“I am just terrible at writing,” she says. “I have always been terrible at writing. I just cannot write well. That is why my grades are terrible.” This remark is not entirely uncommon from students who visit the writing studio for a writing consultation. A dead-end is not the best point from which to begin a journey. Yet, the student has been sent to the writing studio to improve her grades in a particular course, and the onus of responsibility rests on me to achieve that.
I could begin with the basics of writing, such as explaining the subject-verb molecular structure of a simple sentence. I could ask her to read more and begin noticing the structure of sentences that other writers use. However, I have found that while these time-honored strategies may work, there is an equal possibility that they may miss the mark. In my 25 plus years as an English teacher in college and now a writing studio tutor, I have found that a subtle but crucial first step in the journey of improvement is that of tweaking the student’s self-concept. That is the microcosmic level at which one must begin, since conviction of failure usually occludes any specific or painstakingly delivered writing strategies.
“All learning has an emotional base,” wrote Plato over two-thousand years ago (Winter, 2011), a proclamation that is beginning to find validity in present-day neurobiological explorations. Numerous theories of learning by psychologists and educators emphasize the relationship between an adequate level of confidence regarding one’s capabilities and successful task completion—psychologist Albert Bandura being one of the foremost with the publication of his Social Learning Theory in 1977. Subsequent publications reiterated self-efficacy as an “agentic” quality, defining it as “the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the course of action required to manage prospective situations” (Bandura, 1995, p. 2). Psychological change and self-efficacy was malleable and could be modulated, as “people process, weigh, and integrate diverse sources of information concerning their capability, and they regulate their choice behavior and effort expenditure accordingly” (Bandura, 1977, p. 212).
Bandura is arguably one of the foremost theorists to affirm the connection between emotional and cognitive states, though the assertion goes beyond psychological theory to find evidence in physiological brain anatomy. It may also be worth mentioning in passing (the subject is too comprehensive to be considered in depth here) that increasing advancements in neurocognitive research have affirmed a stronger interdependence between the two hemispheres of the brain compared to the traditional view of the logic-based left brain and the emotion-based right brain (Carmona-Halty, 2021; Ge, 2021). As Okon-Singer et al. (2015) assert, attributing mutually independent functionality to either hemisphere of the brain is “fuzzy” in the face of MRI brain imaging evidencing that “emotional and cognitive regions influence one another via a complex web of connections” (p. 5).
The human brain would shy away from a task that seems to predict failure. The student who came in for tutoring with the conviction that she could not write, saw organized, purposeful academic writing as far beyond her ability. The perception became a powerful deflector of engaging purposefully with any attempt at improving writing skills, so important to academic success. I have found Bandura’s emphasis on self-efficacy to be particularly accurate as well as effective in encouraging the first step at any activity, without which the journey of a thousand miles (or thereabouts) cannot begin. Bypassing the origins of her self-predicted failure to write and proceeding on to identifying grammatical errors and reading carefully to observe the writing techniques of polished authors would have been like providing a treatment regimen without examining the diagnosis.
The emotional/feeling bedrock must be worked on first. I need to access the emotional wiring as it had reacted to discouraging circumstances and then settled on a less-than-capable perception of self. Bandura has provided clear pathways towards improving self-efficacy, the four major ones being mastery experiences, verbal persuasion, vicarious experiences, and emotional and physiological states.
Briefly explained, mastery experiences refer to recalling and focusing on past successes, even though they may be unrelated to the nature of the task immediately at hand. Self-perceptions about competence are applicable across a broad spectrum (Bandura, 1997). In the case of the student mentioned above, I would ask her to recount at least three or more incidents when she successfully completed or even excelled at a task. Verbal persuasion refers to encouraging remarks made by a mentor figure to the subject affirming their capabilities. Based on what the student shared about previous task completion, I could offer confidence-building remarks. Self-doubt can also be dissipated by complimenting her on a personal quality, such as the drive and motivation that invited her to pursue higher education. In many cases, I have managed to find a commendable quality in the assignment a student brings, regardless of the grade. Vicarious experiences as a pathway to enhancing self-efficacy is the nudge from self or a trusted figure that several others with comparable levels of preparation or ability have successfully completed a similar or identical task. Students’ abject self-assessment of their writing skills is probably not unfamiliar to writing studio tutors. In such cases, an egalitarian approach works well. Unlike speech, I would tell my student, writing is not an innate human ability; it is a craft that can be mastered through practice. Bandura’s assertion that emotional and physiological states influence the level of self-efficacy is a reminder that a stress-free, judgement-free, and encouraging environment is more likely to bring forth a person’s best efforts. While the previous three practices will have already achieved this objective to an extent, it can be furthered by breaking down a task into portions easier to work on. The student can be reassured that proficiency at any task—or craft, to use the earlier analogy—is incremental, and that each step forward deserves to be lauded. An assignment that seems Herculean in scope when viewed in its entirety, can be approached as achievable a segment at a time.
Self-efficacy as a method of motivation is limited because of its incremental nature—and that is exactly why it works. Bandura’s self-efficacy theory does not propose a lifelong metamorphosis in one’s self-perception. Based on Bandura’s observations as a cognitive psychologist, humans possess a self-modulating system offering a measure of control on their perceptions and behavior (1997). His self-efficacy theory offers a one-step-at-a-time “how-to” toolbox for both educators and students to push past entrenched prohibiting beliefs and engage in productive behavior. After each incremental success, positive self-evaluation can provide the next step up. A strong level of self-efficacy can redirect a student’s perception from “low ability” towards “lower attempts” (Hayat et al., 2020, p. 2), persistence, and improved process to overcome obstacles.
Noorina Mirza, EdD, has taught English composition at Nova Southeastern University since 2008 and has been a writing studio coordinator at Keiser University since 2017. Mirza’s dissertation is focused on creating an emotionally receptive environment for disadvantaged students and has found the strategies mentioned in this article to be highly effective in their own teaching and tutoring practice with students.
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Carmona-Halty, M., Salanova, M., Llorens, S., & Schaufeli, W. (2021). Linking positive emotions and academic performance: The mediated role of academic psychological capital and academic engagement. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues, 40(6), 2938–2947. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-019-00227-8.
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Winter, T. (2011, October 28). The History of Emotional Intelligence. Retrieved from Human performance Technology: https://blog.dtssydney.com/the-history-of-emotional-intelligence