Behavior Management Strategies for Writing

by Julia Brodsky

Writing is an important communication skill that is embedded in college coursework and will likely continue to be important well after graduation. For students who write mostly out of necessity (e.g. course assignments), writing may not be an easy task. There are many methods students may use to get over writer’s block, but the approaches discussed in this post are derived from the behavior analytic literature. The behavior analytic approach to making the writing process more enjoyable and efficient involves thinking of writing as a behavior, just like riding a bike or cleaning, that the student needs to increase. Presented below are adaptations of behavior analytic procedures that may assist students who struggle to complete writing tasks.

  • Fixed Interval schedules: Students often complete assignments in the days (or hours) leading up to a deadline. Attributing this last-minute assignment completion to “laziness” isn’t exactly accurate. Researchers have found that rats (Stebbins, Mead, & Martin, 1959), pigeons (Segal, 1962), rhesus monkeys (Balster & Schuster, 1973), and possibly the United States Congress (Critchfield, Haley, Sabo, Colbert, & Macropoulis, 2003) all engage in this sort of last-minute work. This last-minute pattern of responding occurs when a fixed interval of time (e.g. every two weeks) must elapse before the target response delivers a reinforcer (Fixed Interval schedule; Ferster & Skinner, 1957). In the experimental setting, the target response for a rat is pressing a bar, and for a pigeon it is pecking a key. For the student writing a class assignment, the target response is completing a paper, and the reinforcer may be a good grade or more likely, escape from the writing task.  When behavior on a fixed interval schedule is plotted cumulatively as a function of time, it resembles a scallop. This scallop pattern contrasts with the type of response patterns other schedules produce (for an overview, click here). A student may not be able to avoid scalloping, but a scallop can occur sooner if an earlier, self-imposed deadline is set. Alternatively, one might be able to set several deadlines for multiple parts of a paper to produce several, smaller scallops.

A graph shows a scallop pattern in plotting the cumulative number of responses against the number of trials.

  • Behavioral momentum: Behavioral momentum (Nevin, Mandell, & Atak, 1983) applies Newton’s first law of motion, F=m*Δv (where F stands for force, m stands for mass, and v stands for velocity) to behavior. Using behavioral momentum requires building behavioral mass (response strength) and increasing behavioral velocity (response rate) so that the behavior persists when environmental conditions are altered (i.e. behavioral force). To build behavioral momentum behind writing, a student can rank order writing tasks from easiest to most difficult and complete them in that order. For example, a student writing an APA style paper can complete the paper tasks in the following order: Cover page, references, tables and figures, method, results, introduction, and discussion. By successfully completing smaller, more manageable writing tasks firsts, the behavior of writing will persist when a larger, more complicated writing task is presented to the student.
  • Premack’s principle: Premack’s principle (Premack, 1959) states that high-probability behaviors can serve as effective reinforcers for low-probability behaviors. A student can apply this principle to writing by making high-probability activity reinforcers, such as watching Netflix, reading a preferred book, or taking a preferred exercise class, contingent upon the low-probability target behavior, writing.
  • Self-monitoring: Self-monitoring (Cooper et al, 2007) is a technique that involves taking data on one’s own behavior. The key to self-monitoring is that it capitalizes on reactivity—taking data on behavior alone can increase or decrease its occurrence. Self-monitoring could include checking off a box for every page written or writing task completed, or graphing the cumulative number of pages written on a paper to date.

Hand-drawn graph on a whiteboard shows Julia's, Christina's, and Samantha's "Theories Paper Progress." A stick-figure sketch of an alarmed face is labeled "halfway point."

  • Distancing: Distancing is a simple technique that involves increasing the amount of response effort required to access items or activities that are physically incompatible with writing. Using this technique may involve moving one’s phone into another room, blocking browser access to distracting websites, or putting a Hulu subscription on hold.
  • Stimulus control: Stimulus control refers to different stimulus conditions evoking different responses, based on whether behavior under those particular stimulus conditions has resulted in reinforcement in the past. For example, generally a driver will continue to drive in the presence of a green traffic light, but will press on the brakes in the presence of a red light. Similarly, different environmental arrangements evoke writing behavior to different degrees. One’s home, for example, may not be a productive work environment because the home environment signals the availability of a reinforcer for a number of behaviors other than writing, such as turning on the TV, talking to roommates, and doing chores. The library or a coffee shop may be a more productive work environment because there is less reinforcement available for competing behaviors, and with enough productive writing sessions, these locations may begin to strongly evoke writing behavior.

The strategies presented in this post are not exhaustive, nor have they been compared against each other empirically in the context of college-level instruction, but they can serve as a starting point for students working on writing assignments. Using behavior management strategies instead of submitting to the fixed interval scallop might make writing an easier and more enjoyable task for students.


Date: December 06, 2017

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