6 Motivation Meets Cognition: Practical Applications For Creative Writing Teachers
In creative writing, an approach that teachers sometimes use to motivate their students is encouraging them to identify with being writers. But research on motivation and metacognitive self regulation tells us that doing so is not how you enhance motivation. Indeed, if creative writing students identify too strongly with being an author they are going to potentially set themselves up for disappointment, because it is a goal they might not achieve. When a student over-identifies with a label rather than an activity it hurts their self efficacy, it hurts their interest, and it makes them like the activity less (Lei et al., 2019). It also hurts their motivation, which is not something that we want for students given how important motivation is for creative writing.
Motivation in creative writing boils down to nitty-gritty, moment-to-moment decisions made by a student. The decisions made by a student are influenced by others, such as teachers and educators, but are ultimately enacted by the student. The goal of a teacher in this process is to improve or maintain positive motivation and achievement amongst creative writing students. Doing so is not an easy task, and requires a framework for describing motivation, such as self determination theory.
Self determination theory is the idea that an individual’s sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, are the main drivers behind motivation. Motivation in self determination theory consists of six levels, ordered from the lowest quality to the highest quality of motivation. The first three levels are controlled externally, the source of the motivation is external to the student. These levels are a-motivation (the student chooses not to perform the action), extrinsic motivation (the student is motivated to perform the action by an external reward), and introjected motivation (the student has a teachers or a parents voice in their head as a guide that provides the motivation for performing the action). The remaining three levels are controlled internally, the source of the motivation is within the student. These levels are identified motivation (the voice in the students head is their own, they have accepted the challenge and are going to push themselves), integrated motivation (the student performs the action because it is good for them and they value it), and intrinsic motivation (the student performs the action simply because they love doing it).
A student in a controlled motivation framework writes for external reasons as opposed to writing for internal reasons. While controlled motivation is a form of motivation, and will get the students to work, it is far from optimal. The question then, is how a teacher can improve a students level of motivation to the next highest quality. The answer to this lies in the theory proposed by Vygotsky about student learning.
Vygotsky’s ideas about student learning were based on three concepts, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, all three of which occurred in a real world social context. In Vygotsky’s framework, the thesis is where a lesson is presented to the students by the teacher. The antithesis is where the teacher presents a challenge to the students, one that lies just beyond what the student has accomplished with previous work. The student accepts the challenge, but is made to experience discomfort by the mismatch between the perceived end point and their current skill set. The student is given a jump start by the teacher, who nudges them and gives just enough support to allow them to complete the task. The student then works through the problem, synthesizing the skill they used in the process of accomplishing the task. In other words, the student is presented with a challenge, they accept the challenge, and they do the work.
The teachers job via scaffolding is to give students hints, ideas and support. Doing this correctly can start the introjection to internalization process, a way of changing student motivation from external to internal control. The teacher wants the hints, ideas, and support that they give to the student to get into their head. If someone is at the introjected level, that means that they have got the teacher’s voice in their head as the guide. And in a Vygotskian framework, having that voice is the start of the motivational approach to getting a learner to do something hard. When a student puts the teacher’s voice in their head, they are accepting the challenge and agreeing to do the task. Once they accept the challenge they begin to exhibit more autonomously motivated behavior. If the student repeats the lesson in their own voice or guides themselves, they have gone from introjected to identified. The point at which the learner can do the task without repeating the words of the teacher is the point where the skill has become internalized.
Vygotsky’s framework provides information on the mechanism of motivational change. But actually putting that mechanism into practice requires fostering metacognitive self regulation in creative writing students.
Metacognitive self regulation is the cognitive part of motivation, and involves understanding how behaviors fit in a context and the ability to regulate those behaviors. It is the ability to monitor, adapt, and adjust behavior in pursuit of a longer term goal. Metacognitive self regulation consists of three phases, a forethought phase, a performance control phase, and a self reflection phase (Cleary & Zimmerman, 2012). The forethought phase includes task analysis (goal setting and planning), and self motivation beliefs (self efficacy beliefs, task interest/value, and goal orientation). The performance control phase includes self control (self instruction, attention focusing, and task strategies), and self observation (metacognitive monitoring and self recording). The self reflection phase includes self judgement (self evaluation and causal attribution), and self reaction (self satisfaction/affect and adaptive/defensive behavior change). The process of engaging in metacognitive self regulation improves student motivation, because it feeds their sense of competence. The social dynamic created by metacognitive self regulation also boosts a students feelings of relatedness. When nurtured properly, metacognitive self regulation encourages achievement oriented motivation in students, and over time boosts their sense of autonomy.
When engaging in metacognitive self regulation, a student makes plans, they act on those plans, they receive feedback, and they reflect on that feedback. They then engage in more planning based on the feedback and their reflections, and once more act on those plans in a continuous cycle. A learner who is metacognitivly self regulated, who has a good self regulatory system in place, is not likely to have figured such a system out on their own. They have developed that system from a pattern of interaction over time that they have internalized. Moment to moment interactions over a span of time create in the learner the cyclical process of planning, acting, and reflecting. These interactions involve both the student and the teacher. The student exerts a behavior, and the teacher responds to that behavior. That response is internalized by the student, and influences their next behavior. The student-teacher interactions create the cyclical process of metacognitive self regulation. A creative writing teacher in that microgenetic space of interacting one on one with students, can feed metacognitive self regulation.
The following is an example of how metacognitive self regulation plays out in practice in a creative writing context, starting with the forethought phase. In creative writing, a student does not sit down and write out a story from start to finish. Instead they start by brainstorming and generating ideas. Since ideas for creative writing stories are often larger than what an individual assignment requires, the student delineates the start and end of the scene they are going to be writing. If the story is larger than the assignment requires, this scene is typically an orientation to get the readers into the story and situated within that context. The student sets up a goal for the piece based on what they want this orientation to convey to their audience, and what emotions they want their audience to feel as they are reading the story. In a high fantasy work, a student might decide to place their story is a more mundane context to start with, so that when they introduce magic to the audience partway through the piece it evokes a sense of wonder due to the contrast between the mundane and mystical elements.
In the performance control phase, the student writes their piece while attempting to keep the image of what they want their piece to evoke in the audience in mind. This generally involves the student writing out their piece over several sessions, referring back to their goals for the piece before and after each session to see how well they are doing in that regard. The student then gives their now completed draft to their teachers and peers for review. During the review, the student asks their teachers and peers how they felt when reading the piece, attempting to gauge whether they managed to get the tone and feel of the piece correct based on their goal for the piece.
In the self reflection phase, the student reflects on the feedback they received. If their reviewers felt the way that the student was hoping they would feel, the student is probably delighted. If however, as is often the case, there is a mismatch between what the student wanted to convey and what the reviewers said was actually conveyed, the student needs to go back and revise. The student will attempt to figure out what to fix in their writing to get their audience closer to feeling what they want them to feel. They then make a plan for the second pass, correct it, write it again, give it to their reviewers, and are evaluated. The writer compares their evaluations to their aspirations, makes any necessary changes, and then goes on to continue the cycle.
Teacher-student interactions in a creative writing class typically take the form of the feedback that is received by the students and their response to that feedback. When creative writing students receive feedback on their work, it can either be motivationally positive or motivationally threatening. Making sure that such experiences are motivationally positive requires not just the giving of honest and useful feedback, but also on focusing attention on the revision process. Encourage student motivation by focusing on how improved each individual draft is from the previous one. Resist the temptation to do comparisons between students, or to use the best student as a role model for others to follow. While it may be tempting to focus on learner identity as a solution to the problem of motivation, identity can hurt motivation instead of helping it. Identity evokes a category of knowledge and can invoke a stereotype that a student finds to be negative, or one that they do not feel like they can identify with. Intervene on motivation and metacognitive self regulation, healthy student identity will follow from successful interventions.
When we put all three of these ideas together we start to understand the mechanism of self-other motivation. The teacher and the student both have a role to play in either maintaining an unhealthy pattern of motivation or creating a healthy pattern of motivation. Motivational dynamics are delicate, but when we understand the mechanism of action we can be precise in our intervention to help create positive cycles for our students.The thing that is going to cause motivation to change is when the teacher gives feedback on the work that will prompt the learner to think ahead to next time. Change is caused through small steps that create a self reinforcing cycle, and these steps foster motivation in students by helping them become metacognitivly self regulated.
Cleary, T. J., & Zimmerman, B. J. (2012). A Cyclical Self-Regulatory Account of Student Engagement: Theoretical Foundations and Applications. Handbook of Research on Student Engagement, 237-257. doi:10.1007/978-1-4614-2018-7_11
Lei, R. F., Green, E. R., Leslie, S., & Rhodes, M. (2019). Children lose confidence in their potential to “be scientists,” but not in their capacity to “do science”. Developmental Science, 22(6). doi:10.1111/desc.12837