What Can Self-Regulation Research Tell Us about the Writing Process?

In the presentation, Susan Day discusses whether self-regulation is like a muscle (the more it’s used, the stronger it becomes), or is it like a tank of gas (the more it’s used, the lower it gets)? Is it more cognitive (control over thoughts), behavioral (control over actions), or affective (control over emotions)? Psychological research on self-regulation is relevant to English instructors’ efforts to help their students write well. Procrastination, distraction, mis-estimation of time, avoidance, pointless effort, and negative self-talk are all enemies of successful writing process, and they all involve failures of self-regulation. She summarizes classic and recent research findings about what self-regulation is, what promotes it, and what impairs it. She focuses on how these findings can be useful to the classroom instructor.

Day starts the presentation with the importance of self-regulation. Lack of this regulation is often the source of larger social problems such as addition, problematic consequences of sex, violence and aggression, and criminality. In relation to writing, the lack of self-regulation can lead to problems such as procrastination, distraction, pointless effort (endless outlining or research and throwing away draft after draft), and avoidance behaviors. After establishing those issues, she goes into three psychological theories of self-regulation. She points out the contradictory nature of the three theories. The first two theories are that self-regulation is a resource that can be depleted or a skill that grows over time. The first theory holds that the first effort wears out the writer so that the writer is too exhausted to competently complete a second task. The second theory suggests that the writer’s second effort will be better than the first. She then discusses some experiments that psychologists have used to test those two theories, the outcomes of which seem to support both theories.

Next, she examines some beliefs about the self. There are two theories governing these beliefs: incremental and entity. She defines incremental as the belief that human attributes can be improved and developed. She defines entity as the belief that human attributes are fixed or invariant, akin to having a “talent.” She argues that all people hold one of these theories, including students and instructors. Overall, there seems to be a 50/50 split overall, but those theories can change depending upon application. She suggests that most students hold entity theories about writing, but she argues that instructors can change students’ beliefs on writing. She displays a chart that details the positive benefits of the incremental theory. She argues that instructor intervention can convert entity theorists to incremental theorists pertaining to writing. She offers an example of students transitioning to the seventh grade who were given very brief intervention of incremental thinking, and even that brief amount lead to improved classroom results. She also suggests that instructor feedback is a way to intervene with students.

She brings in B.F. Skinner’s advice on writing. His first suggestion was to compare the writing task to playing a piano concerto. That task would require first a focus on good physical condition and rest. He also suggested that students select a fixed time for writing, and that allows a person to better construct the best conditions for writing. Day interjects a personal story about her brother’s preparations for writing that included setting up his desk the night before he sat down to write. Returning to Skinner’s advice, she says that Skinner suggested people carry notebooks to record thoughts outside of the prescribed writing time. Day suggests a modern equivalent is the digital devices that most students use. Skinner also suggested that students keep records of their work to better understand how they are using their time.

She concludes by reiterating that students can be converted from entity theorists to incremental theorists, thus changing their beliefs about writing and improving their writing products.

Presenter Bio

Susan X. Day is a writer, licensed psychologist, visiting professor of educational psychology at the University of Houston, and private educational consultant (www.carterandday.com). At the University of Houston, she is a research methodologist, assisting graduate students with experimental design and data analysis. Dr. Day was a professor of English at Illinois State University for 20 years before receiving her Ph.D. in counseling psychology at University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Her specialties in English studies are writing and pedagogy, and she has done research on the practices of dissertation writers and the identity development of creative writers. She is also the author and co-author of more than a dozen college textbooks in rhetoric, grammar, and literature, notably Pearson’s Literature and the Writing Process (now in its tenth edition) and The Simon and Schuster Short Prose Reader (now in its fifth edition).