Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Motivation and Feedback

Andrew Gelman has left a thoughtful comment on my post joining Freddie deBoer's applause for Doug Hesse's prescriptions for composition. My response is going to be a bit disjointed, but I've already left it longer than I wanted.

I definitely agree with Andrew's general point that "motivation to practice" is important. The intrinsic motivation to practice specifically writing is that being able to write down what you know is a valuable skill. Not just in school, but in life. But what's the role of the teacher in motivating students? Where should the value of writing come from? How can it be demonstrated to the student?

Andrew emphasizes feedback. I agree that feedback is important but I want to stress that there are all kinds of feedback that don't need to come from teachers. Students can give themselves and each other feedback simply by reading their texts out loud. Moreover, in my experience, the issue of feedback is a resource allocation problem. An teacher who spends a lot of time providing detailed written feedback on assignments is often wasting much of their time. Many of the students don't read the feedback very closely. Many of them don't understand it. Many students end up merely letting it confirm their suspicion that they don't know how to write.

What is needed is a way of giving feedback to students who are, let's say, motivated to use it going forward. My model is simple. Tell students to write individual paragraphs at pre-determined times. Then have them share those paragraphs with their fellow students. The students who are giving feedback should do simple things like read the paragraph out loud back to the writer and point to the key sentence. They should say something about whether they took the paragraph to elaborate or support the key sentence. They should tell the writer what they got out of it and whether they "liked" reading it.

This gives the student a little more information than they could give themselves. But reading your own paragraph out loud does immediately tell you a great deal about how well it is written and which sentences aren't working. Now, whether it comes from you or from someone else, the important thing is not to take feedback as some sort of final judgment. It is merely input that will inform what you are doing in your next few writing sessions. That's absolutely crucial: you can only use feedback if you are practicing deliberately, one paragraph at a time, for weeks and weeks. If you simply throw a text together the night before and give it to your teacher, you are not being told anything about how good are at what you are doing. Properly speaking, you aren't doing anything very specific.

A good way of motivating students to receive feedback is to begin with a rewriting instruction. The students submit their work and you read it. Then, instead of telling them "what's wrong with it" (or even what's good about it), tell them to rewrite the paragraphs that you want to talk about. Ask them to spend an hour doing it again (i.e., rewriting three paragraphs, 18 minutes each). Your "feedback", in the first instance, is now simply to suggest that they will learn something by rewriting a particular paragraph. You might ask them to notice something—like the length of the sentences, or the use of references, or even just spelling—but you're mainly saying that there's something there to notice in this paragraph. Something that their writing suggests they are able to see, but perhaps don't quite understand the importance of.

And this brings us back to intrinsic motivation. Feedback should identify the skills a piece of writing demonstrates that the writer almost masters. It should direct them towards those skills and thereby give them the experiencing of getting it right. If this sort of feedback is done right, the student the will immediately feel the value of the skill they are learning. This will key into their intrinsic motivation to write better.


Andrew Gelman said...


You're working at a more advanced level of teaching than I am. You talk about students writing things and sharing with each other, but I'm still back at the problem of motivating students to write these things in the first place.

Consider as a baseline a self-help-style course, for example a book called Learn to Write in 100 Lessons, where the student starts off with simple assignments like, Describe what you did this morning during the hour after waking up, and continues through more advanced assignments of different sorts, culminating in some essays. Feedback could be supplied as in a correspondence course, or the student could just have to find some friend to read and comment on his or her efforts.

Now put this in an organized setting such as a school and many advantages appear: First, there are many students in the class so they can read each others' papers. Second, there's the norm of showing up to class (which can be enforced with class-participation grading), and during those three hours each week the students can practice writing in a place where there are no distractions and there's the expectation that they are working (rather than, for example, writing blog comments as I'm doing here). Third, there's the norm of doing homework, which again can be enforced with grading. Finally, there's the final exam. So lots of these intermediate motivations. School is, in a sense, a very crude "gamification" of the learning process.

My challenge is to motivate the learning of some skill, like writing, to students for whom the intrinsic benefits (being able to express yourself!) and the long-term instrumental benefits (you can publish papers and improve your career!) are somehow not clear or not salient--as I would put it, these students have not "internalized" the value of writing.

Putting assignments in a course and having regular class meetings and homework assignments is a way to keep this task on the "front burner." I think this is an underrated aspect of organized education, forgotten both by the opportunistic proponents of organized education and also forgotten by its cynical opponents.

Thomas said...

I agree with much of what you say. But it is important to emphasize to students the need to practice in a pure sense, separate from assignments. Giving them a lot of assignments does motivate them to write, but it is also an extrinsic motivator. Students need to be persuaded of the value of the exercise for its own sake. Only then are they really having the necessary experience during the time of writing.

One way to do this is to take "gamification" to its natural conclusion and grade the students competitively, on a curve. This is a way of rewarding every minute of practice.

Also, students should be told that the teacher will spend a fixed amount of minutes grading each assignment. The students have that time to get their point across, which means they have to write clearly.

Finally, I think we should largely assume that the students are motivated. We should teach as though they want to learn. We should then happily give mediocre and low grades (on the curve) to those who aren't really motivated. But the teaching itself should be directed at those who are trying to get smarter—and that includes becoming a better writer.

I think there's a danger in playing too many "games" with already intrinsically motivated students. It's like subjected someone too much suspicion, eroding their inherent trustworthiness.