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Self-Efficacy in the WAW Classroom: Preliminary Research Results

posted: 5.12.11 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

UntitledToday’s guest blogger is Mary Tripp, an Instructor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Central Florida. Mary has been teaching courses in writing, literature, and humanities for nearly 20 years. She is also completing her PhD in Texts and Technology at UCF. Her dissertation research explores agency and writing, especially in FYC courses.

I spent last semester (Fall 2010) handing out self-efficacy surveys and conducting a series of interviews with seven students about their writing practices and beliefs. What I discovered after doing all this research was that students in WAW courses do experience an increase in writing self-efficacy over the course of a semester even though the course is MUCH more rigorous than our previous FYC curriculum. While I saw students struggle with new concepts during my series of interviews, they seemed to be most confident when they had the opportunity to write out their ideas. This confidence and willingness to keep trying in the face of really challenging concepts intrigued me.

In my research, I employed a survey instrument developed by Bandura and Zimmerman, which is the most commonly used measure of self-efficacy (and self-regulatory practices) related to writing. You can see my survey data in the thick black upward curve in the illustration here. However, I also used ethnographic methods to complement the survey data, offering both broad and deep understanding of self-efficacy in WAW classrooms. For my ethnographies, I chose to conduct interviews at four points during the semester, once at the beginning and end and after a major writing assignment. I also had students draw maps of their writing process on each assignment during the interviews. I’ve compiled some of the maps into the image here, showing how they reflect a pattern of self-efficacy confirming the survey data, but also detail just what happens throughout the course.


Does this look familiar? At the beginning of the semester, students are feeling pretty confident, but quickly become stressed and constrained by the writing rules they learned in high school. They talk about their straight A’s and the rules they needed to follow (five paragraph essay form, use big vocabulary words). They also talk a great deal about the value of efficiency—writing in one draft. (Golly–doesn’t that stink of timed writing exams!)

Here’s some things they said (and drew) at the beginning of their first semester in college:


About first college assignments: “What was going on in my head—like I had to have a good intro, and then of course writing rules. I need rules. They’re always in your head. Just the thought of, ‘Oh, this is due. Oh this is due.’”–Aurora


”I can’t write in more than one sitting, like I have to sit there and do it.” “I just start writing. Whatever direction it goes, it goes. . . . I never read through the entire paper. I never have anyone look over my stuff.”—Tyler

At mid-term, students are starting to learn concepts. They begin to realize that they don’t already know everything about writing. They also become very discouraged when their efficient writing techniques weren’t producing the expected A’s.


After getting back that first assignment: ”It’s really late in the game for me to start changing my writing process from the last 12 years.” –Marcus [This is from an 18 year old.]

After learning new concepts: “It was all these new words.  And it was discourse, and exigence.  I was really confused.  Um.  The purpose of the discourse, what are you, what are you talking about?”—Marcus

So far, this all sounds pretty bleak for self-efficacy. Almost to a person, their confidence had disappeared. Here, I think is a key to keeping them going at mid-term: Persistence was fostered by teachers who used verbal persuasion to help them along.

Toward the end of the semester, they were also starting to look for help from teacher conferences, trusted peers, and the writing center.


“I went to the writing center twice. Like, I did that last time, too. I got into the habit. I think when you go the first time, they give you good stuff, but I think you need follow up, so I make that a habit now.”—Marcus


“Well, we had conferences with [the] Professor. . . . So that was really helpful. . . . like for example, people like Perl and Berkenkotter, what not their methods, but focus on what they found, like their discoveries.”—Camille

I also want to emphasize that a reflective portfolio seems really crucial to this final upward swing in self-efficacy. At the end of the term, students were using the vocabulary of writing studies with ease and they were noticing how disjointed those “efficiency” drafts really were.

On portfolios: “I feel confident. . . . At the beginning those 20 pages were so intimidating. And then I just, like I notice that I just read them real quick. I typed up a nice little reading response. I feel like I got better as a writer, too. So, yeah.”—Camille


So, what are the take away points from this study?

1. Don’t worry if they are discouraged by difficult assignments. They didn’t know what they didn’t know until they encountered this curriculum. That’s okay as long as we provide them some help along the way in the forms of verbal encouragement, mastery experiences, and peer models.

2. Portfolios and authentic reflection seem to be a key source of self-efficacy. Knowing what they know about writing clearly makes them proud.

3. Teachers have a self-efficacy curve, too. When all sorts of student complaints roll around, find a trusted peer or a role model, and solicit some verbal persuasion to keep you going. When you read those portfolios and reflection letters at the end of the course, you’ll feel more confident as well.

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Categories: Writing about Writing
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