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Professor Peter Dearing

Painting with red, orange, yellow, blue, and white, blended.

Notes on Motivating a Student

“We have to respect the student, not for his product, not for the paper we call literature by giving it a grade, but for the search for truth in which he is engaged. We must listen carefully for those words that may reveal a truth, that may reveal a voice. We must respect our student for his potential truth and for his potential voice. We are coaches, encouragers, developers, cre­ators of environments in which our students can experience the writing process for themselves.”

–Donald Murray, “Teaching Writing as a Process Not Product”


A 2006 article called “What it Takes to be Great,” by Geoffrey Clovin, who is a journalist and senior editor-at-large for Fortune, ends with a powerful question from University of Michigan professor Noel Tichy: “Some people are much more motivated than others and that’s the existential question I cannot answer—why.”

A student without motivation is like a car with no gas. They have all the necessary pieces to make the journey, but no fuel to get them anywhere. You cannot help a student who doesn’t complete the work, so the question becomes, how do you motivate your students? During my first couple of years teaching, it became clear that addressing motivation should be a critical component of my teaching philosophy. Each semester, I would notice that about a quarter of my students would disengage from the drafting process, and so I started to carefully consider why this happened. Three common reasons stood out: First, they were not engaged because College Writing is a mandatory composition class, and they had no personal interest in writing. Second, they came out of high school internalizing the message that they were bad writers. They began to think they should accept Cs and Ds as a reflection of their intrinsic inability to write, and that their writing abilities could not be improved. And third, ironically, some students were not motivated because the class felt too easy. The lack of challenge led to a lack of motivation because, to this small group, the work felt like busy work to them. I found focusing on motivation to be an effective path to connecting with these students and vastly improving both their grades and mastery of learning outcomes.

Over the past five years teaching College Writing, I have come to the positive conclusion that all of my Purchase students have the ability to succeed as writers in my composition class if I can convince them that doing the work is worth their time. I engage three techniques to motivate my students: a focus on Customer Service, the power of “Not Yet,” and Growth vs. Fixed Mindset.

Let’s start with Customer Service. My goal as a teacher is to help students master fundamental composition skills. I structure my class to remove common barriers to success. Many students are used to only getting one attempt at a paper and then receiving a final grade. I allow extra drafts to give students the opportunity to make corrections and show improvement based on the feedback they receive. I allow as many drafts as a student needs to develop mastery, typically between three and four. I also do not penalize for late papers. I consider this Customer Service. Everything about the structure of the class is intended to lead the maximum number of students to fluency with the class’s learning outcomes. Students appreciate this, one writing in a recent course reflection, “I thought his way of not having any late assignments was [an] absolutely revolutionary concept that I have never had with any professors, and it really inspired me to always give nothing but the best work I possibly could…”

Another aspect of my Customer Service philosophy involves being explicit and positive in providing feedback. This means championing what students are doing right, and framing all corrections as “next steps.” This phrase, “next steps,” is important, because it is unlikely to compromise motivation the way words like “mistakes” or “wrong” or “correction” might. When it comes to providing feedback, I feel strongly that even students who are struggling should feel positively about their paper after reading their comments. This can be achieved by stacking positive comments in a three to one ratio, a structural idea that John C. Bean describes in his book, Engaging Ideas. Bean writes that a “writing teacher’s ministry is not to the words, but the person who wrote the words” (48). The goal of championing the positive is to motivate students to take those “next steps” to improve their writing.

My Customer Service approach is particularly evident during my one-on-one time with my students. I have four one-on-one conferences with each student outside of class that last approximately fifteen minutes, as well as mini five-minute conferences in class each time a paper draft is returned. This means that during the semester I spend over an hour working one-on-one with students. In our fifteen minute conferences we have two main goals. The first is to work on topic selection, and the second is to brainstorm ideas on their chosen topic out loud. During this brainstorming session, I act as a scribe and write down what they are saying out loud so that students can focus on their thoughts instead of recording them. Spending this time together gives the students both the confidence and skills to move forward.

The shared goal of all one-on-one conferences is to create positive energy around their paper, so that students know what to do next and feel inspired to do it. The five-minute mini-conferences are used to champion out loud at least three highlights from their current draft and to discuss one “next step” that their draft needs to take. Championing students’ successes, combined with the “Not Yet” model, aims to give constructive feedback without generating negative feelings.

The “Not Yet” strategy offers students a path to improvement and is founded on the belief that even a D paper can become an A paper with time, attention, and work. Getting bad grades is emotionally painful. It hurts to hear that you have a C or a D, and to see all that red on your paper. It can feel like an overwhelmingly hard road to work through so many edits. This reality is simply not motivating, and can leave some students ready to give up. The “Not Yet” model doesn’t change the amount of work that needs to be done, but it reframes it in a positive way that is motivating and inspires students to take action. The “Not Yet” model is an idea originated by Carol Dweck, an American psychologist who teaches at Stanford University. The core idea is simple: academic success in class is inevitable if the student just keeps working and applying comments to reach that A. I have taken this “Not Yet” model to heart. My students and I work together to help them not only reach their desired grade, but more importantly, to feel inspired to develop their drafts through the drafting process. I find that framing their grade in these terms means that when the student asks, “Did I get an A?” The answer is never “no,” but rather “not yet. So let’s keep working.”

In the words of a student who appreciated the “Not Yet” model of drafting: “Essays were able to be rewritten—[which] gave [me] the opportunity to perfect concepts learned in class and is so much better than just one opportunity to demonstrate knowledge and that’s it.”

My final effort to cultivate each student’s intrinsic sense of motivation is to create a Growth vs. Fixed Mindset. This is another concept posited by Carol Dweck, suggesting that students’ beliefs about their own abilities predict their academic success. For example, ask yourself, are you a good or bad writer? I ask all of my students this very question every semester. But by putting the idea in these binary terms it is revealed that this is a trick question! By labeling yourself as good or bad, you automatically put yourself into a Fixed Mindset. If your writing ability is fixed and cannot be changed, why work hard?

At the start of the semester I have students free-write about being a good or bad writer. What they say helps me to gauge their current mindset as it relates to writing. We discuss this during our first one-on-one conference. Many students have never been told that they have the potential to improve as writers. A shift in their mindset can be tremendously motivating.

Growth Mindset is encouraged by simple, clear and direct comments that show exactly what needs to be done to improve a paper at a sentence level. This ranges from grammar review to argument construction, with clear claims as well as effectively supported and cited evidence in proper MLA 8th Edition formatting. Growth Mindset praise is praise of effort and technique, and the connection of effort and technique to improved performance. This is also known as process praise over outcome praise. Assignment outcomes like getting a good grade are important, but students leaving with skills they can use throughout college is even more vital.

Using these three techniques in the first few weeks of each semester allows students to begin to shift their mindsets toward growth, realize the positive power of championing what they are doing right, and tap into the rewarding nature of the drafting and revision process. Long term, and over the course of a student’s academic career (and beyond) this approach supports fewer issues with writer’s block, and an easier time generating content. Students know that whatever the next steps might be, they can be addressed. Their extra work will be reflected directly in the quality of their writing and, ultimately, their grade. In the end, a motivated student is a happy and successful one.

Works Cited

Bain, Ken. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge: Harvard, 2004.

Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas The Professor’s Guide to integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. Josses-Bass A Wiley Imprint, 2011.

Clovin, Geoffrey. “What It Takes To Be Great.” Forbes.

Dweck. Carol. “The power of yet | Carol S Dweck | TEDxNorrköping.” YouTube, uploaded by TEDx Talks 12 Sep 2014

Dweck, Carol. “The power of believing that you can improve.” YouTube, uploaded by TED 17 Dec 2014

Peter Dearing