study identifies five major approaches in the writing of university students. Three of these are problematic (Low Self-Efficacy, Spontaneous-Impulsive, Procedural), while two are optimal (Elaborative, Reflective Revision). Below is the appendix from the article. It contains the style of writing, followed by the motivation, followed by the methods used by the students):


(Pg. 389) Approaches to writing: 1. Elaborative- to self-express (visualisation, audience)

2. Low Self-Efficacy- To acquire skills/avoid pain (study grammar, collaborate, find encouragement).

3. Reflective-Revision- To make meaning (Revision, reshaping, drafting)

4. Spontaneous-Impulsive- To get done (Last minute, no planning or revision, just like talking).

5. Procedural- Please the teacher (observe rules, organize and manage writing).


All of these are important factors necessary to understand how and why university students write, but I think the second–Low Self-Efficacy–is the most important when talking about the unessay. Low Self-Efficacy “describes a highly fearful approach based on doubting ability and thinking about writing as a painful task. . . . This approach evolves around poor writing self-concept, accompanying perceptions of skill deficits, and little, if any, awareness of the function of writing as a tool of meaning and of personal experience” (376). From my many conversations with Dan about the unessay or blogging or any from of non-traditional writing, I unequivocally get the same response when asking about student writing: it’s fantastic. The ideas are sophisticated, and on a more basic-level, the grammar, punctuation, etc., are all above expectations. Our conversations on essays are the exact opposite. I think this says something profound about Low Self-Efficacy. Students feel that they lack the skills and knowledge to perform on the essay, and it is those beliefs and motivations that create a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is not that they lack the skills or knowledge, in reality, because they are performing them with excellence on informal assignments.

How do we motivate and convince students that they have the skills to perform on writing tasks? The unessay is a stepping-stone. It allows students to hone writing skills, without feeling the gnawing pressure of the essay. It allows students to pursue interests, thus motivating them, both through form and content. The article argues that, ” The key to facilitating writing at the university level is found in designing a high quality writing climate to include deep tasks, emphasis on revision and meaning, scaffolding, modeling and integrating writing across content areas (relevance)” (386). Deep tasks and thus deep writing, is a by-product of integrative teaching, with an emphasis on relevance and freedom, not fixed forms and one-size-fits-all writing.


Works Cited


Lavelle, Ellen, and Nancy Zuercher. “The Writing Approaches of University Students.” Higher Education 42.3 (2001): 373–391. JSTOR. Web. 26 June 2013.



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