Attitude, Confidence, and Self-Efficacy in Writing Courses

I hate writing.
I’m a terrible writer.
I won’t need to write in my career.

Do attitude, confidence, and self-efficacy make a difference in the teaching and learning of writing?


Some students love to write. They may have been positively rewarded for their academic writing in the past, perhaps earning awards, recognition, and strong grades. Many of these students might write for leisure purposes as well, voluntarily seeking out opportunities to compose newspaper articles, blogs, poetry, fiction, and private journals.

Unsurprisingly (as I am a writing teacher), I was one of those kids. I wrote journals, notes, letters, and fiction; inChild writing kindergarten, I hand-copied Heidi to experience what it felt like to write a novel. I once won first prize–a television–from the local Giant grocery store for a Father’s Day writing contest about why my dad was the best dad in the world. Throughout school, I enjoyed writing because it helped crystallize my thinking and enabled me to draw connections and make discoveries. Teachers would often provide positive comments on my writing: “Bravo!” “Well Done!” “Excellent!” I benefitted from the power of writing; it opened doors for me across academic, professional, and personal contexts. It continues to do so.

Such a narrative, of course, is somewhat of a half-truth. I have also struggled with changing expectations and contexts for writing (especially in graduate school). Some manuscripts I submit for publication receive rejections (which never feel good). I often find the process of writing grueling. And, when sharing my writing with others, I do grapple with insecurities.

Still, by and large, I really do like and appreciate writing, and I have a baseline confidence in my writing capacities.

Not so for all of our students.girl-863686

Each semester, at least a fair percentage of students come to college with moderately or extremely negative attitudes about writing and/or about their writing abilities. Students might express these negative attitudes through a disinclination for the writing process, a disdain for the value of writing, or under-confidence in their writing abilities.

Students with negative attitudes toward writing tend to perceive writing as an unfortunate barrier instead of a gateway for opportunity and growth.

Sometimes negative attitudes are context-based: students might be confident in one kind of writing, or one context, and less confident, or unconfident, in others; students might enjoy writing in their first language, for instance, but dislike writing in English. Or they might feel positively toward leisure writing but negatively toward academic writing.

Contextualized and dynamic as they may be, attitudes toward writing have been nurtured for years by the time students arrive at college. Negative attitudes may have formed due to negative reinforcement on writing, such as poor grades, or writing feedback focused primarily–even exclusively–on flaws. Some students may have learning differences that make writing exceptionally challenging. Others might be prioritizing other intellectual interests or modes of communication. And, some may have experienced oppression and judgment in the context of writing and their negative attitudes emerge from larger systemic and structural inequities.

Students with negative attitudes toward writing tend to perceive writing as an unfortunate barrier instead of a gateway for opportunity and growth. They likely harbor a litany of negative messages that they repeat to themselves: I cannot write; I am not a good writer; this writing assignment will be dreadful; I do not understand writing; Writing is too hard and not worth the effort. Modified versions of these messages, more and less extreme, might emerge across the vast and varying continuum that comprises human attitudes.Writer's block

Negative attitudes can also poison class dynamics, negatively impacting many students, and injuring faculty-student interactions as well.

But what actual impact do such attitudes have? While it is possible to argue that attitude has little or no bearing on a student’s potential for and access to learning outcomes, my experience suggests otherwise.

Negative attitudes can impede students’ willingness to write. It might hamper efforts to reflect on themselves as writers, thus limiting their capacity to grow as writers. Negative attitudes can also poison class dynamics, negatively impacting many students, and injuring faculty-student interactions as well.

With such high stakes, how can we tackle negative student attitudes toward writing?

Many options exist, but I will address one here: addressing attitude explicitly and honestly.

This can be done by inviting students to reflect (in writing!) on the attitudes about writing that they are bringing into the course. Such reflections can emerge through a number of mechanisms, from self-efficacy surveys, reflective writing, and small groups to conferences and discussions.

shutterstock_184659839Substantive, meaningful approaches to this work might include asking students to articulate and define their attitudes toward writing and writing projects across different moments in the course. And, such efforts would entail asking students to thoughtfully consider the experiences, dispositions, and structures that have shaped their attitudes. Situating these activities in peer-to peer learning contexts can create a safe space for students, one that honors the attitudinal and affective dimensions of learning.

Integrating this mode of pedagogy, across time, can help students can gain clarity over how their attitudes contribute to, shape, and align with their approaches to writing. Hopefully, students might then be more inclined to question, reaffirm, adapt, and/or challenge these attitudes.

Deeply entrenched attitudes seldom change in a flash, and sometimes never change.

Any such efforts, though, must also acknowledge the importance of time, student disposition, and student autonomy. Deeply entrenched attitudes seldom change in a flash, and sometimes never change. Many other historical and concurrent influences and experiences are operating in our students’ lives alongside any interventions we as writing faculty may be making.

It would, therefore, be an unrealistic goal to hope that students with negative attitudes toward writing will magically develop a love for writing. Instead, a more reasonable goal might be to provide ways for students to cultivate more meta-cognitive approaches to writing and learning. Thus, even if a student still says, “I hate writing,” at the end of our course, then at least that student will also have a deeper awareness of what accounts for this attitude, and exposure to a range of attitudes from classmates. And, with that knowledge, what then will hopefully ensue is the student’s discovery that they have power themselves to rebuild their approaches to writing by taking active roles in considering and, as needed, reshaping their attitudes.

What is your attitude toward writing? How does that attitude shift across different contexts? In what ways (if any) do you encounter and address student attitude?

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Denise Comer
Denise Comer is an Assistant Professor of the Practice of Writing Studies and Director of First-Year Writing at Duke University. She teaches theme-based first-year writing seminars on such areas of inquiry as illness narratives, civic engagement, and travel writing. She also teaches a first-year writing MOOC through Duke University and Coursera: English Composition I: Achieving Expertise. Her scholarship, which has been published in such journals as Pedagogy, Writing Program Administrators Journal, and Composition Forum, explores writing pedagogy, writing program administration, and the intersections between technology and the teaching of writing. She has written two books: Writing in Transit (Fountainhead Press, 2015) and It’s Just a Dissertation: The Irreverent Guide to Transforming Your Dissertation from Daunting to Doable to Done (co-written with Barbara Gina Garrett; Fountainhead Press 2015). She has also written a web-text, Writing for Success in College and Beyond, (c4e 2015). She lives in North Carolina with her husband and their three children.

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