Student Writing: An Issue of Motivation

By Laura Rosche, IWP Intern, RTW MA student

In his chapter, “Discourses and Social Languages,” from An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method James Gee (1999) writes, “Language has a magical property: when we speak or write we craft what we have to say to fit the situation or context in which we are communicating. But, at the same time, how we speak or write creates the very situation of context. It seems, then, that we fit our language to a situation or context that our language, in turn, helped to create in the first place” (11). I’m constantly in awe of this fact. Language is so tremendously powerful, and as I ended my last blog post, I began to think tirelessly of our obligation as educators to translate our enthusiasm for learning to our students. Gee continues, “When you speak or write anything, you use the resources of English to project yourself as a certain kind of person, a different kind in different circumstances” (13). We know this to be true. We know that students develop different identities based on the role they believe they have to play in certain situations. Students participate differently in large lecture courses versus small seminars. However, if we, as educators, take responsibility for inspiring students to see the value of their voice despite the context, we ask our students not to create another identity, but rather to capitalize on an identity they’ve already formed: an active learner.

I know from my experience on both ends of the classroom that motivated students are more likely to engage in their education. In their article, “Understanding Motivation and Schooling: Where We’ve Been, Where We Are, and Where We Need to Go,” Martin Maehr and Heather Meyer write that motivated students are typically personally invested in and engaged with their assignments. Inspired students are more likely to retain the information with which they are presented because they see its importance (373). But how do we motivate our students? How do we inspire them to believe in the importance of education? More specifically, how do we encourage students to think positively about the role of writing in academia?

I suppose I’m at an advantage as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) because my students know that I, too, am I student. There’s an intrinsic sort of trust between us. They know I value education because not only am I teaching classes, but I am taking them as well. In my recent evaluations, students wrote that they found it easier to be enthusiastic about education because they saw my passion for learning as well. I can only assume that this idea presents itself in classrooms nationwide.

However, I graduate in less than two months and I hope that next year, when I’m exclusively focused on teaching, my new students are motivated despite my not being a student, too. If I know that students are driven by their teachers’ passion for learning, then I must make an effort to articulate that just because I’m not pursuing a degree doesn’t mean I’m not actively pursuing knowledge. I hope my students are motivated by my enthusiasm, which stems from my innate curiosity of the unknown. I hope I can encourage my students in the same ways I have been inspired, by being a passionate and inquisitive educator. I am motivated by teachers who believe that I have valuable thoughts and ideas; I’d like my students to feel the same way. I must be conscious of the different ways I can motivate my students because, as Maehr and Meyer say, “It is at the heart of what schools are about” (378).

In my research regarding the importance of student motivation, I stumbled upon something stunning from Carnegie Mellon University. Carnegie Mellon developed the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation, which “brings pedagogical and technological issues together to support Carnegie Mellon faculty and graduate students in their roles as educators” (Eberly Center). The center’s website offers tools and advice to university-level educators to inspire relevant learning outcomes and student success stories. Its supplemental information regarding effective teaching strategies at the post-secondary level isn’t something I have come across before. There is no denying that professors and instructors are well versed in their academic areas. The questions students raise about their professor’s ability are rarely about the professor’s knowledge, but rather their translation of it.

I believe that a student’s motivation is closely related to his or her professor’s academic enthusiasm, and The Eberly Center agrees. They write:

 Your own enthusiasm about the course content can be powerful and contagious. Even if students are not initially attracted to or interested in the material, by clearly demonstrating your own enthusiasm, you can often raise students’ curiosity and motivate them to find out what excites you about the subject. (“Students Lack Interest or Motivation”).

You can access the Eberly Center at

So, how does this relate to articulating the importance of writing to our students at NAU?

Understanding that the issue of student motivation in regards to writing is not exclusive to NAU, I researched how this problem is being handled at other universities. How are different programs establishing the importance of writing in their field? How are students responding?

I initially looked up a few Engineering programs across the country because I wanted to know more about different approaches to writing outside of the Humanities. However, I found the University of Portland (UP) to have a particularly thorough and thoughtful program at work. The University of Portland provides its Engineering students with a handbook each semester that outlines the School of Engineering’s Writing Program and Technical Writing Guidelines. The document starts with an enthusiastic letter from the Dean of Engineering to the students that emphasizes the importance of writing in Engineering from an administrative standpoint (iii).

The Dean writes:

If you are like most engineering students, you probably imagine that success in your career will depend only on your technical competence. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your success will depend in equal measure on your technical competence and on your ability to communicate both orally and in writing. The best technical ideas are worthless if they are not communicated effectively to your peers and supervisors. (iii).

By having the Dean of the Engineering Department articulate the importance of writing in their field, students immediately see its relevance. The department’s general attitude towards writing is one of positivity and enthusiasm. The Engineering students at the University of Portland emulate that.

The Eberly Center argues, “Regardless of the objective value of an activity or topic, if students do not recognize its value, they may not be motivated to expend effort” (“Students Lack Interest or Motivation”). The Engineering Department at UP does an excellent job of immediately establishing writing’s relevance in its field so that its students feel inclined to put forth effort to improve their written communication skills. In order to be successful, educators need to take the time to explain the importance of activities and lessons if students are to understand their relevance.

According to the Eberly Center, the faculty at NAU can start making an effort to more consciously motivate their students by taking a few simple steps. Educators can start by:

  • Clearly articulating learning goals.
  • Showing relevance to students’ academic lives.
  • Demonstrating relevance to students’ professional lives.
  • Highlighting real-world applications of knowledge and skills.
  • Connecting to students’ personal interests.
  • Allowing students some degree of choice.
  • Showing their passion and enthusiasm.

 In order to address the issues surrounding student-writing performance at NAU, we must first address the issue of student motivation. We must make writing’s relevance transparent in the different disciplines across campus. I think the departments at NAU struggling with student motivation in regards to writing could learn a tremendous amount from the University of Portland’s Engineering program.

This problem is not irresolvable; we need to stop treating it as such.


2 responses

  1. You talked about how a teacher’s enthusiasm for a subject can encourage students to be interested as well. While researching for the NCUR presentation, I came across this concept. It seems that students tend to learn better from professors who are enthusiastic about what they’re teaching. And like you said, students complain more often about how the teacher is teaching the material, not that the professor doesn’t know the material. And this makes sense because the teacher is showing the relevance of the topic which gets students interested.

    Dr. Blankenship also told be about the Self-Determination Theory. One of the sub-theories, the Organismic Integration Theory, focuses on the continuum of external motivation. The second step is called introjection, which is what you described as the influence of the teacher’s enthusiasm. Introjection is described as a behavior being done in order to maintain one’s self esteem. Dr. Blankenship told me that the influence of teachers can fall into this stage. For example, writing is very important to a professor, and they often talk about it and are visibly passionate about it. A student may respond by applying that importance of writing to their own life because they want to please the teacher. According to this theory at this stage, the motivation to write well is based off of someone else, and is not important to them personally yet. Although a teacher’s influence is very important, Dr. Blankenship said that it was not extremely important when trying to motivate students.

    I think what the University of Portland is doing with their Engineering Program is fantastic. To have the Dean state right off the bat that writing is a part of communicating and communicating is an important aspect of this field was just incredible. I read that bit and I just thought, wow. It just blew me away to see that they telling students exactly what we wish students at NAU would know! Writing is important because you need to communicate. You need to know how to communicate your research. It honestly just gave me hope to see that something as fairly simple as a handbook and a message from the Dean is being implemented. I hope that NAU can one day find a way to communicate this. I would love to see how the engineering students at UP write and if there has been any improvement because of this.

    I would also just like to say that I really enjoyed your post, Laura. This topic is something that I have been working on for a while now, so the information you presented was very familiar to me. But I think even if one wasn’t familiar with this information, you presented it in a very clear and understandable way, which is very important. Great job!


  2. Hi Marisa,

    Thanks for your response! I’m so sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I’m interested to hear more about your interview with Dr. Blankenship. If I remember correctly, she was a professor of Psychology, right? The Self-Determination Theory sounds really complex, but I’m inclined to do research on it. I was thinking about what she said of a teacher’s passion being influential, but not necessarily motivational. Perhaps that influence is what the students need to find motivation. Or so I’d like to hope as I stand in front of my classroom!


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