Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Why am I studying writing self-efficacy?

I don't believe the ability to write is a gift from the Muse. I believe becoming a competent writer can be learned, but I do not believe it can be taught. This is especially true of the way that we so often teach writing -- with a sort of inoculation instruction focused on "mutt genres" intended to prevent future bad writing that may help student writers in the short term, but not in the long term. I am not all that confident of the "may help" either, because all too often, I believe it does more harm than good by reinforcing students' belief that they will never, can never, be writers. This is very harmful indeed because writing is such an essential part of communicating today. I think we can better serve our students by shifting our focus away from teaching context-less writing lessons and focus more on helping them become writers.

Writing is a complex skill that requires that the writer be able to evaluate the context, understand the needs of the discourse community, and work within the appropriate genre as defined by that community to appropriately meet the requirements of the situation. Preparing students to handle the infinite variety of situations such complexity creates seems a hopeless task to me. Worse, teaching students that writing is simpler and easier to master than it actually is undermines their confidence and competence. So how do we prepare them? How do we help them become writers?

My goal is for my students to become self-directed and self-regulated writers. I use a two-pronged approach to achieve this goal. First, my writing classes are focused on "writing about writing" to help my students understand how to study a context and discourse community so they can choose the appropriate genre and work with it as determined by that context. I tailor this approach to the level of students and expectations for the class so it is different for my first-year students than it is for my graduate students and so on. Equally important to this effort is my focus on agency and self-efficacy. In order for my students to be ready, willing, and able to take this much control upon themselves they need to have confidence in their ability to address the task at hand and belief in their ability to to control their own destiny. In order to become writers, they need both self-efficacy and agency.

Albert Bandura defines self-efficacy beliefs as a person’s belief in their capability to produce the desired effect through deliberate action. This is similar to a self-fulfilling prophecy in that positive self-efficacy beliefs lead to positive outcomes and negative self-efficacy beliefs lead to negative outcomes. Decades of research in diverse fields has shown that self-efficacy is a more consistent predictor of behavioral outcomes than other self beliefs. In particular, research suggests that beliefs about writing processes and competence are instrumental to the writer’s ultimate success as a writer. This is because self-efficacy beliefs influence an individual’s chosen course of action, perseverance, resiliency, sense of optimism or pessimism, and reaction to stress and depression. Sources of self-efficacy are performance or mastery experience; vicarious experience, such as observations and social comparisons; social persuasions; and physiological state. However, Bandura emphasizes the fact that agency and self-efficacy are interdependent. In order to make the decision to act, people must believe they have the power as well as the capability to act.

That is why I am studying writing self-efficacy. I want to better understand how people become writers so I can help my students become the self-directed and self-regulated confident writers they need to become to succeed.

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