April 7th, 2014

Helping Students Overcome Their Fear of Writing


Most students in my developmental writing classes claim they “hate” writing. It’s a familiar refrain. But, it is less about “hate” and more about a lack of preparation in the subject area. They do not have sufficient experience with the writing process in order to understand what to do. It is not until they gain this experience and realize for themselves what is wrong and what is right with their own work will their writing improve. This personal realization has to happen. It is key to neutralizing their fear and boosting their confidence.

Here are three simple strategies I have used in my classes.

Give Students Permission to Write
On the first day of class, I inform my students that for the first four weeks of the semester they are allowed to make mistakes in their writing without it affecting their grade. Knowing this immediately reduces the stress they feel about having to take the class and the distrust they have in themselves as writers. I am not telling them how to write; they are experiencing the writing process for themselves. Students can write on different topics triggered by a reading/homework assignment, current events, or a selected topic for journal entry writing. The work is not graded, but is collected for the purpose of identifying areas of need, which I then address in the form of mini-lessons.

Peer Review Comes Later
During this interval, I also ask my students to correct their own work. As mentioned above, I review the work but do not correct it; this process is reserved for the students. Mini-lessons that address problems often found in their writings help them identify their mistakes. At first, they might only be able to identify one or two problem areas in their writing. As the semester progresses, their recognition of these issues increases, which leads to a reduction of such difficulties in future writings. Over time, they learn to identify more of their weaknesses and, as the process continues, they become excited about making small gains. When peer review begins in the second quarter of the semester, students seem to be more receptive of the process because they now understand how it can improve their writing.

Confidence Booster
I like to give writing prompts in the form of open-ended questions because students have to think about their response. Topics such as students’ attitude toward learning, cultural differences in the classroom, or even the need for formal English in their writing, can be formulated into questions and used in a writing activity.

One strategy, which I call “the confidence booster,” is a mini-paragraph marathon that requires students to write one paragraph, every fifteen minutes, for one hour. What I like about this activity is being able to witness the transformation students go through as they work to accomplish this task. Some exhibit frustration that they might not be able to finish in the time allotted, but their doubts quickly dissipate as they focus less on the time and more on the end goal: finishing at least one of the four paragraphs in fifteen minutes. The happiest students are the ones who thought they could never do it, but find a way to complete the task. At the end of the activity, students reflect on their responses to the topics and on their performance. I also use this activity to assess whether students are retaining the writing skills they are learning in the classroom.

In a 1995 report, “What We learn When We Learn by Doing,” Roger C. Schank, leading researcher in cognitive science, explores the theory of how people learn. He writes:

The reason learning by doing works is that it strikes at the heart of memory processes that humans rely upon. Human memory is based in scripts and the generalization of scripts. We learn how to do things and then learn how what we have learned is wrong or right. We learn when our rules apply and when they must be modified. We learn when our rules can be generalized and when exceptional cases must noted [sic]. …[W]e learn all this by constantly having new experiences and attempting to integrate those experiences, or more accurately the memory of those experiences into our existing memory structures. This integration process relies upon new data….provided by experience. When new data are simply told to us, we don’t know where in memory to put them because we don’t really understand the use of that data. When we experience the data ourselves, we also experience, at the same time, other sights, sensations, feelings, remembrances of goals achieved, goals hoped for, and so on.

I have had tremendous success with the three simple strategies above and have come to rely on them to deflate students’ apprehension in the classroom. When students are given the opportunity to learn for themselves: they engage more, produce more, feel better about themselves, and become their own appraiser. What they really need from us is guidance.

Schank, Roger C. (1995) What We Learn When We Learn by Doing. (Technical Report No. 60). Northwestern University, Institute for Learning Sciences. Available online from http://cogprints.org/637/1/LearnbyDoing_Schank.html

Heather Jones is an adjunct professor of English at Northampton Community College, Pa.

  • Jeff Sommers

    I'm somewhat troubled by the emphasis here on "correctness" and "error." That's not the focus in my developmental writing courses–I think it tends to reinforce students' negative attitudes. The classic cocktail party response to the admission that we are English teachers is "Oh, I'd better watch what I say." That comment suggests an attitude that the function of the English teacher is as correction police. That's not an attitude I want to reinforce even inadvertently in my writing courses.

  • Jim Keating

    I see lots of difficulties in writing and fear is one of them. But, sometimes the student has simply given up and is making almost no effort at improvement. In those cases "inertia" is the problem, I think. The suggestions Heather makes are excellent for getting at that problem. I am less concerned with "right and wrong" and more concerned with improvement…and that will only happen if students are willing to write, and write, and write. . I'm going to try this and see what works.

  • howard harmatz

    Why should students polish up what they see as of little value? First, students need to believe they have ideas worth sharing. To get students excited about writing is challenge students to change the reader's mind. Later in the process comes the dressing up.

  • Uyen

    I'm an international in college. I have been struggled so much with writing classes. I was looking for some resources or website that may help me gain some confident to put my words on the assignment papers. Suddenly I come across this post, and I just wish to be able to get help from this professor. What should I do to get me feel a little comfortable and confident with writing, please help!