Increasing Internal Motivation in Apathetic Students within the First Year Writing Classroom

Increasing Internal Motivation in Apathetic Students within the First Year Writing Classroom

Coming into my first semester teaching a First Year Writing course, I experienced what I believe is most likely a common occurrence: I thought that my students would have the same values and thoughts that I had as a freshman college student. I saw the value and importance in writing, I felt capable of producing well-written papers, and, more than anything, I felt internally motivated to write and enjoyed it. As I began my first few weeks of teaching, I was taken aback at a few of my students who turned in meager efforts, late work, or didn’t turn anything in at all. I wasn’t sure how to react to the students who zoned out or were not participating in our in-class writing assignments. And I truly was unsure of how to respond to one student who was struggling to pick a topic for our first large paper because, she said, she didn’t really care or like writing very much.

I had no idea what to do. How could I get my FYW students to care about writing when they were so apathetic about it? I began to rack my brain, trying to think of any way I could help my students become motivated to write and engage in the writing process for the same reasons I had. I wanted them to find the same fulfillment and joy that I felt for writing, and that I believed everyone could feel while writing. And yet, the harder I tried to preach to them about the power of writing, or throw them in writing experiences that would tug at their internal thoughts and experiences, the apathetic and unmotivated students stayed apathetic and unmotivated.

This is not an uncommon experience for college students and instructors—among FYW courses and others—and has been explored for decades. In 1952, A.M. Jordan delved into motivation by investigating the two camps of motivation that are commonly heard: intrinsic and extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is commonly understood as a motivation driven by external means, rewards, or outcomes; intrinsic motivation is understood as a motivation driven by inherent interest and enjoyment in the activity (Deci and Ryan Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations 55). Most FYW instructors—or instructors of any subject—would agree with Jordan when he argues that, although extrinsic motivation is effective, “by and large and in the long run it is intrinsic interest which sends the student a-delving into the records of the world’s experience long after the rewards have been forgotten” (83). It has been traditionally understood that intrinsic motivation is valued in education and learning. In the ideal world, students would engage themselves in a learning activity, assignment, or experience for the pure enjoyment or value of it—a compelling force coming from within. However, it is no secret that at all levels of education—even at the collegiate level—there are apathetic students who simply don’t care, no matter how passionate and energetic the instructor is. Students cannot simply absorb intrinsic motivation through osmosis. And so, the question that begs to be answered is, first, why are students apathetic about writing? And then, how can instructors create a classroom environment that works to mitigate the apathy and foster more engagement—and even, hopefully, enjoyment—from students?

What does apathy look like in students? Overall, apathetic students give off the sense that they are uninterested, indifferent, or even avoidant of an activity or assignment. Melvin Lang details the commonalities between responses of students whom teachers unanimously deemed apathetic: “appear not to be paying attention…seem to be thinking of something else… do not seem to enjoy their college work…display less enthusiasm, involvement, and fewer ideas than is normally offered by their classmates…” and, in short, they lack interest, enthusiasm, and engagement (33). Reeve et. al clarified that apathy in students typically occurs during tasks that the students find uninteresting and often shows up in poor engagement, challenge avoidance, decreased creativity, and lessened persistence (184). Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, motivation researchers who are well known for their Self-Determination Theory (SDT), remind us that no matter how passionate the instructor is about a certain topic, activity, or assignment, not all students will find them inherently interesting. Thus, the idealized intrinsic motivation that instructors aim to foster in their students becomes a well-intentioned goal that most likely will not succeed for every single student, because “intrinsic motivation will occur only for activities that hold intrinsic interest for an individual” (Deci and Ryan, “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations” 59). In short, students are apathetic toward writing because some students are not inherently interested in writing. In my own personal experience, the students who seem the most disengaged or apathetic have been students who have majors in the STEM field who told me that they struggle because they don’t feel they have insights to offer, the types of writing assignments don’t feel realistic or applicable to their future, and they don’t feel that they are “good” at writing.

Within the realm of disengagement, J. D. Williams and Scott D. Alden found that “extrinsically motivated students tend to view writing as unimportant in our society, that they would not take a composition course if it were not required, and that they do not enjoy writing” (109). They also discovered that the extrinsically motivated student often is motivated more by fear of failure, rather than seeking out success. These aversions to composition courses seem to stem from a lack of perceived self-efficacy, a sense that composition courses have no deeper meaning or value rather than mass-producing unmeaningful papers, and that there is not a larger implication that comes from composition courses (such as benefiting a society to which the students belong). This aversion is something that teachers have historically attempted to reduce through extrinsic motivators: grades, feedback, class parties, punishments, awards, etc. However, research has proven that, if facilitated in the wrong way, these extrinsic motivations can actually thwart or hinder learning and student engagement.

Thankfully, Deci and Ryan have found that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation exist along a continuum of internal motivation, and students can move along this continuum so that their perceived locus of causality (PLOC)—the reasons or motivations for one’s actions—becomes internal, rather than external (Deci and Gagné 336). With amotivation on the most external, even impersonal, side, and intrinsic on the most internal side, there are multiple levels in between: external regulation (behaviors performed to satisfy and external demand or obtain an external reward), introjection (motivation by feelings of pressure to avoid guilt or anxiety, or to “attain ego-enhancements or pride), identification (identifying “personal importance of a behavior and has accepted its regulation as his or her own), and integrated regulation (“bringing new regulations into congruence with one’s other values and needs” through self-examination) (Deci and Ryan, “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations” 61-62). Although there are some positive results that come as a result of the external motivation levels as (such as the ability to avoid punishment or negative results, meet deadlines or externally imposed rewards, or maintain self-esteem and a feeling of worth), working toward a curriculum and classroom environment that fosters more internal types of motivations within FYW courses—which I will go on to explain later—can build better writers, rather than simply producing better writing.

Deci and Ryan’s research has highlighted learning components that, when integrated into the classroom, can create internal motivation—in the form of either intrinsic motivation or a more internal extrinsic motivation, such as identification or integration. According to SDT, there are three psychological needs that, when met, will typically increase intrinsic motivation, lead to a more internalized extrinsic motivation, and lead to greater student engagement and deeper learning. The three needs to be met are autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Deci and Ryan, “Self-Determination Theory” 417). For this paper, I will focus on how integrating autonomy, relatedness, and competency in FYW classrooms can help apathetic students to engage in, and even enjoy, composition activities and topics, and can work to mitigate the apathy and amotivation that exist among FYW students. I will then show how collaborative learning practices in FYW courses can support all three psychological needs and therefore enhance intrinsic motivation and internal extrinsic motivation.



Autonomy refers to the amount of control one has over themselves—as opposed to control outside of themselves. Ryan and researcher Cynthia L. Powelson argue that autonomy-support within the classroom—that is, classroom environments that actively work to support students’ ability to make their own choices and fosters their self-determination—increases the likelihood that students will be more “interested, engaged, and volitional in contexts of learning” (51). Deci and Ryan (2000) suggest that autonomy support leads to an internalization and integration, rather than falling short at introjection (64). This allows students to either take in the value of an assignment or activity (internalization), or to take it and make it their own to integrate it into their sense of self (integration).

The level of autonomy offered influences intrinsic motivation, internalized extrinsic motivation, more engagement in learning, and leads to deeper understanding and learning (Deci and Ryan, “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations” 431). Largely represented in research is the idea that autonomy-supportive classrooms lead the most results in an increase of intrinsic motivation or internalized extrinsic motivation. When students are able to have more autonomy in their writing assignments and activity—through flexibility, volition, and a sense of choice (Deci and Ryan “Self-Determination Theory” 421)—then they feel that the motivation comes from within them, rather than constrained rules or guidelines they must follow in order to succeed. When FYW students have a say in their assignments, guidelines, and activities in writing classrooms, they can also make choices that enable them to engage in ways that often feel specific to their values, goals, and future. If a student majoring in engineering is told that they must write a paper using MLA formatting, or must write on a topic that has no interest or relevance to themselves personally, then the motivation will likely come from an external place: i.e. the desire for a good grade, to please the teacher, to avoid disappointment or bad grades, etc., and there may be a lack of a sense of self-efficacy. However, when the choice is left up to them and they feel a sense of control, they are able to make choices that feel valuable to them, they may feel more competent to succeed, and the interest and motivation will likely come from a more internal place—whether that be from an inherent interest or enjoyment, or because they value the outcomes that are enlightened with higher, more personal goals.

The importance of autonomy within the writing classroom is seen in Peter Elbow’s 1968 “A Method for Teaching Writing,” which provides an example of how autonomy in a writing classroom enhances the experiences of the students, the students as writers, and the writing itself. In allowing his students to choose their writing assignments, deem the criteria to be met, and provide feedback on each other’s writing, Elbow fostered this autonomy-supported environment within his classroom, which led to sincere engagements from his students. Deci and Ryan (2000) also found that overly controlling environments (environments that are not autonomy-supportive) inhibit students from internalizing their learning, especially within creative processes (59). Although not all students will write in a way that is typically thought of as “creative,” writing is naturally an act of creation, and therefore, creativity is needed. When instructors attempt to foster creativity within a controlling environment, they are often unsuccessful and may prohibit students from internalizing the skills and traits of good writers.

Autonomy is an essential key to successfully enhance positive motivation within students, and its importance shows up in various studies and research (Deci and Ryan 2000). However, autonomy alone is not enough. It is most beneficial when implemented alongside both the need for competence and for relatedness.



Competence, as defined by Ryan and Powelson, “concerns the sense of accomplishment and effectance that derives from the exercise of one’s capacities under conditions of optimal challenge” (52). A feeling of competence—a student’s belief that they can complete a task, and even can complete it well—builds a sense of confidence, which leads to a more internalized motivation and can increase the enjoyment and engagement of an activity or assignment. On the flip side, a sense of incompetency can even lead to a sense of apathy or amotivation (Deci and Ryan, “Self-Determination Theory” 418). Lang’s research found that apathetic college students often didn’t feel like “college material,” or didn’t bother trying because they believed they would fail (35), placing them on the most external, impersonal level of motivation. It is crucial to foster this sense of competence within students—especially freshman writing students who are entering the world of college writing for the first time.

Competence often derives from a sense of self-efficacy: the belief that one can successfully complete a task or achieve an outcome. Researchers McCarthy et al. found that a successful performance improved, a belief in one’s abilities increased, and when a belief in one’s abilities increased, performance improved (466). They also found that not only do students who see themselves as efficacious in their writing abilities produce better writing, but they act differently as writers: not only does the product improve, but the process improves as well.

It is important for FYW instructors to intentionally strengthen their students’ sense of self-efficacy and competence. This competence-support could come from positive written feedback on assignments or verbal feedback in class, as well as the types and complexity of a variety of assignments. Or, in relation to the first psychological need, autonomy, instructors could allow students flexibility and choice in assignments, activities, and expectations in order to gear their work toward their competence level. If writing instructors can meet this psychological need for competence, then they can enhance more engagement, motivation, and enjoyment in their students for writing.

Not only does supporting students’ competence increase positive motivation, but it also works to decrease anxiety, which often comes from external extrinsic motivations. John A. Daly, who studied writing apprehension and writing competency, found that students who feel less competent in their writing skills typically feel more apathetic, experience less enjoyment, and even avoid writing assignments or activities (10-11). If FYW instructors want to create an environment where apathy is mitigated, students enjoy their writing assignment and activities, and feel an internal and positive motivation to engage more fully in those assignments and activities, it is crucial to build up students’ sense of competence and self-efficacy when it comes to writing. It may be easy to disregard what they learned in high school (when are teachers going to learn that no college instructor is going to ask for a five-paragraph essay or a paper that avoids any form of “be” or the “I” pronoun?). However, when instructors can validate the skills students have gained and boost their sense of competency, students can feel confident in themselves, approach their assignments without dread, and will perhaps even look forward to engaging in those activities.



The last of the three psychological needs of positive motivation is relatedness, which means, as Ryan and Deci (2000) illustrate, that one feels a sense of connection to others, and that they offer value to those with whom they want to connect (64). This relatedness extends beyond connection to something deeper: a sense of belonging. Ryan and Powelson argue that this “refers to the experience of connecting with others in ways that conduce toward well-being and self-cohesion in all individuals involved” (53). This includes being trusted, cared for, close to, and caring for others within a social situation, such as a classroom. This sense of relatedness shows up in research less frequently than competence and autonomy within motivation studies. However, I see it as a critical component of enhancing intrinsic and internalized extrinsic motivation within FYW courses. It is common to consider writing as a solely individual practice: one thinks, performs research, and then sits down and writes frantically in quiet, in isolation, in solitude. However, many scholars agree with Kenneth Brufee’s argument of writing as a social act. When students can recognize writing as a social act—collaborating with others in thinking, research, writing, revision—there is often an increase in relatedness and belonging among students as they feel that they are trusted, cared for and caring for other students.

Similarly, it is important for students to feel relatedness with their FYW instructor. When students feel that their instructors are approachable and see them more as mentors, rather than domineering authoritarians, they are more excited about the class and are more willing to engage in learning (Knox and Stanton). It is crucial to remember that writing can feel very important to students—especially FYW students who may not be used to sending out their writing (written thoughts, opinions, efforts, and even sometimes their experiences) to be critiqued, evaluated, and read. Instructors can work to foster relatedness in FYW through practices such as giving positive feedback, conferencing with students, and creating a positive and open classroom environment.

By including relatedness within FYW classrooms, instructors can strengthen the social interactions inherent in writing (conversation, discovering new perspectives, peer review, collaborative thinking, collaborative writing, etc.) and foster the sense of enjoyment that positive motivation seeks out to create. As Elbow observed, “it is simply fun and interesting for the class to read and discuss its own papers” (118). Relatedness can help writing students see the value of writing to others. For example, instructors can offer to their students the opportunity to share their own perspective with their classmates, providing a sense of greater value and importance to their thoughts and experiences.


Bringing These Needs Together in the FYW Classroom

So, to enhance intrinsic and internalized extrinsic motivation among FYW students, instructors must learn how to create a classroom environment that is supportive of students’ sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Although there are many techniques that instructors can use in FYW classrooms that emphasize and meet any of these psychological needs, or a combination of them, I will focus on one specific technique that I believe will create this desired classroom environment: collaborative learning.

Many writing instructors and writing students believe that they know about collaborative learning. They often have some experience with the traditionally pedagogical techniques such as peer review groups, group projects, group presentations, even perhaps a group paper. However, typically, experiences with these “collaborative” learning techniques are actually what would be classified as cooperative learning: groups which are formed and structured by the instructor, students given specific tasks or roles to perform within the group, and instructors evaluating, checking on, and holding students accountable for their work within the project (Dean 38). These cooperative experiences—which are more rigidly structured and monitored by instructors—are beneficial in their own way and still worthy of taking place within FYW classrooms, but may eliminate much of students’ sense of autonomy, question students’ competence, and eliminate a feeling of authentic relatedness and belonging. Collaborative learning, as scholars such as Bruffee, Deborah Dean, and Sharon Hamilton-Wieler clarify, is centered on the element of a shifting and redistributing of authority relations and structures. This means that writing instructors allot agency, authority, and power to students in choices, assignments, and evaluations, thus increasing their perceived sense of autonomy, competence and self-efficacy, and can allow for a more genuine connection between students and instructor.

Yet many writing instructors interject here with a common observation: that this sounds a lot like anarchy, and they fear that if students are, as Hamilton-Wieler says, “left to have at it” (25), they may be ineffective and counterproductive. Hamilton-Wieler suggests a better approach: to model collaborative learning strategies and techniques to the whole class early on in the semester, and then transition that step to their smaller, collaborative groups as students improve their collaborative skills and sense of competence (25), and to integrate collaborative learning into every class period.

There are many specific practices and activities FYW instructors can draw from (a good amount of these can be found in Berkley et al.’s book Collaborative Learning Techniques), but I want to highlight what instructors can do as a class, in small groups, and with students one-on-one. It is important to understand that this style of learning must happen on all three of these levels so that our students will integrate collaborative learning into their educational repertoire and experience, rather than interpreting it as a “once-in-a-while” experience.


Collaborative Learning as a Class 

As first year writing instructors, we can cultivate a classroom environment supportive of positive motivation by implementing some type of collaborative learning element in whole-class discussions and activities. When students engage in these practices every class period, they are more likely to not see it only as “group work” or, to be honest, an annoyance, but rather something that is simply done because writing is collaborative. However, in order to build this attitude, FYW instructors must begin on day one and hold to this from then on. Hamilton-Weiler suggests instructors can start implementing collaborative learning with the whole class through creating syllabi and setting class goals. She recommends establishing “a shared metadiscourse, based on students’ views of what constitutes ‘good writing’ and using students’ language as much as possible” (22). In her own implementation of this, after coming up with qualities of good writing within smaller groups, her students came together as a class to decide on a statement that would be both meaningful and agreeable to everyone (22). After deciding on this statement, this would be used by the instructor and classmates in writing assignments, peer review groups, teacher feedback, and grading, noting that, while crafting the statement on good writing, the teacher should preserve the students’ autonomy by not guiding or leading them to any specific criteria. This allows the students to feel competent in their evaluation and knowledge of good writing, relatedness in working together collaboratively to decide on a statement, and autonomy in choosing the criteria for which they will be evaluated and graded and can create a community where everyone’s voices feel heard.


Collaborative Learning in Small Groups

The obvious—and most common—collaborative learning exercise within small groups is peer review groups. This is a traditional element to almost any composition class, and with good reason. Peer feedback is valuable to students’ writing, as well as their experience with writing as a social act. It has been shown to have a positive influence on students’ learning and motivation, to improve interaction between students, and heightened student engagement (Moore and Tether, 2013). In their research, Catherine Moore and Susan Tether found that peer review offered students “opportunities to develop diverse skills” (207), a “greater diversity of perspectives” (206), and practice engaging in processes that mimicked many of the career fields the students would later enter into (203). These findings support autonomy—especially as the peer review groups occur within the decided statement on good writing—relatedness in the diversity of perspectives gained, and competence in using the skills they already have and developing new skills in the process. However, it’s also important to remind the students, as Hamilton-Weiler suggests, that they are the ones ultimately in charge of their own writing. Peer feedback is not set in stone—they should consider it seriously, but they get to choose whether or not they use it.

Another example of collaboration within smaller groups are Personal History assignments—what Hamilton-Weiler refers to as “documents of intellectual and social growth in the classroom community” (24). Within these personal histories, students set goals for the semester, set goals for their major writing assignments, set goals for each collaborative session, and perform a mid-semester and end-of-semester analysis to see how well they did on their goals. Then, students share these goals with their small groups and work together to help each other work toward, accomplish, and stand accountable for their goals. This assignment, although seemingly simple and perhaps insignificant, meets each of the SDT psychological needs for internal motivation. As Hamilton-Weiler points out, “students are responsible for determining what they want to achieve in the class; they are responsible for helping each other to achieve these goals; and their instructor has confidence that they have the competence and motivation to fulfill these responsibilities” (23). This helps students to not only feel a sense of control over their writing journey and assignments, but also provides a sense of community within the groups holding them accountable, and can build their sense of competence by seeing what they already do well and then growing in areas of their choice.


Collaborative Learning One-on-One

Collaborative learning is not only important in group settings, but also within the teacher-student relationship. Specifically, FYW instructors can focus on collaboration within providing teacher feedback. Hamilton-Weiler recommends feedback as an ongoing dialogue, rather than a one-time response. She illustrates her own practice: requiring a letter from the student with their papers outlining goals for the particular assignment; ways the collaborative writing group helped or hindered them in achieving these goals; any particular risks taken, worries, or features of the writing that especially please the student; and directions on how the reader should read and respond to the paper (27). Then, after the instructor has given and returned feedback, students write a second letter responding to the instructor’s feedback. I believe that this practice does what collaborative learning aims to do: redistribute authority. By allowing teacher feedback to be a discussion, rather than the end-all, be-all, the student doesn’t get the sense that the instructor has the final word. They can feel a sense of autonomy in the evaluation and response to their writing, and they are handed a feeling of self-efficacy when the instructor listens to their concerns and responses, and then values them.

Similarly, teacher feedback, when it details positive performance feedback and is given in an autonomous and not controlled environment, is likely to enhance intrinsic motivation and internalized external motivation (Deci et al.). When teacher feedback recognizes students’ accomplishments, acknowledges their personal writing goals and their progress in achieving them, and then, within that context, provides meaningful and authentic feedback, students are likely to feel an increase of positive motivation, rather than an increase of apathy.



Rather than expecting every student who walks through the doors of our classrooms to absorb our passion for writing, it is important for us as FYW instructors to realize that we can create a classroom environment that can positively affect students’ motivation on whatever level they are at. If we can intentionally integrate practices and assignments that will support and meet students’ needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness, we can help them to increase their internal motivation, and to more fully enjoy and engage in their learning experience. Through focusing on collaborative learning within the classroom on the whole class, small group, and student-teacher levels, writing students will be more likely view collaborative learning as a natural piece of learning and will feel their need for autonomy, relatedness, and competence met.


Works Cited

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Moore, Catherine, and Susan Teather. “Engaging students in Peer Review: Feedback as Learning.” Issues in Educational Research, Vol. 23, No. 2, 2013, pp. 196-209.

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