Building Secondary Students’ Writing Self-Efficacy

Samantha Thomas, K-12 Reading Specialist, Omro School District, sthom @

Abstract. The purpose of this article is to better understand how self-efficacy and self-regulation may impact writing achievement at the secondary level.

Years of red ink and failing grades have left struggling writers feeling unable to improve. This feeling of failure has left them hopeless and, some, angry. Each year, their sentiments echo from one brick wall to the next, “I suck at writing. It doesn’t matter if I do this essay, I’m going to fail anyway.” All the while, educators are left asking, “How am I supposed to reverse years of damage? How can I help these kids develop the stamina needed for a growth mindset?” There is not a magic solution or product that can boost student achievement overnight, but there are teaching methods, rooted in building self-efficacy, that have shown evidence of improving success over time. This article will focus on those methods with a special lens on secondary English language arts practices.

Prior to graduating from the Masters of Science in Literacy Education program at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, I taught secondary English for seven years. My time spent in the classroom was a whiplash of highs and emotional lows. There were many days I felt incapable of helping the students that needed me most. This was incredibly frustrating because, after four years in college, I felt like I should have known more. I had no idea how to teach reading. I had no idea how to teach writing. And so, like many before me, I fell back on what I knew best: how I was taught. I wish I could say that was the ideal approach, but unfortunately it did nothing for my students. Happily, while finalizing my graduate journey, I learned different ways to build upon students’ literacy needs by utilizing differentiation techniques to build writing self-efficacy.

Having the Confidence to Try
Self-efficacy is confidence in one’s ability to accomplish a designated task (Bruning, Dempsey, Kauffmann, McKim, & Zumbrunn, 2012, p. 25). This perception will change depending upon the action required. For example, a student may have a high self-efficacy while writing poetry and yet experience anxiety, and a low self-efficacy, when tasked with an expository piece. This is important when understanding how self-efficacy can impact student motivation. As Pajares (2003) argues, if confidence is increased, motivation will grow. More importantly, Bandura (1994) explains that “Self-efficacy beliefs determine how people feel, think, motivate themselves and behave” (para. 1). When individuals with a high self-efficacy experience failure, they view it as a setback that can be remedied with more effort and persistence. They believe they have control over their success. Inversely, “if students believe they cannot succeed on specific tasks (low self-efficacy), they will superficially attempt them, give up quickly, or avoid or resist them” (Margolis & McCabe, 2006, p. 219). These situations are damaging to students’ achievement.

Having the Confidence to Persist
Self-regulation, also known as self-regulated learning, is guided by metacognition: a learner will plan for a task, monitor progress, and reflect on the outcome. Both of these concepts, self-efficacy and self-regulation, are employed to exact control over one’s behavior and environment. According to Bandura (2001), these are reciprocal interactions. Likewise, Zimmerman, Bandura, and Martinez-Pons (1992) found that “Students who perceived themselves as capable of regulating their own activities strategically are more confident about mastering academic subjects and attain higher academic performance” (p. 674).

Zimmerman, et al. (1992) explain self-regulation from a social cognitive lens, which explores traits exhibited by self-regulated learners. For example, a self-regulated learner will self-set goals and work toward achieving them. Bandura’s social cognitive theory explains that “goals increase people’s cognitive and affective reactions to performance outcomes because goals specify the requirements for personal success. Goals also prompt self-monitoring and self-judgements of performance attainments,” all of which are traits attuned to self-regulated learners (Zimmerman, Bandura, & Martinez-Pons, 1992, p. 664). In addition, self-regulated learners use metacognition to self-motivate, monitor learning environments, and seek social supports (p. 664). However, an individual’s ability to self-regulate is dependent upon self-efficacy beliefs determining the rigor of self-set goals and the amount of effort one will put forth to reach set goals. This combination influences how well the individual will persist through challenges.

Be that as it may, it is important to note that having a high self-efficacy towards a designated task is not the sole predictor of success. For instance, self-efficacy will not trump a strong foundation of knowledge and skill sets. Likewise, an individual may still attempt a task despite a lower self-efficacy because the perceived value is great.

Implications for Teaching
To begin, an educator could assess students’ self-efficacies to achieve a baseline; however, Bruning et al. (2012) recommend tailoring self-efficacy assessments to the task being asked of the student. A one-size-fits-all assessment, when analyzing an individual’s self-efficacy toward general writing, would not provide a fully accurate reading of a student’s writing ability. Instead, asking students specific, task-related questions would provide a clearer image:

While we do not dispute the validity of a generalized writing self-efficacy, potentially interesting subcategories may be implied by questions such as these: Can I think of things to write about? Can I express my ideas in writing? Can I keep myself on track as I write- by avoiding distractions and coping with my feelings as I’m writing? (p. 28)

In addition, to help students increase self-efficacy beliefs, Pajares (2003) suggests that educators provide four components: mastery experiences, social models, social persuasions, and an examination of learners’ physiological states as a means of limiting anxiety through shared control. The following sections will explore ways educators can utilize all four categories in order to help students build positive self-perceptions.

Mastery Experiences. When given a difficult task, how students feel about themselves in relation to that task will determine how much effort is put forth. For example, Klassen (2010) states that perceived self-efficacy is a strong predictor of student writing proficiency. According to Bandura (1994), there are multiple ways to increase a person’s perceived self-efficacy, the most influential deriving from mastery experiences. When mastery is guided, it can be a powerful force in helping students cope with difficulties, especially those who refuse intimidating tasks in order to avoid long-term stress. When mastery experiences are aligned to scaffolded instruction, students are more likely to endure stress for short increments while slowly building their stamina, thus increasing the number of difficulties handled. To do this, Bandura (1994) recommends modeling required activities in order to demonstrate how people can overcome obstacles that may trigger anxiety and stress. The modeling should focus on breaking down difficult tasks into subtasks that can be easily completed: “Guided mastery treatment achieves widespread psychological changes in a relatively short time. It eliminates phobic behavior and anxiety and biological stress reactions, creates positive attitudes and eradicates phobic ruminations and nightmares” (Bandura, 1994, para. 25). All of these factors can help create a more positive and welcoming classroom environment where students can feel safe to create and grow.

To effectively break down instruction, Margolis and McCabe (2006) recommend that teachers focus on learning strategies, such as by creating a mental or written summary of text after reading. These processes can help students find a starting point. To do this effectively, teach only one or two strategies at a time. Teaching more than this will create confusion and overwhelm precious time constraints. During instruction, it is important to teach learners when and why a strategy should be used. Additionally, make sure students learn strategies to the point of habit, a strategy that Swanson and Deshler (2003) call “overlearning.” They warn that without overlearning, students will not maintain use of the strategy. Furthermore, educators should help students work at levels just above their ability in order to present opportunities for them to use moderate effort and succeed. If a task is too challenging, it will negatively impact perceived self-efficacy, thus lowering the motivation to try.

For example, to help build stamina and move past the “one and done” philosophy, Gallagher (2006) uses a strategy learned from Stock (“Modeling strategies”, para. 1-7). Gallagher asks his students to observe his physical movements until he says “Stop.” Afterwards, each child creates a sentence describing what they observed him doing, such as walking across the room and sitting down. Once students finish, they are asked to share their writing aloud with the class. The next day, students watch Gallagher give a five-minute mini-lesson on strong verbs. To do this, he shares a sentence he wrote about his movements the day before and then revises it to make the verbs stronger. Students are then asked to do the same with their sentences. On day three, students watch another demonstration where Gallagher changes his simple sentence into a complex sentence. Again, students revise their work to incorporate the day’s teaching point. To continue, Gallagher repeats this process for two more days. Each day is used to demonstrate one of the three places a sentence can be branched (beginning, middle, and end). By the end of the week, students are left with several, self-written examples of descriptive, complex sentences to use as models for their future writing experiences.

Social Modeling. People learn from one another by observing a process, imitating that process, and then adapting new skills in authentic scenarios. This section will branch into three areas (peer models, teacher models, and mentor texts) in order to discuss how we can provide opportunities for students to participate in this learning cycle.

I. Peer Models. Adult models are effective, but Schunk and Zimmerman (2007) believe children learn best from peers similar to themselves. Moreso, when observers watch a peer who has had previous struggles cope and succeed over time, it can aid self-efficacy (p. 22). These models, to be effective, should use think-alouds to explain what they are doing and why. Ideally, the models will explain how the skill or strategy learned in class helped them improve. Margolis and McCabe (2006) provide examples:

Models correct their mistakes and explicitly attribute failures to controllable factors (e.g., “I did not listen to the directions. That is why I did poorly.”) and successes to both controllable factors (e.g., “I worked hard and did not quit. That is why I did well.”) and modifiable abilities (e.g., “I followed the steps. That is why I did well. Following the steps took brains.”) (p. 221)

Of course, for modeling practices to be effective, sessions need to be driven by clear objectives. Baker et al. (2009) argue for these practices to focus on the following three stages of writing “(a) instruction in planning to write; (b) writing from well-developed plans of action; and (c) revising initial written drafts” (p. 305). By focusing on the writing process, students will be better prepared for future writing endeavors including timed-writing scenarios.

To help build self-regulation through social modeling, Schunk & Zimmerman (2007) created the social cognitive model of the development of self-regulation. This model explores four developmental phases aimed to gradually build students’ ability to self-regulate: (1) observation, (2) emulative, (3) self-controlled, and (4) self-regulated. The first two phases require social experiences because a learner is first observing and then emulating an effective model. The final two phases break into more independent performances. Phase three, self-controlled, focuses on learners who have internalized practiced skills and strategies. However, the learner is still basing actions on those modeled. The learner has not yet adapted these skills and strategies to new contexts. This adaption will occur in the final phase, self-regulated. In this point of the learning process, individuals can maintain motivation to work toward set performance goals. It is important to note that social models are still important in the final phases. Learners may seek them out less often but will continue to ask for help as needed.

Peer models do not have to stand in front of the class. In fact, peer modeling can be done anonymously, especially if students are nervous about sharing their work. Gallagher (2006) suggests Read-Around-Groups (Rules for RAGs, para. 1-7). He asks his students to bring clean, anonymous drafts of their work to class, marked only by a five-digit number or code words to identify their pieces. Next, they are randomly placed in small, heterogeneous groups, and the drafts are piled together. Piles are given to an adjacent group and given one minute to read a peer’s work. This may not be enough time to read the entire paper, but it is enough to get an understanding of the work. After one minute, students pass the paper to another in their group, and this cycle is repeated until all papers have been read by each group member. Finally, Gallagher asks his students to discuss which writing is the best. He gives them two minutes to do this. The purpose is to promote arguments and discussions about good-writing traits. Once a paper is chosen, the pile is passed to another group and the process is repeated until each student has read each classmate’s work, except for that in their own group.

II. Teacher Models. Gallagher is a well-known name in our field. In fact, when I began my literacy journey, his book Reading Reasons: Motivational Mini-Lessons for Middle and High School was the first professional text recommended to me. This is why I naturally turn to him when seeking relevant teaching strategies, especially if I need advice on modeling. Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling & Mentor Texts (2011), begins with the advice that

The teacher should model by writing–and think out loud while writing–in front of the class. When my students see me wrestling with decisions as my writing unfolds, it gives them insight on how to compose their own pieces. I don’t tell them how to draft their papers; I show them how I draft my papers. (p. 15)

The benefits of seeing a work such in progress outweigh the consequences of showing students perfected, finished products. In Teaching Adolescent Writers (2006), Gallagher calls these example pieces “Grecian Urns”: showing only finished products does not build self-efficacy. In fact, this could cause more anxiety while students compare their own work to that provided by the educator. Instead, Gallagher promotes modeling during early drafting, “when reluctant writers are more likely to give writing a shot if they see that struggling with the complexity of the process is normal for all writers–even for their teacher” (“Move beyond the Grecian Urn,” para. 3). When Gallagher models, he projects his writing for all students to see. As he drafts, he isn’t afraid to cross out words and get messy. In fact, he tells his students that writing is messy! He thinks aloud as he writes and encourages students to document how many times he makes a decision while forming his first paragraph.

III. Mentor Texts. In my own position, I have been blessed with helping our middle school educators implement the workshop format. A common question has risen: How do I use mentor texts? Fortunately, Bromer (2010) provides an explanation: Prior to a genre study, she spends roughly one week sharing and discussing texts published in that genre to give students a feel for the language. This discussion occurs before being handed a lengthy list of poetry terms and techniques because “I want kids to talk about writing using language that they can understand and that is meaningful to them” (p. 47).

After each mini-lesson, students should get into groups to continue reading and discussing more examples of such strong writing. Students will read the excerpt or short text either silently or with a partner, then write a response for five minutes to include connections, emotions, and surprises that occur while reading. While sharing responses within the small group, they should point out sections of the text that illustrate writing so impressive that they wish they had written these sections themselves. (To make this easier, I would encourage students to annotate during the first read.) While discussing what makes the writing great, encourage students to describe the author’s craft plainly without labeling techniques. This will promote deeper thinking. Once the sharing is complete, ask pairs or groups to record the ideas discussed. Bromer allows choice in how students document their group’s ideas. This can be done in a list format, a web, or even a t-chart comparing ideas to techniques after the ideas have been uncovered. This process is about first noticing and then naming an author’s style or craft.

In order for the class to do this, you will have to model how to talk about writing. Do not expect all students to do this protocol well without preparation: they will need you to front load expectations. What do you expect to see and hear while they are completing this activity? Without that explicit instruction, teachers may be keen to give up too soon when they see students struggling to talk to one another. A great resource to visit is Anderson’s (2005) Mechanically Inclined, which covers the importance of demonstrating expectations for finding and discussing strong writing samples. Additionally, if you observe a pair or group fulfilling your expectations, use them as peer models!

Social Persuasion. Schunk & Zimmerman (2007) argue that verbal motivation will raise self-efficacy only if the learner succeeds. When told, “You can do it,” and yet the learner performs poorly, the effects of praise all but disappear (p. 10). This is why Margolis & McCabe (2006) state that oral feedback must be followed with task-specific criticism which explores what the learner did well to succeed (p. 220). This combination should help improve student self-efficacy. To do this well, Bromer (2010) turns her general protocol for reading everyday texts into a general protocol for reading student work. While reading, strive to find their voice and style, and discuss, plainly and simply, how they used their words to leave a lasting impression. When we are focused on finding only the errors, we miss the hidden pieces that make their writing great. Instead of flooding student work with ink, use their work to mine for teachable concepts. Bromer suggests making a list of 2-3 things that can be addressed in a writing conference versus being left on the page–a negative shadow waiting to destroy a preciously developing efficacy. (For more ideas on how to provide positive, constructive feedback, explore Bromer’s chapter seven).

To effectively grade student writing, while providing descriptive feedback, Bromer advocates for writing portfolios, which should hold a collection of works that students can analyze and present as pieces of strong writing in order to prove their capability to meet standards and expectations:

For each piece of writing, I would ask kids to include artifacts from the entire arc of a piece of writing: notebook entries and drafts showing revisions. Students would write informal essays that describe what he or she learned about writing during the entire process of each selected piece. The writing portfolio would not be a controlling device, but rather a place for students to self-monitor, self-assess, and self-teach. (Bromer, p. 157)

This allows educators to use trends and evidence in justifying a grade versus percentages, missing formative assessments, and behavioral patterns which some students cannot control.

Physiological States. Since physiological states are another way to monitor/increase self-efficacy, it is important for educators to pay attention to the atmosphere they are generating. Margolis and McCabe (2006) explain that if learners believe they will fail, disruptive behaviors may occur as a way of escaping their anxiety (physiological reaction). To prevent these behaviors, educators may try teaching relaxation techniques like deep breathing or mindfulness meditation (p. 220). Additionally, requiring students to work toward goal completion should help lower anxieties and promote a positive self-efficacy since goal setting can help students feel in control. Of course these goals must be set by the students for this effect to occur.

Goals should be set with teacher guidance to insure the process is both rigorous and attainable. It is important to note that Bandura (1994) believed goal setting is dependent upon self-appraisal, so students with higher perceived self-efficacies may set higher challenges. Another aspect to consider comes from Klassen (2010), who found her participants with learning disabilities to overestimate their efficacies. This data is an example as to why it is so important for educators to monitor and guide goal-setting situations. We want to set our students up for success while challenging them at their individual learning levels. We do not want students to over- or underestimate their potential. Ideally, reaching goals helps students feel either satisfied with their work or dissatisfied yet willing to revise with greater effort. This is why they should be encouraged to reflect upon their goal’s attainment. While reflecting, they should be asked to review the strategies used to reach their goal and how these strategies either helped or derailed their successes. Not only will this help them monitor their development, but, according to Kennedy (2010), it will help build a metacognitive awareness.

Another way to reduce negative physiological reactions is to provide choice. This will allow students to become invested in their topics and care about a successful outcome. Providing opportunities for choice will help maintain an authentic approach to writing, which in return aids motivational support: “If a class is researching a shared topic, the quality of writing will go up when students are allowed to choose the subtopics, the primary research, and the positions they defend” (Calkins, 2016, p. 9). MacArthur, Philippakos, and Graham (2016) add that “for reluctant writers, much of their reluctance may arise from a feeling that they do not know what to write about in terms of content” (p. 39).

Additionally, Gallagher (2006) states that if you want your students to “freeze in their tracks,” then grade everything they write. To promote writing and experimentation, let students know up front that you will not be grading everything they write. In Teaching Adolescent Writers, he states that students should write four times the amount a teacher can physically grade, and, in the first stages of writing, we should act as a coaches and not as critics. For assessment purposes, Gallagher waits until his students have written between three and five different pieces before picking one to move into the revision stage: “Having students write more than I can grade gives them permission to write crummy first drafts; this, in turn, lowers their anxiety, freeing them up to get started” (“Adopt a 4:1 grading philosophy”, para. 5). Additionally, for those that struggle to get started, Gallagher recommends showing students how to record themselves talking out their paper’s content/requirements prior to writing. In fact, Gallagher requires each student to talk out a paper at least once. Usually, he starts with an autobiographical piece. When modeling this process, he talks out his paper while taking notes on key points. These points are projected for all to see. This helps set up collaborative practice where students talk their papers out with a partner while the partner takes notes on their peer’s key points. These notes serve as an outline that can be used for physical drafting.
Tying It All Together
An Effective Educator. To increase effectiveness, educators should also work toward building their own self-efficacy. Those who have a high self-efficacy regarding their abilities tend to motivate their students and enhance growth. Bandura (1994) believes that “teachers who have a low sense of instructional efficacy favor a custodial orientation that relies heavily on negative sanctions to get students to study” (para. 56). Educators that stick to firm sequences of content, and assess by comparing student work, tend to build negative self-efficacies. Likewise, according to Bandura (1994), “Cooperative learning structures, in which students work together and help one another, tend to promote more positive self-evaluations of capability and higher academic attainments than do individualist and competitive ones” (para. 59). Additionally, Bromer provides advice for increasing a teacher’s writing self-efficacy: Read. The more educators read, the more in tune they will become with nuances and patterns of strong writing.

Secondary educators must work harder to discover their students’ talents and interests. We only see them a small part of each day. This is why it is important to connect literacy practices introduced in language arts to other content areas. As Bromer (2010) observes,

It becomes difficult not to put kids into little compartment when we see them only through the lens of literacy competencies, and we are largely unaware of their intelligences of observation, building, movement, knowledge of the natural world, numeracy, music, and art. If a student flounders in reading, or visibly and verbally hates writing, we only see them forever floundering and hating. We lose sight of the child who comes alive in the science lab or on the track outside. (pp. 88-89)

We need to make connections for students so they can better understand how revision is important when solving math equations and perfecting writing. Bromer uses the example of observation. When observing an experiment in science, a student may thrive. Use that same observation strategy to observe one’s surroundings when writing descriptive pieces. In this way, we can begin educating the whole child.

Writing Workshops in Secondary Classrooms. The writing workshop can provide opportunities for individualized instruction that emphasize goal setting and learning through modeling, which can be highly effective when aligned to the gradual release model. Unfortunately, many secondary educators shy away from the workshop method due to time constraints. However, Calkins (2016) recommends the following schedule for implementing a strong writing workshop in a 45-50 minute period:

10 minutes of whole class instruction centered on modeling and think alouds.

30 minutes of independent writing time where the teacher should be conferring with students one-on-one or in guided writing groups.

5-10 minutes of peer sharing where students can collaborate as well as reflect upon personalized goals.

When following this model, Calkins warns, “If any one part of that equation–the actual writing time, the time to receive instruction, or the time to share and reflect–disappears, writers are less apt to improve rapidly” (p. 8). This is especially important when understanding the necessity of teacher-student conferences. Conferring with students is pivotal for those seeking to differentiate instruction properly because there is not an easy fix for increasing student writing performance; instead, students need an effective educator willing to listen and modify instruction consistently.

To assess a writing workshop, Calkins recommends utilizing on-demand writing. This process can be used as a pre-assessment and post-assessment for each unit of study since it illustrates what students can do without support. This will allow educators and students to see growth over time, which makes it a goal-setting opportunity where students can work toward self-improvement. Likewise, teachers can assess their own effectiveness over the course of a school year. In doing so, teachers can collaborate through an examination of student writing. Calkins refers to this process as “norming their expectations of student writing, learning to look at student writing with shared lenses” (2016, p. 11), all of which contribute to teachers building their own positive self-perception. In return, this leads to aiding students’ development of their own self-efficacy.

There is so much research in the world, and, since you are reading this, you have already discovered its power to help increase your effectiveness as an educator. As I stated above, it is your self-efficacy that will impact your students the most. Don’t give up! Furthermore, I want to thank you for continuing to improve and do what it takes to reach all learners. For some secondary students, we are all they have, and we must help them believe in themselves as we believe in them.

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Swanson, H. L., & Deshler, D. (2003). Instructing adolescents with learning disabilities: Converting a meta-analysis into practice. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 36(2), 124-135. Retrieved from the ERIC database. (Accession No. EJ666137)

Zimmerman, B. J., Bandura, A., & Martinez-Pons, M. (1992). Self-motivation for academic attainment: The role of self-efficacy beliefs and personal goal setting. American Educational Research Journal, 29(3), 663-676. Retrieved from the Education Research Complete database. (Accession No. 19531393)

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