Writing as Problem or Solution? Using Writing Interventions to Promote Student Engagement

Sometimes I fear I am being coy: when faculty members ask me to share, as a Writing Across the Curriculum fellow, techniques for improving the quality of their students’ writing, my answer is frustratingly circular. “Make your students write as much as possible,” I say, then read the disappointment in my interlocutor’s eyes. Does this guy really believe (those eyes seem to ask), that the solution to my students’ writing problems is more writing?

While my honest answer is yes, I do view writing as a tool more than  a pedagogical hurdle, I understand that I am biased by my background. I teach English, not physics, or dentistry, or mathematics. And though I can recite with confidence each of my WAC commandments — I. Thou Shalt Use Writing to Achieve Course Goals, II. Thou Shalt Use Low-Stakes Assignments to Prepare Students for Longer, High-Stakes Assignments, etc. — these were delivered to me, Moses-like, by other English and Composition instructors. Wielding my English degree and my pedagogical methods devised by English professors, I must look like a chauvinist.

What a great relief, then, when I encountered two articles by psychologist Judith M. Harackiewicz about the use of carefully crafted “writing interventions” to foster success in introductory science classes. Harackiewicz’s work focuses on student engagement in college STEM courses, paying special attention to the performance of “underrepresented minority” (URM) and “first generation” (FG) students (Harackiewicz, 2016). Compared with “continuing-generation” (CG) students — college students with at least one college-educated parent — FG students arrive at college with more anxiety, greater doubts, and fewer expectations of success; ultimately, FG students drop out of college at higher rates than their CG peers, a phenomenon called the “social-class achievement gap” (Harackiewicz, 2016). Harackiewicz’s efforts to shorten this gap through the use of targeted writing tasks is directly relevant to WAC’s efforts to meet the needs of City Tech’s diverse student body.

Harackiewicz’s research found that URM and FG students performed better in introductory science classes if they were given targeted writing tasks — “writing interventions” is her expression — that require students to consider the value of what they are learning. “The perception of value,” writes Harackiewicz, “is critical to the development of interest over time” (2014). A student who identifies “personal utility connections” with her coursework is more likely to develop interest in that subject and the confidence and motivation to succeed (2014).

Harackiewicz describes two different forms of writing interventions: “utility value interventions” and “values affirmation interventions” (2014). Utility value (UV) interventions take the form of “short essays about the personal relevance of course material” (2016). A sample UV assignment looks like this: 

“Select a concept or issue that was discussed in lecture and formulate a question…Write an essay addressing this question and discuss the relevance of the concept or issue to your own life. Be sure to include some concrete information that was covered in this unit, explaining why this specific information is relevant to your life or useful to you” (Harackewitz, 2016, original emphasis). 

Harackewicz’s research suggests that these kinds of utility value-generating questions force students to take a personal stake in a course’s material and their learning process. Interestingly, a linguistic analysis of student responses to UV interventions suggested that these prompts produced “greater evidence of cognitive engagement” among students than a control question (Harackiewicz, 2016). Harackiewicz concludes that UV interventions are especially useful for students “who doubt their competence,” but she also emphasizes that students must establish their own utility value connections (2016) In other words, don’t do the work for your students by telling them how valuable your course is to life outside the classroom.

While UV interventions require students to consider the personal value of their coursework, “values affirmation” (VA) interventions ask them to consider and articulate their own personal values. A VA intervention asks that students to select two or three values that are most important to them from a list of twelve — values such as “independence,” “belonging to a social group,” “creativity,” “relationships with family and friends”— and “write an essay describing why their values [are] important” (Harackiewicz, 2014). While this form of intervention does not address specific coursework, Harackiewicz argues that it fosters confidence, a sense of belonging, and “continued motivation” among the URM and FG students who are most likely to drop out of STEM classes (Harackiewicz, 2014).

I am eager to try both UV and VA interventions in my classroom, though I don’t doubt that I will have to experiment a bit. I wonder, for example, whether I might make these assignments a little livelier, and more specific to my course — especially in the case of the more generalist-minded VA interventions. Also, is there a way to discourage cynical responses to the prompts (ie. “This course has no value in my life,” or “This is just a requirement for graduation”)? Nevertheless, I am encouraged that Harackiewicz sought writing as a medium for addressing student retention in the STEM field. In Harackewicz’s schema, writing is not a problem to be overcome, but an avenue for greater student participation, motivation, and learning.

Works Cited

Harackiewicz, Judith M., Canning, E. A., Tibbetts, Y., Priniski, S. J., & Hyde, J. S. (2016). “Closing Achievement Gaps With a Utility-Value Intervention: Disentangling Race and Social Class”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 111 (5): 745-765

Harackiewicz, J.M., Yoi Tibbetts, Elizabeth Canning, and Janet S. Hyde (2014). “Harnessing values to Promote Motivation in Education”. Advances in Motivation and  Achievement; 18: 71–105

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