Teresa Kelly, Composition Faculty, Kaplan University
Due to the essential nature of writing skills for student success and retention, Composition faculty spend significant time motivating struggling student writers to improve skills and performance. While all students get feedback of some type on assignments, and many instructors use a constructive feedback method such as the sandwich method or the two plus two template to combine positive reinforcement with constructive advice, interactions outside grading and feedback often focus heavily on struggling students. In order to provide balance between remediation and positive reinforcement, the question becomes how to motivate good student writers to continue to perform well and develop their skills so that all students advance with strong writing skills. The answer is not revolutionary. Using positive reinforcement and a systematic process for praising students who do well makes perfect practical and pedagogical sense.
Many programs often have strong, detailed processes for outreach to struggling student writers but prescribe little if any special interaction with high achieving students writers even though Holder (2007) and other experts on student success identify internal and external motivation as a key indicator of persistence for all students. Highly skilled student writers risk not becoming high-achieving student writers if they do not receive the proper motivation and positive reinforcement. Faculty who focus almost entirely on students who need help risk not establishing a social presence with high performing students – another factor in persistence according to Ivankova and Stick( 200). Holder (2007) also contends that “perceived emotional support” contributes to the difference between successful and unsuccessful students. Not prescribing additional formal interaction with students who are performing well may deprive them of that support. At the very least, high-performing students may not directly interact with faculty as often, resulting in a sense of dissatisfaction with the course or faculty member – another key factor in student persistence (Ivankova & Stick, 2005). Developing a systematic approach that mirrors outreach to struggling student writers allows Composition faculty to apply the idea of positive reinforcement to student writers who demonstrate mastery of Composition skills, good writing habits, and excellent social skills.
Proactive, positive outreach need not overburden already hard-working Composition faculty. Consider these effective but simple strategies based on understanding the benefits of positive reinforcement.
- Classwide Praise. Classwide praise involves giving group accolades that acknowledge something a class has done well or an activity that an overwhelming percentage of the class completed. Students who did not master the skill or complete the activity also benefit from this type of communication because they see good work recognized.
- A Private “Nice Work”. When an instructor notices a positive action by a student, he or she may send a personal note or email that acknowledges the act and encourages the behavior to continue – the true mark of positive reinforcement. A private chat – face to face or virtual – also works.
- Cumulative Performance Acknowledgement. Student writers feel pride when they know their professors see and appreciate how hard they work. One student whose Composition course used the positive communication and reinforcement model noted, “I just wanted to say that I love getting these congratulatory emails! It really makes a person feel proud when…[he or she is] recognized for good work (even at the college level.) [I] haven’t had a teacher like you before. . . Thanks for all your work that you do for us.” These personalized interactions offer congratulations and encouragement to student writers whose overall performance stands out. These interactions can take place via email, note, or individual meeting. This task can be completed weekly after grading, on a periodic basis, or at set intervals such as midterm.
- Wall of Appreciation. Student writers – even those who struggle – tend not to be shy about saying thank you to other students who support them. They may reply in discussion with a “Thank You” or give a verbal accolade in the classroom or live session. Many more may contact the other student privately, but such appreciation is not always visible to other students or faculty. Using a tool like Padlet (padlet.com), an internal discussion forum, or even a corkboard reserved for the purpose encourages students to thank each other publically. Other students may be inspired to post a thank you themselves or to try harder to help others, thereby enhancing class rapport and cohesion.
Even implementing one of the strategies can improve the dynamic of a class and energize the tone of teaching.
The purpose of proactive, positive outreach is not comparable to the maligned “all students get awards” philosophy. Struggling student writers see the praise as an incentive to do better, and those who do improve should be recognized, albeit with the emphasis on continued improvement. The student writers who receive direct, individual positive reinforcement earn it through performance.
Most educators do want students to do well; they just need a more systematic way to communicate their support. According to Hart (2012), “Almost unanimous agreement exists in the literature that communication with the instructor, motivation, and peer and family support can be used to overcome barriers to persistence.” Composition faculty can encourage and facilitate three out of four factors. A proactive strategy to encourage and reinforce strong learners ticks all three interaction boxes – perhaps heading off the need to remediate and certainly creating a higher sense of satisfaction with the course.
Hart, C. (2012). Factors associated with student persistence in an online program of study: A review of the literature. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 11 (1), 19-42.
Holder, B. (2007). An investigation of hope, academics, environment, and motivation as predictors of persistence in higher education online programs. The Internet and Higher Education, 10, 245-260. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2007.08.002
Ivankova, N. V., & Stick, S. L. (2005). Collegiality and community-building as a means for sustaining student persistence in the computer-mediated asynchronous learning environment. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 8(3).