Friday, January 06, 2017


It's Friday night so I don't have have time to do Hesse or deBoer justice. But this needs to be shouted from the roof tops:

I don’t disagree with most of Hesse’s prescriptions for composition. In particular, when he writes, “Students learn to write by writing, by getting advice and feedback on their writing, and then writing some more,” I want to applaud. Writing is like playing a sport or learning a musical instrument: there is no substitute for repetition. You must practice! Students need to be writing, a lot. I would personally prefer that they be working at much smaller scales than is typical in contemporary composition classrooms, taking apart their own paragraphs, finding what doesn’t work, and rewriting them until they’re polished and strong. But yes, there is simply no substitute for practice, for repetition, in training young writers.

I'll pick up the thread later.

1 comment:

Andrew Gelman said...


I've been thinking about this issue a lot recently. What's needed is not just practice, but practice plus motivation. Or, to put it another way: Without the motivation, students won't do the practice. Hence the need for motivation at all levels:

- Intrinsic long-term motivation: I want to learn skill X because it's inherently important to me (I want to write so I can better express myself; I want to play tennis better because I feel like a better person when I am in shape and can move gracefully).

- Intrinsic medium-term motivation: I want to be able to write more clearly and with less effort; I want to improve my tennis game.

- Intrinsic short-term motivation: It's fun to write and to practice writing; it's fun to play tennis and do tennis drills.

- Instrumental long-term motivation: Writing will make me more productive at my job; playing tennis better will keep me moving and healthy in my later life.

- Instrumental medium-term motivation: I want to get a good grade in my writing class; I want to have a shot at winning the upcoming tennis tournament.

- Instrumental short-term motivation: I want to get that paragraph done; I want to hit that shot right.

Being able to go up and down the ladder of motivation is one reason, I think, that there's so much talk now about "gamification" in learning.

These ideas are not new to me, of course, but in any case I've been thinking a lot about motivation. You can find lots of arguing on the web about whether the role of college as teaching vs. signaling etc, but I think this is all missing the role that college plays in motivating students to go to class and do their homework etc. That's often what I think is my most important role as teacher.

The other important thing is to give feedback and help students figure out how to do better. For most students, all the practice in the world isn't enough without some feedback.