Student Confidence Levels in Writing

St. Olaf College, Maria Kelly


The goal of this project was to investigate the use of an adapted "exam wrapper" in conjunction with explicit instruction in metacognitive learning strategies in a first year writing course.

The following questions guided my thinking:
  • What kinds of practical knowledge/skills and intuitive understanding do students bring to our classes?
  • What kind of confidence and personal/affective history do our students typically bring to our classes?
  • How do these understandings, confidence levels and histories contribute to/inform a student's sense of their success/ability as a writer?
The central questions for the project were:
  • Does the use of metacognitive teaching and learning strategies such as exam or paper wrappers affect student confidence levels about writing?
  • Does the effect, if any, of using metacognitive strategies transfer to other courses and into the remainder of the academic year?

I was also interested in learning if it is possible to help students develop what skills/intuitive understandings they may already bring to the college experience that may initially seem unhelpful or impractical. Some additional considerations for my project included: Can students learn to transfer knowledge/skills gained in other settings to an academic one? Is there such a thing as "other" prepared vs. under prepared? How might faculty improve teaching and learning by incorporating and addressing these "other" skill sets and understandings?


I conducted my research with my First Year Writing course (WRIT 111 – formally GE 111) during the fall semester 2009. Although the theme of each section depends upon the specific professor, each course section has these learning outcomes listed in the St. Olaf Course Bulletin:

"...students write frequently in a variety of modes, with emphasis in writing expository essays. One or more assignments require research. As part of the writing process, students revise their writing and meet individually with course faculty to discuss their writing."

Students are given an opportunity to select a theme/topic that interests them, but they do not always receive their first choice or indicate a choice. This may or may not factor into a student's motivation or attitude about the course.

Almost all St. Olaf students are required to take this course during the first or second semester of their first year. This course requirement may be waived and the graduation requirement (FYW – First Year Writing) awarded if a student received a score of 5 on the Advanced Placement English Literature or English Language Exam. Some students take an alternative course if ACT, SAT, or admissions materials suggest they would benefit from a more basic approach (WRIT 110) or specific instruction for students learning English (WRIT 107). These students are asked to take a placement exam during orientation. The score determines whether or not a student must take WRIT 107 or WRIT110 prior to taking WRIT 111.

Presumably, the students enrolled in WRIT 111 represent the "average" St. Olaf student if one assumes that the more advanced writing students qualified for and chose to waive the requirement and the struggling students are placed into the other two sections. Even with these considerations, there is a range of student writing ability and preparation within the 18 students assigned to each section.

An informal survey of the participants in my specific section of WRIT 111 indicated that only a small percentage of them had actually taken a "writing course" during high school. A greater number had written essays and papers for courses; some students noted "considerable amounts" of writing in specific English courses. However, within this group there also existed a range of those who felt they had received little to no instruction in writing and had little to no confidence with writing, to those who felt they had received a good deal of instruction and had high confidence.

Teaching Practice

My teaching practice for the targeted course was adjusted to include the metacognitive strategies chosen for my study. I had not previously used formal instruments to gather data on student thinking and reflection regarding writing and the processes involved in the preparation of drafts and final copies. To begin, I had my students complete the MSLQ in conjunction with Diane Angell's study using the same instrument. I also was able to modify a Writing Attitudes Survey (based on Charney, et al., 1995.) Both instruments were given pre and post – at the beginning and then again at the end of the semester.

Using the exam wrapper as a model, several of us in the Collegium collaboratively designed a paper wrapper or "Post-Writing Reflection." I used this wrapper each time a major paper was assigned in the course. In addition, I incorporated the use of several reflection exercises for pre-writing and for use prior to peer review sessions. Given our course topic (teachers and teaching) and that this was a first year seminar occurring in the first semester, I was able to frame many of our course discussions around the significance of the transition from high school to college. In this way, the consideration of metacognition remained at the forefront of our discussions when discussing the writing process. I was also able to encourage metacognitive thinking during my one on one meetings with students to discuss not only their writing, but also their use of strategies in all of their courses as they transitioned to life as a college student. Although these conversations were not part of my study, they were a huge part of my teaching of the course and were shaped in large part due to the learning I was experiencing as part of my involvement in the Collegium.

My ability to continue on and follow up with these students and survey them as they completed their second semester, and then also as they began their third year, was hindered by the additional responsibilities I took on as chair of our department. The extenuating circumstances surrounding my new role as chair have prevented me from completing the research I began with the Collegium. Although I continued to use the paper wrapper and reflection exercises with my next section of the course (fall, 2010), I did not systematically collect data or use similar pre and post measures as I had done in 2009.

However, in addition to the specific changes made within the targeted course, I also began to utilize metacognitive strategies in my teaching within my other courses as well. The consideration of metacognition has even entered into my conversations and coaching sessions with the student teachers I supervise. In fact, this past semester, one of the student teachers I worked with developed her own version of exam wrappers for a middle school classroom. Several students in my methods course incorporated metacognitive strategies into their unit plan assignments as a result of our course work together. It has been exciting to see our teacher candidates begin to consider the role of metacognition in their own teaching.

I had hoped to come away with a sense of the effectiveness of the wrapper strategy and other metacognitive approaches on students' attitudes and abilities as college writers. My sense is it would be of great benefit to the college to be able to suggest specific instructional strategies to professors of FYW seminars as well as to all other instructors incorporating a required writing component (WRI) within their courses.

Conclusions and Evidence

Although I was not able to draw any conclusions from my study, I was able to make several observations based on initial review of data collected during the semester. One of the first observations I made occurred after students completed their first paper wrapper. The wrapper asked them to report on the number of hours spent on a variety of pre-writing activities and drafting strategies. Several students crossed out the provided "hours" space and instead wrote in "minutes" indicating a substantial decrease in the amount of time I had anticipated they would use to complete their drafts. In the peer review section, most students were able to comment on feedback from their peers and articulated how they had changed (or not changed) their draft due to the feedback provided to them.

In the next section of the wrapper, students were able to identify key areas to target for the next paper. As the semester progressed, most students continued to identify the three main areas for concern I had noted in my review of their writing: create an outline of ideas prior to writing; spend more time overall on the initial drafts; seek out another reader to review draft prior to submitting it in class.

When asked about what type of feedback they wanted from the professor, most students continued to offer very general requests: "how can I improve my writing?" and "did I do it right?" Specific requests informed instructional decisions and I was able to provide additional lessons on requested topics/areas of concern such as clarity and focus and the effective use of supporting examples.

In the initial attitude survey, students indicated the following as the top three specific goals for their writing:
  1. improve creativity and style
  2. improve confidence with writing
  3. improve efficiency – write faster and


Those of us involved in the Teagle Collegium from St. Olaf (Diane Angell and Kent McWilliams) were all invited to present to interested faculty and staff during a CILA (Center for Innovation in the Liberal Arts) faculty development Brown Bag Seminar on October 20, 2009, entitled: Thinking about Thinking: Effective Metacognitive Strategies for Teaching and Learning.

Looking Ahead