George Lucas Educational Foundation
Growth Mindset

Nurturing Intrinsic Motivation and Growth Mindset in Writing

To engage your students with their own development as writers, motivate them to care by showing your own interest and engagement with their process.

It's the first writing conference, four weeks into the year, with this blond senior. He stiffly leans back from me as far as the metal desk will allow, exuding cynicism, too cool for meeting with teachers about his writing. I can see he doesn't trust me yet or know why we conference, and he's afraid. He says, "So, what is this meeting about then?" And we begin.

The Power of Teacher Enthusiasm

Conferencing and portfolios work for me. Over the last 13 years of teaching English, I've developed a system of folders for work, held regular quarterly conferences with every student, and instituted cover letters in which students introduce, explain, and critique their writing at the end of the year. I also teach California State University's Expository Reading and Writing Course, a curriculum for high school seniors that encourages teachers to coach writing and students to write for real audiences. After the course, students report growth in their writing -- new confidence, success in their next-year college classes, higher EPT scores, and perhaps most importantly, ownership of their writing. Scholarship from the 1980s to the present supports my own findings and reiterates that portfolios and writing conferences can sometimes be very successful.

But I wish the research would point to these systems as consistent and universal means of student growth. It does not. The research suggests that these practices improve student writing only along with the qualifier of enthusiastic teachers who create meaningful systems for their own classrooms. It worked in my classroom, but I was bothered that the research was so tepid. I kept doing portfolios and conferences in my classroom, noting anecdotal and statistical success for my students.

Then, two years ago, I read Daniel Pink's Drive and Carol Dweck's Mindset, and I realized that a system of portfolios and conferences was not enough to change student engagement on its own. The way I thought and talked with my students about their writing and learning had also changed. The words out of my mouth in the classroom changed the way students thought about their writing even more than portfolios and conferencing.

Intrinsic Motivation

Pink’s Drive argues that employees -- and students -- after their basic needs are met, are motivated by autonomy, purpose, and mastery. Humans want some control over our tasks, we want real tasks that connect to our world, and we want the opportunity to improve. Extrinsic motivation (grades, bonuses, stickers, prizes) actually inhibit students from succeeding on cognitively difficult tasks like, say, writing. I'd been teaching writing all wrong! I'd dangled the carrots of prizes and threatened with the sticks of docked points for misplaced modifiers.

But sometimes, I also got it right. Before, I'd let students choose prompts and readings as much as possible, providing autonomy. After reading Pink, I learned to unbend myself, make deadlines more flexible, and shape the writing process more to fit the student. Now, my students feel more control over their process.

Before, I'd encouraged my students to write for real audiences as summative assessments. Now, I encourage students to write to real people for real purposes throughout the school year -- their own blogs, each other, me, their principal, their Congressional representatives, and the world.

Before, I'd embedded grammar instruction in writing process and had students keep their work to casually notice their progress once a year. Now, I conference four times a year with students about portfolios of their work -- an ongoing conversation about writing goals of their choosing. I explicitly teach metacognition, or how to talk and write about their writing.

Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck’s Mindset also made me question the feedback I was giving. Dweck found that praising students for intelligence actually made kids less likely to take academic risks because, on some level, they feared losing the label of "smart" if they did poorly. And since avoiding academic risks means avoiding learning, praising students' intelligence eventually impaired their success in school (and life happiness as well, since they felt intelligence was out of their own control). Students praised for working through difficult material wanted to show they could do so again, with the cumulative effects of long-term academic success, confidence in trying situations, and happier outlooks. Dweck called these mindsets fixed and growth, and started a movement to instill growth mindset in students. She has also talked about the amazing power of yet. She argues that we do a disservice to students by giving them only positive feedback on their writing. Although we don't want to crush their dreams, they can handle -- and even need -- room for growth and mastery. Hence the power of yet: "Your sentence structure does not yet match the tone you are trying to achieve." Yet allows negative feedback while also transmitting trust that they will get there.

I had a realization several years ago that my goal is not a good essay from Student A, but rather for Student A to know that she's in charge of her progress as a writer and feel confident to keep writing for the rest of her life. To that end, I must teach writing process, self-confidence through intrinsic motivation, metacognition, and the willingness to write badly, much more than I need to teach themes, metaphor, or prepositional phrases.

Reading the Common Core Language Arts documents and support, one notices the words "choice," "audience," "purpose," "metacognition," and "growth" throughout. Recently, I presented nurturing intrinsic motivation in writing to a classroom of other educators. They had no problem brainstorming ways to improve intrinsic motivation and growth mindset in our classrooms. Students want the same freedom in writing that we do, and teachers know how to provide it when given the opportunity.

The Payoff: Engagement and Ownership

It's the fifth meeting since September with that blond senior. Now his knees are tucked under him so he can arch across the desk and dissect the same sentence a foot away from me. We have gone from a distant "What is this meeting about then?" to an eager "Can I schedule a conference right now? I think I've smoothed the transitions, but I need to play with the syntax in the conclusion. Hear me out." Perhaps more importantly, I didn't schedule it, and I'm not doing most of the talking. He's found his voice and his reason to write. 

chart with "you say", "you could say" and "why" at the top of the columns
chart with "you say", "you could say" and "why" at the top of the columns
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Shelley- TheWriteStuff's picture
Shelley- TheWriteStuff
2nd grade teacher in British Columbia, Canada

Hi Amy,
This was so refreshing to read! I teacher 2nd graders but I have written a lot and coached teachers with this mindset as well. I am not sure that the common idea out there is that students are in charge of their learning when they are aware of the learning outcomes they are more engaged. Praising effort is more beneficial when the student also knows the outcomes they are trying to reach don't you think? I just wrote about assessment and I loved reading this and knowing that we are on the same page from 2nd grade to seniors. Very cool!

Amy K Conley's picture
Amy K Conley
Senior English instructor in Fortuna, California


Yep, writers are writers, no matter the age. My sixth and second grade children have the same learning needs. And so do adults. The first time I instructed other teachers in professional development, I was so nervous. I was relieved to discover that they were just writers and learners, wanting choices and control and coaching.

I highly suggest Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Mindset by Carol Dweck. As a parent, writer, learner, instructor, these changed my thinking.

ChristineOnofrey's picture

Amy, I teach 12th grade, and I found your insights to be right on target with my experiences. I have spent much of the summer dissecting my own writing to try to distill down what I do, but I keep finding that writing, for me anyway, is a messy process. Then I had an epiphany! Maybe that is it! Show students that creating good writing is a messy process. Like creating cut-out sugar cookies, not all of the dough gets used and neither will everything we write.

I was really curious about what you meant by making your deadlines more flexible. This makes me nervous, but I'd like to try because there were times this summer when I just had to walk away from my writing in order to clear my head. I want my students to know that that happens to every writer, and that continuing to bang one's head upon the keyboard soon leads to a distaste for writing altogether. How did you make it work?

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Christine, one of the things that I learned early on about myself is that I'm a back-brain writer. (That's my term for it.) What it means is that my subconscious needs time to properly stew on a writing project before it will relinquish anything to the page.

I've learned some techniques that help the process along when I'm under deadline, but those tend to be writing formulas and don't always lead to great writing. (Decent but not great.)

For my best stuff, I need to schedule noodling and doodling time, and then when I'm ready--it all tends to fall on the page ready to go.

Amy K Conley's picture
Amy K Conley
Senior English instructor in Fortuna, California

Christine and Samer,

Writing is messy! So is learning.

I think deadlines and pacing is something that we need to have serious discussions about as writing instructors. Yes, deadlines and responsibility are important concepts to teach. Yes, real writing process involves revision and steep time (what I call Samer's back-brain writing). I know some college professors in composition classes who have no final due dates but the final portfolio. I have deadlines for rough drafts, but allow final drafts until the end of the grading period because I want to encourage revision.

How do others balance teaching deadlines and teaching writing process?

Heather Lambert's picture
Heather Lambert
Learning Consultant, COREChild

Amy, you post was inspiring, as i am very interested in intrinsic motivation. i loved the way you described the teacher's shift on order for a student to shift. Thanks so much for broadening my knowledge.

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Research and Standards Editor

Couple of great examples via @BetsyNMorris on Twitter, who used these phrases to give feedback on essays:

"You haven't yet mastered the organizational structure"
"you haven't yet developed the sentence variety needed"

Deb Stahl's picture

Some good stuff here, but I wanted to point out some things in the chart that rubbed me the wrong way as a teacher.

The headline here mentions "intrinsic motivation" first and foremost, and yet on the first item on your chart, the reason you gave under "Why?" is in fact EXTRINSIC:

Instead of "Praising effort and process encourages writers to keep trying. (Dweck)," I would respond that "Noting that effort is making a positive difference provides (hopefully specific) feedback to writers and lets them know they are on the right track." Praise is exactly what one wants to avoid when striving for students to be INTRINSICALLY motivated.

I'd also replace "Encouraging growth instead of fixed mindset makes for happier people in charge of their progress. (Dweck)" with "Specific feedback allows growing writers to know that their efforts are helping them to improve and in what areas." That doesn't detract from making happier people in charge of their progress - but is that the target? I think we underestimate students and their innately intrinsic desire to do well when we categorize their reactions to our feedback in this way - even when the feedback is definitely an improvement on the vague comments in the "You say..." column to be sure.

Just an off-the-cuff reaction. Have a great school year!

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