Academic journal article High School Journal

Academic and Life Goals: Insights from Adolescent Writers

Academic journal article High School Journal

Academic and Life Goals: Insights from Adolescent Writers

Article excerpt

In order to understand factors that encourage or discourage adolescents' participation in school writing classes and influence their motivation to become skilled writers, we interviewed high school students about their writing experiences, goals, and processes and analyzed their statements for patterns of goal pursuit. Nineteen students of varying achievement levels and classroom placements (8 boys and 11 girls, 6 African American and 13 European American) who had been previously interviewed in fifth and sixth grades were interviewed again in the tenth grade. Goals arising from developmental and personal life issues were central to these adolescent writers, whose writing motivation was heavily influenced by the extent to which they perceived they were encouraged to write authentic personal texts whose messages were respected by caring teachers. The low achieving and alienated students whose writing motivation had declined from earlier years did not now believe they received respect for their ideas, but that their teacher was interested only in their texts' basic organization and display of proper grammatical conventions. Methods for teaching writing that enlist and honor the personal goals of adolescents and support their motivation to write are described.

Teachers of composition are often at a loss to understand why their students do not try harder to become proficient writers. Teachers want students to learn the skills of effective communication, and are discouraged by the minimal effort that students put into writing assignments and their lack of progress on papers over the year. In this study, we interviewed a group of high school students about their views on writing, and found a fascinating variety of adolescent perspectives. As writers, these students displayed the same kinds of variations in academic performance that dismay (and occasionally please) teachers everywhere. Some were cheerful writers; others were apathetic or negative. Despite teacher efforts, few students viewed their school writing as part of a long-term effort to become more skilled at expressing themselves effectively in the world beyond school. In order to probe the forces beneath these academic behaviors, we asked students for their interpretation of writing, their motivation for writing, and their views of their teachers' reception of their writing. In our analysis, we looked for underlying intentions, concerns, and issues that are hidden under the surface of the day-to-day activities in a busy high school. We hope that these insights will provide assistance in establishing curriculum priorities among the conflicting and confusing instructional claims for "best practice" that compete for teachers' attention.

Goal theory research provided a useful framework for theorizing about the student's responses. Theories relating motivation to goals assert that individual internalized goals are crucial determinants of school achievement behavior and thereby of school success. Much research on students' goals makes a distinction between performance or ego goals (achieving in order to impress others, sometimes in a competitive sense) which tend to elicit superficial strategies designed primarily to win approval, and more functional mastery or task goals (focusing on self improvement and skill development regardless of the performance or responses of others), which elicit greater intrinsic motivation and strategies more likely to lead to successful skill development.

Findings from goal theory research suggest that students who focus on performing to impress others are less motivated, use less effective strategies, and achieve at lower levels than those who focus on achieving mastery of skills. Classroom practices that emphasized extrinsic outcomes of student performances (such as passing or failing) with few rewards for progress toward achievement were found to promote maladaptive performance goals (Ames, 1992; Blumenfeld, 1992). …

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