CDTL    Publications    About
Nov 2003 Vol. 7   No. 3  

........   LEARNING ISSUES  ........
Motivating Students in a Writing Class
Susan Lopez-Nerney & Carol A. Binder
Centre for English Language Communication


Motivating students in a language class is a perennial problem, especially for English proficiency teachers at our centre. This is because our students have experienced failure communicating in English and thus, tend to have low motivation towards the course. Also, students are often resentful about taking an additional course to improve their language skills. Although all of our students have been determined to be weak in English, their standards differ—weak, weaker, weakest.

We have a good idea of how to teach these students. However, the question that constantly engages us is how can we help our students learn better? In “English for Academic Purposes” (EG1471), a compulsory writing course for engineering students who fail the university’s Qualifying English Test (QET), we have used the writing portfolio and small-group learning to help our students learn. In Semester Two (AY 2001/02), we studied the effects of these strategies and found that they had positively influenced and motivated the students.

Portfolios and Small-group Learning

EG1471, a 48-hour, one semester course, focuses on improving students’ writing. Since research on writing portfolios and small-group learning indicate that such strategies enhance learning, we used them in our course with some adaptations to suit our needs. We assumed that if students found these activities helpful and enjoyable, they would be more motivated to learn and become better writers.


A writing portfolio is typically defined as a collection of a student’s best work and implies that the student is able to discern good writing. The following benefits and aspects of a portfolio are most relevant to us:

  • Demonstrates the effort that the student has put into his writing. This effort can be seen in the quality (and in some cases, quantity) of work presented.

  • Contains some student reflection. Students are used to receiving our feedback but do not often reflect on their strengths and weaknesses as writers. Reflection generated by a portfolio helps students focus on areas that they have improved in and those needing more work.

  • Requires students to be more aware of what constitutes good writing as they need to put their best work in the portfolio. Thus, students are ‘forced’ to become more analytical about writing in general and their own writing in particular.

  • Reflects the students’ understanding and knowledge of the effort that went into their work.

We adapted the portfolio to meet some of our needs. Most importantly, we asked our students to include ALL the work they did during the semester in their portfolios. Unlike the typical writing portfolio, ours served another purpose: since our students were not required to attend classes, the portfolio was a record of all the work they did. To us, the amount of work indicated the students’ level of participation and attendance in the course.

At mid-semester, we asked the students to reflect on the progress they had made AND on their behaviour with regards to participation and attendance. This was part of our attempt to make the students aware of their responsibility for their learning.

Finally, although the students needed to include all their work in their portfolios, they still needed to select their three best pieces of writing for a grade. While the teachers reviewed and gave feedback on everything that was included in the portfolio, they graded only the three texts the students chose.


In small group learning two or more students work together to accomplish structured common tasks. In carrying out these tasks, students use cooperative, pro-social behaviour (i.e. collaboration, not competition). The students are individually responsible for their learning (Millis, 1996)—knowledge is created through interaction instead of transmission of information from the teacher.

Nowadays, the value of small-group learning is generally accepted and seen to offer many benefits. Those relevant to our course are:

  • Development of higher-level learning and problem solving skills;

  • Development of interpersonal and group skills;

  • Enhanced practice hence improvement of communication skills, and increased motivation for and enjoyment of learning.We used small-group learning in the following three areas of students’ course work:

  • Gathering ideas for their writing through brainstorming and discussion of readings chosen by students;

  • Discussing grammar problems; and

  • Revising their writing through peer review.

Evaluation Portfolios and Small-group Learning

We ascertained how students regarded portfolios and small-group activities in terms of helpfulness to their writing and enjoyment as learning activities by analysing five sets of data:

  • Surveys of student perceptions;

  • Student writing samples;

  • Student self-assessment;

  • Informal interviews; and

  • Our own observations.


About 75% of our students found portfolios a helpful strategy for improving their writing. However, only 50% indicated that they enjoyed the process of keeping and putting the portfolio together.

Our interviews with students gave us more insight into their feelings about the portfolio. Most students had a high degree of personal satisfaction with their portfolios. They felt and could see that they had accomplished a lot during the semester. Students also saw their problems and how they overcame some of them to become stronger writers. This gave students a great amount of satisfaction. Although they felt it was difficult to select which work to be graded, the exercise was helpful as students had to use all their knowledge about writing and it made them feel responsible.

As teachers we found that, firstly, portfolios are a good reflection of our students’ work and effort. Those who worked hard (and attended class regularly) had more pieces of writing and group work in their portfolios than those who had not. Secondly, it was easy for us to see our students’ progress from the portfolios. All the work throughout the term was included so we could compare work from the beginning and the end of the term. Thirdly, even though many of the portfolios were rather ‘thin’ at mid-semester, students rallied and pulled together mostly good portfolios by the end. In the process of putting their portfolios together, students began to feel good about what they were doing and many worked to develop complete and attractive portfolios. The only negative aspect was that some students had difficulty organising their work, thus making it difficult for them—and us—to track their progress.

Small-group Learning

In general, our students found group planning and peer review helpful. They also enjoyed the group reading activities. In particular, peers’ comments made the writers more aware of their reader’s point of view and helped them in the revision process. The suggestions for improvement were also welcomed because these revealed weaknesses the writers had overlooked. Group grammar work was, however, the least favoured activity.

It was evident that students found choosing their own readings and topics for discussion most enjoyable, though they sometimes found decision making difficult. The light-hearted discussions helped the students relax. Even when the discussions digressed, students noted that these distractions helped them get to know each other better. The discussions not only exposed students to other interesting points of view but also helped them gather ideas and more examples to use in their writing. Also, the discussions forced students to use English in class and consequently improved their language skills. Although most of our students enjoyed and found these small-group activities helpful, we observed that this was true of only some groups and selected tasks (i.e. discussion of reading selections and peer review).

Some difficulties in group work noted by students included attendance problems; lack of group rapport; irresponsibility of group mates; inability to deal with grammar questions and logistics.
Generally, we noted that successful groups had the following characteristics:

  • Members were usually present in class and they generally came prepared. Thus, they would usually be actively engaged in discussions or peer review during the group activities hour.

  • Members also tended to be friendly with each other, and generally sat together in class. Whenever group exercises (e.g. a team oral presentation) were assigned, they usually did better than the rest.

It seemed that the members’ positive engagement in their group activities bred success, which then fuelled their desire to continue working together as a group.


The use of the writing portfolio in EG1471 has been effective in instilling student pride in their work. It gives them a tangible record of their work (by showing the successes and failures) and consequently a clear direction to follow towards becoming better writers. Small-group learning activities can provide students who are poorly motivated with much needed support in a writing class. Besides additional information and alternative points of view, it can offer camaraderie through the difficult and often frustrating process of writing.


Burch, C. (1999). ‘Inside the Portfolio Experience: The Student’s Perspective’. English Education. Vol. 32, pp. 34–49.

Tierney, R.J.; Carter, M. & Desai, L. (1991). Portfolio Assessment in the Reading-writing Classroom. Norwood, MA: Christopher Gordon.




A Vision for Effective Teaching
Outcome-based Education (OBE): A New Paradigm for Learning

Motivating Students in a Writing Class

Peer Tutoring—An Effective Strategy to Promote Student-centred Learning

Writing Educational (Learning) Objectives to Facilitate Student Learning

Collaborative Learning Online: Setting the Stage

CDTL Survey on Educational Resources & Faculty Needs

CDTL Monograph Series

TLHE 2004

Welcome to CDTL/Goodbye

Teaching & Learning Highlights

Email Editors

© 2012 CDTLink is published by the Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning. Reproduction in whole or in part of any material in this publication without the written permission of CDTL is expressly prohibited. The views expressed or implied in CDTLink do not necessarily reflect the views of CDTL.