Encouraging Self-efficacy through Caring, Hope Creating, and Coaching Feedback
A first-year writing (FYW) course, as the title indicates, for the most part, consists of freshman students – a group of students experiencing university courses and college demands and stresses for the first time. Perhaps, even students worried about how to be successful in this new environment. As a first-semester FYW instructor, I felt as anxious as many of my students about this new experience and worried too about success. My main concern involved grading, not necessarily determining the grade of each paper; I felt confident in that aspect, but a concern of how to grade in a way that did not discourage a student’s desire to write or damage their self-confidence. As a student, I understood the pressure and the importance many of my students felt about wanting and needing high marks on a paper. But as an instructor, I hoped my students would see beyond the grade, not allowing the grade to define their ability. I did not know how or if it could be done, but my goal was to use the feedback process in both individual conferences and in paper responses to help students view grading as far more than a mark on their paper or an assessment of their writing capabilities. As I studied self-efficacy and how it is developed in students, I came to understand there are strategies instructors can use to not only encourage good writing but enhance a student’s self-efficacy beliefs too. In this paper, I will show self-efficacy is vital to a student’s writing, and an instructor can nurture and improve not only writing performance but also writing self-efficacy belief in their students. This increase in self-efficacy occurs as instructors deemphasize grades and implement and emphasize caring, hope creating, and coaching feedback in classroom activities, homework assignments, and writing projects.
Self-efficacy: what it is and how it is formed
Initially, my concerns focused on not damaging a student’s confidence. While it might seem as if self-efficacy is the same as self-confidence, there are differences. Psychologist Albert Bandura explains confidence as a term which connotes strength and a certainty in a specific outcome, but that belief can be an assurance of any outcome, even an undesirable one, such as failing a test. Self-efficacy also includes strength in a belief; however, that belief is in achieving a desired, positive outcome. Bandura says, “Confidence is a catchword rather than a construct embedded in a theoretical system” (382). Even with this understanding, confidence, at times, is used by scholars when discussing students’ self-beliefs (Pajares; Kirby et. al). As Bandura describes it, self-efficacy is far more than confidence and defines self-efficacy belief as “people’s judgments of their capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performance” (Pajares et al. 105). Self-efficacy is “an affirmation of a capability level” and is perhaps the most influential aspect in a person’s ability to succeed (Bandura 382). It is a critical element for success because self-efficacy affects a person’s motivation, their well-being, and their belief in personal accomplishment (Pajares et al.). Without self-efficacy and the belief positive outcome can be achieved, people have little incentive to perform and lack determination to do required tasks. In fact, self-efficacy not only affects academic performance, but will likely determine it. Research has continually proven that “writing self-efficacy and writing performance are related” (Pajares et al. 105). Because researchers have determined writing self-efficacy and writing performance are connected, if educators know and understand how self-efficacy is developed, it will help them create and engage in activities that can increase a student’s writing self-efficacy and writing performance (Pajares 140).
Self-efficacy beliefs are developed and determined primarily through interpreting information from four sources. Bandura and Frank Pajares define these four sources as mastery experience, vicarious experience, social persuasions, and physiological and emotional states (Pajares; Pajares et al.) Mastery experience is the most influential source and is the result of how one interprets the success of one’s performance. As students assess the results of their efforts on previous tasks, they will then develop a self-belief about their abilities on future tasks. “Efforts interpreted as successful raise self-efficacy; those interpreted as failures lower it” (Pajares et al. 106). Self-efficacy is also formed as students observe others performing tasks, as in peer review or modeling activities. This vicarious experience can influence a student’s self-efficacy as social comparisons are made and students develop “self-perceptions of competence” (Pajares 140). Students also form self-efficacy beliefs through social persuasions, such as verbal messages or judgments received from others. These social persuasions can strengthen a students’ belief in their capabilities to succeed, but they can just as easily weaken a students’ self-efficacy. “In fact, it is usually easier to weaken self-efficacy beliefs through negative appraisals than to strengthen such beliefs through positive encouragement” (Pajares et al. 107). A student’s physiological and emotional state, such as experiences with anxiety, stress, arousal, or other mood states, is also a factor in influencing self-efficacy belief. Strong emotional reaction, negative thoughts, or fears can trigger stress and anxiety that will influence and likely lower self-efficacy. Even with this knowledge of self-efficacy and its influences on student’s performance, studies, however, have not entirely concluded how self-efficacy is developed in writing students (Parjares et al. 117). Still, the research has shown teachers play a significant role in the development of self-efficacy and their influence can either create self-doubt or empower students with self-belief and self-assurance (Pajares 153).
The teacher’s role: To care, to create hope, to coach
If teachers play a role, perhaps even a major role, in developing self-efficacy in students, then we must evaluate how teachers interact with students and what is an effective means of communication to encourage self-efficacy in writing. While it might seem an obvious approach, many scholars advocate a teacher, especially a writing teacher, must care for their students and their development (Zinsser; Sieben; Noddings). Because of the responsibility to care, William Zinsser proposes teaching is a profession in line with a daycare worker or a nurse or a social worker (48). Nicole Sieben insists writing instructors can and should “aim to communicate a culture of caring” (49). John C. Bean suggests that sometimes an educator, with a pile of essays to grade, being frustrated by the assessment process, may forget there is a person behind the writing (317). He sees writing teachers as not only capable of caring for students, but because of the intimate nature of reading students’ writing, a writing teacher should be conscious of and care about the student’s individuality. It might seem like any feedback would show care for a student and their writing growth; however, “the best kind of commentary enhances the writer’s feeling of dignity” (Bean 317). It is also important to remember that “the writing teacher’s ministry is not just to the words but to the person who wrote those words” (Zinsser 48). An instructor can do simple things to show this caring, dignifying, ministering response to students. For example, as an instructor refers to a student by name in the classroom and in feedback, even writing “Dear Jane” when offering written feedback, the instructor will remind themselves of the student behind the work. When an instructor not only remembers the student behind the writing, but also minsters to them as an individual through a caring mindset, the writing student’s self-efficacy will be enhanced through social persuasion.
In addition to caring for individuals and their writing, instructors can create hope in students when they respond positively and engage in students’ ideas, and as hope is created, students’ self-efficacy writing belief is increased. Nicole Sieben recognizes writing assessment is necessary, but she advocates being a “hope creator” as she gives feedback on writing assignments (48). Brian Jackson believes praise – that is sincere and specific – is “good psychological motivation” and will provide hope and help students be less anxious about writing (TMW 179). But even before feedback is offered or considered, some scholars believe the teacher should be a responder first, avoiding the “correction machine” mentality, and responding as a reader, a person with thoughts and feelings, even shared reaction with the writer about the writing (Kirby et al. 103). If a teacher approaches a paper with red pen ready to correct student’s writing, those red marks will likely “weaken self-efficacy beliefs more than a teacher’s positive comments will strengthen them” (Parajes et al. 107). Nicole Sieben suggests teachers can create hope when they engage in students’ ideas, respond positively to concepts, and offer feedback that demonstrates a connection to the students’ writing and also to illustrate that writing is capable of not only transforming people but changing the world too (49-50). “The most significant role any teacher/reader can play is that of skilled responder, of concrete, helpful suggestions about specific stuff in writing” (Kirby et al. 104). A skilled responder, who wants to create hope in the writer, isn’t worried about correcting, or necessarily showing what could be improved in writing, but is excited to engage in ideas and to show what is working well (Kirby et al. 104-6). Being a skilled responder would be one who is sincere in response and creates hope in the writing student. As an instructor creates hope in students through positive judgments and messages, the instructor is using social persuasion to influence students’ writing self-efficacy beliefs.
While some see the role of a writing teacher as a caring responder and a hope creator, other scholars describe the writing instructor as a coach (Bean; Sieben; White). In a coaching role, Bean suggests, especially in the drafting stage, the instructor should “provide useful instruction, good advice, and warm encouragement” (321). Yet, if no suggestions for improvement are offered, a writing student would miss the coaching and the guidance a teacher can provide (Bean; Sieben). And just as using feedback that is only negative or corrective would hinder a student’s writing confidence, feedback that is only complimentary can stifle growth in a student’s writing too (Sieben 50). A “growth rather than grading” approach to feedback is more likely to enhance student learning (Moore). Edward White believes writing teachers should combine “discipline and nurturing, encouragement and warning, even perhaps love and hostility” in their teaching strategies and student feedback (49). However, finding the balance between encouragement and instruction can be difficult. Barbara Fredrickson, a positivity expert, believes in a 3:1 ratio – the idea that a person needs 3 positive comments to counteract every negative one received (Sieben 50). Sieben suggests a compliment/critique feedback following this 3:1 strategy. In assessment, she has found it successful to offer marginal notes sparingly, no more than four per page, with three positives and one corrective. She sees this as being both a coach and a support to writing students (50). Also, it is important in feedback to not only offer compliments and critique, but to also focus on and show students the improvements made during the writing process (Pajares et al. 116). This type of coaching feedback encourages self-efficacy through both mastery experience and social persuasion. As a teacher offers a coaching style feedback with both compliments and critique and shows students how they have been successful in the writing process, their self-efficacy will be increased because they will not only have received positive affirmation about their performance, but they will develop a belief in their performance which will enable them to duplicate and achieve success in future writing tasks.
Feedback: how to implement caring, hope creating, coaching strategies
So what might this caring, hope creating, and coaching feedback look like? First of all, it is specific. While it might seem like it, “good job” and “you’re a great writer” and “fantastic work!” or “I enjoyed reading this” are not positive or encouraging comments; they will not improve student writing, and consequently vague comments like that could possibly harm students’ self-efficacy (Jackson TMW 180; White 50). If a student does not understand what they did well, the uncertainty about their performance can increase anxiety about their writing (Jackson TMW 178). Anxiety creates self-doubt, and then the questioning of being good enough keeps one from writing (Elbow 27). And because a student’s emotional and physiological state affects self-efficacy, vague comments will most likely lower students’ self-efficacy and their motivation to write will diminish (Pajares et al. 107). And if students are hesitant to write, and avoid the writing process, their writing will not improve. Students desire to know what made the work “nice” and without this commentary, students will be frustrated. So if the paper was enjoyable to read or it was nice work, an instructor should be clear about what specific elements of the paper achieved this (White 50). In feedback, teachers should say things like:
- “I like the way you . . .” (Jackson TMW 179)
- “Nice transition here”
- “I like this opening because . . . ”
- “I like the verb here” (Kirby et al. 109).
Bean suggests thinking of your commentary and feedback as a “personal correspondence” (336). This type of correspondence is not only specific, but it also allows the student to see the instructor’s thinking about the work and their encouragement as a coach (Bean 336). When an instructor responds to the writing with an “I like . . .” it is not only specific, but it can create a personal connection and a correspondence that not only feels genuine but creates a personal connection that allows for the coaching, caring, and hope creating suggested by scholars. When instructors respond to student writing with specific caring, coaching, and hope creating feedback, students will know what they did well and self-efficacy will be increased through mastery experience, receiving the positive effects of social persuasion, and also feeling a positive emotional response.
Another strategy for feedback that fits the caring, hope creating, and coaching criteria is to offer not only specific feedback but also be selective and minimal in commenting on students’ writing. Too much feedback can overwhelm students and lower their self-efficacy belief in accomplishing assigned tasks. In following Sieben’s no more than four marginal comments rule, feedback should be limited, however, not just in how many comments offered, but the variety of focus in these comments. Asking “What single lesson do I want to convey to students?” and then reinforcing where the student is doing that well will build self-belief (Jackson TMW 179). These coaching comments should reinforce classroom instruction and be offered in language familiar to students from those lessons, thus helping them feel some mastery experience in their accomplishments (Jackson TMW 178). And when work does not meet standards, find places where the piece has potential and offer comments for development. This coaching will help improve writing as the student recognizes their ability to improve through mastery experience. Yet, it is important not to take over the students writing and offer where and how detailed revisions should be made. In making suggestions such as “I wonder . . .” or “What if . . .?” offers a coaching strategy, but still leaves any revision decisions as the student’s choice (Kirby et al. 109). “We must convey to student writers that responsibility and control remain with them and that they need to do more than merely respond to our comments” (Jackson TMW 180). As focused comments are offered and decision making remains with the writer, the instructor conveys a belief the student has the skill set to make effective revisions not only through being a hope creator but also influencing mastery experience.
Instructors can also use feedback in the form of questions as a way to encourage this agency in student writing, and this type of feedback will demonstrate the instructor has faith in students’ capabilities to write and make revisions further demonstrating this caring, hope creating, and coaching instruction. Questions also keep the feedback conversational and demonstrate caring and invite learning (Sieben; Bean; Kirby et al.). Feedback like the following questions invite a conversation about a revision plan that the student can be a part of, and this coaching feedback illustrates to the student care about their work and their improvement. Scholars have suggested questions similar to:
- “Is there any more to this story?” (Kirby et al. 109)
- “Have you considered exploring the significance of this phenomenon in a bit more detail?” (Sieben 51)
- “What can you do here to make your meaning more clear to readers?” (Jackson TMW 179)
- “On p. 5, I see where you have effectively quoted a scientist, but I don’t see how it relates to the rest of the paragraph. How can you write a sentence or two after the quote to incorporate it more effectively?” (Jackson TMW 180)
Questions are especially effective in individual conferences with students. Students may often come to a conference with a question of their own, such as “What did you think about my writing?” But if the conference is to be a learning and self-efficacy building one, the instructor must offer genuine praise and questions about the student’s work (Kirby et al. 102). This keeps a dialogue open about the writing, and it conveys to the student that the writing remains in their control, with their choices, and in doing so, expressing belief and creating hope in their abilities to write and fostering self-efficacy through social persuasion (Jackson; Sieben).
When instructors use feedback that speaks student’s language – such as an emoji or an exclamation point – it can be effective in building self-efficacy because it demonstrates a care for the student. Sieben suggests using emoticons to convey a connection to writing. If the writing is intended to elicit a happy reaction or a sad response and it does, she will then draw simple emoticons to illustrate those emotions were felt. Richard Haswell speaks of this digital language too, but sees is it as a way to show connection and a care to the student writing. He referred to it as “leaving tracks” (17). He believes even these little markings – checks and squiggles and smiley faces and exclamation points – can convey to the student that their writing is worth reading (17). Jackson similarly encourages emojis; he believes they can ensure gentleness, perhaps even soften correction, offering a nurturing and a caring not felt in written feedback (TMW 179). Emoticons may be a simple form of feedback, but even so, they demonstrate caring and when they elicit an optimistic response in the writing student, then self-efficacy can be improved through both social persuasion and a positive emotional state.
Formative feedback: daily caring, hope creating, and coaching approaches
Instructors do not need to wait until a paper is turned in to offer feedback that demonstrates caring, hope creating, and coaching; it can be done throughout the writing process. In offering assessment, it is important to remember that summative feedback happens occasionally – three or four times a semester – while formative feedback can and should happen daily. Therefore, formative feedback may have a greater influence on writing self-efficacy than summative feedback. Students find feedback that has immediate application to improve writing of more value than summative feedback on a final draft (Moore 196). While it is necessary to offer productive feedback and assessment on final products, writing instructors might possibly do more to build self-efficacy belief in students through lower stake assignments and writing activities. For instance, classroom activities can provide opportunities for specific mastery building feedback, vicarious experience, and positive social persuasion guidance. Writing activities such as a free-write or brainstorm activity, guided tasks which ask students to answer a question on a specific reading, or classroom writing shared on a class forum can provide opportunities to offer specific feedback on what students are doing well and give instructors the ability to point out particular reading they found enjoyable to the entire class, and in doing so, showing care in a student’s work and creating hope in students’ abilities.
One of the ways I have been able to incorporate this in my classroom is to offer low-stake writing assignments when a reading is assigned. For example, when we read chapter 2 “Thinking Rhetorically” of Brian Jackson’s Mindful Writing, I asked: “Jackson states, ‘Rhetorical thinkers know how to handle life’ (13). Why do you think he says this?” As a homework assignment, in two or three sentences, they individually replied. I read the posts before class and shared with the students insightful answers. I have found that many students give answers on these questions in ways I had not thought about. I will often choose to share from students who do not normally contribute in the class setting. I believe by reading some of these posts in class my students not only know I value their time writing and exploring their thoughts, but I also am helping students, who do not normally contribute to feel as if they have insightful things to share and that everyone can and should contribute to our class. As I do this, I believe self-efficacy is fostered through social persuasion as I demonstrate I care about students’ writing and their success. I have also shared writing I found effective, from homework assignments or the class writing forum, with the entire class. As I point out successful writing strategies to the class, I believe the student of the shared work benefits from mastery experience, but also if another student wrote about or considered similar strategies, then their self-efficacy would be enhanced through vicarious experience as well. This feedback creates hope in students as well as building self-efficacy.
I have also used rush-writes and a class Google document not only for learning activities but also as a means to praise and coach student writing. These classroom activities can build student self-efficacy belief through mastery, social, and vicarious experiences. Often times, after a rush-write, I will have students share their writing with other students. Then I will ask students to nominate writing they found helpful, persuasive, or enjoyable to hear, and then ask the nominated students to read their work to the class. This builds self-efficacy in students as they experience the social persuasion knowing others approved of their writing and also mastery experience because their work has been viewed as successful. And if a student, who was not nominated, wrote something similar, their self-efficacy will be influenced through vicarious experience. A shared Google doc, or something similar, can also be a means to offer formative feedback to students and build self-efficacy. During an activity, such as a sentence imitation or a style exercise, I will ask students to share their writing on a shared forum. This activity gives me an opportunity to quickly and publicly offer formative feedback, and as I compliment effective writing, self-efficacy will be built through mastery experience and social influences. Classroom activities provide a variety of ways to offer formative feedback and instantly praise writing and influence student writing self-efficacy belief in ways summative feedback may fall short.
Assessment: emphasizing feedback and deemphasizing grading
Instructors can implement this caring, hope creating, and coaching feedback; however, when assigning grades to students’ work, assessment can complicate the process of building self-efficacy through feedback. Feedback in papers and conferences is likely the most individualized communication writing teachers have with their students, and scholars do see it as a way to build self-efficacy (Bean; Sieben; Jackson). Still, when grades overshadow or take priority over the feedback, then students’ writing self-efficacy belief can be damaged. Even if students view it as such, a grade is not feedback. And scholars insist giving a grade to a paper is not a response (Haswell; Bean). In fact, assigning grades – even an “A” grade – without comments or feedback is useless to students (Semenza 132). Yet, even when a final paper includes feedback with the grade, students and instructors may see that summative feedback as evaluation on past learning and not necessarily feedback for future projects (Dixson & Worrell). Grades are most often given on final projects, and with that, grades usually carry a connotation of finality. And yet, possibly with some effort by instructors that connotation can be changed. Instructors – and I have been guilty of this – will announce when grades will be posted. What would happen if we announced when feedback was given? If instructors frame the assessment as feedback instead of grading, then the emphasis will be placed on the aspect of assessment that is helpful to build self-efficacy, and then both students and teachers may focus more on feedback and growth rather than on grades and shortcomings. Another solution is to not grade everything. In fact, a check mark or a favorable comment is enough of an assessment for certain assignments and will satisfy students (White 74). Most scholars agree that grading is complicated (Kirby et al.; Bean; White). Students fret about grades, and many instructors struggle to assign them (Jackson TMW 187). There are no clear solutions to the grading dilemma. But even without solutions, many insist grading should be deemphasized (Kirby et al 216). If grading is deemphasized and caring, hope creating, and coaching feedback emphasized during the assessment process, then writing self-efficacy belief can be increased as both students and instructors value feedback over grades.
Conclusion: caring, hope creating, and coaching feedback encourages writing
As instructors place a greater value on feedback, students’ writing performance, their self-efficacy belief, and their thought process will benefit. Writing instructors cannot control all influences in developing students’ self-efficacy, but they can provide effective feedback. Effective feedback on students’ writing improves writing self-efficacy, and when students believe they are capable of writing, their motivation to write is generally increased as well. William Zinsser said, “Writing is a tool that enables people in every discipline to wrestle with facts, and ideas” (49). Students in a first-year writing course come from every discipline, and as their writing self-efficacy belief is increased through caring, hope creating, and coaching feedback, they will write. Writing brings ideas. Writing brings an exploration of thoughts. And writing not only brings more writing, but improved writing. Brian Jackson teaches “writers get better at writing by writing” (MW 3). As instructors use caring, hope creating, and coaching feedback, they will encourage student writing. And encouraging student writing should be the focus for any writing instructor.
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