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The Writing Assignment That Changes Lives

11 July 2015

From National Public Radio:

Why do you do what you do? What is the engine that keeps you up late at night or gets you going in the morning? Where is your happy place? What stands between you and your ultimate dream?

Heavy questions. One researcher believes that writing down the answers can be decisive for students.

He co-authored a paper that demonstrates a startling effect: nearly erasing the gender and ethnic minority achievement gap for 700 students over the course of two years with a short written exercise in setting goals.

Jordan Peterson teaches in the department of psychology at the University of Toronto. For decades, he has been fascinated by the effects of writing on organizing thoughts and emotions.

. . . .

“The act of writing is more powerful than people think,” Peterson says.

Most people grapple at some time or another with free-floating anxiety that saps energy and increases stress. Through written reflection, you may realize that a certain unpleasant feeling ties back to, say, a difficult interaction with your mother. That type of insight, research has shown, can help locate, ground and ultimately resolve the emotion and the associated stress.

At the same time, “goal-setting theory” holds that writing down concrete, specific goals and strategies can help people overcome obstacles and achieve.

. . . .

Recently, researchers have been getting more and more interested in the role that mental motivation plays in academic achievement — sometimes conceptualized as “grit” or “growth mindset” or “executive functioning.”

Peterson wondered whether writing could be shown to affect student motivation. He created an undergraduate course called Maps of Meaning. In it, students complete a set of writing exercises that combine expressive writing with goal-setting.

Students reflect on important moments in their past, identify key personal motivations and create plans for the future, including specific goals and strategies to overcome obstacles. Peterson calls the two parts “past authoring” and “future authoring.”

“It completely turned my life around,” says Christine Brophy, who, as an undergraduate several years ago, was battling drug abuse and health problems and was on the verge of dropping out. After taking Peterson’s course at the University of Toronto, she changed her major. Today she is a doctoral student and one of Peterson’s main research assistants.

. . . .

At the Rotterdam school, minorities generally underperformed the majority by more than a third, earning on average eight fewer credits their first year and four fewer credits their second year. But for minority students who had done this set of writing exercises, that gap dropped to five credits the first year and to just one-fourth of one credit in the second year.

. . . .

Peterson believes that formal goal-setting can especially help minority students overcome what’s often called “stereotype threat,” or, in other words, to reject the damaging belief that generalizations about ethnic-group academic performance will apply to them personally.

Link to the rest at National Public Radio and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

Writing Advice

16 Comments to “The Writing Assignment That Changes Lives”

  1. Phyllis Humphrey

    This is a great tool for everyone. I read the whole article and lots of the comments, which proves how helpful it is. I was never required to do it, but it’s not too late to start.

  2. I have kept a journal for some time now. It is very useful to keep track of thoughts and goals. I use it to keep my writing projects in order and write out my frustrations at times. It works quite well.

  3. I like this, but it is old news to me.

    There is an old story that goes like this:
    The PTB at Harvard University were rightly proud of the school’s reputation, but, being academics, they wanted to know why it got the rep and how. They commissioned a study.

    The study reported that the reputation of Harvard was the product of the achievements of its graduates. Harvard grads had done big things.

    The Harvard PTB wondered what was different about their graduates as opposed to, say, the graduates of Dartmouth. So they commissioned a second study to find out.

    The second study reported that 85% of Harvard grads were no more successful than the grads of other schools (shocker); 12% enjoyed more success than grads of other schools but not wildly so; and 3% were over-the-top successes — CEOs, corporate directors, bank presidents, presidents of countries (especially Mexico), Congressman, US cabinet members (State, Treasury), and judges.

    What was the difference in the three groups?

    Well, the 85% had no stated goals. They just ‘went with the flow’.

    The 12% had goals, and they tried to remind themselves of their goals frequently.

    The 3% had written goals, and they read them every day.

    So now you know how to be a world-class success (according to Harvard).

  4. the Other Diana

    I call BS.

    Expectations are what make you successful.

    My parents expected me to do well in school. I did. From an early age- I was told/the expectation was set that I would go to college. I never questioned it.

    My goal was to get into college and I knew I wanted to be financially independent and that was the way to go. I wanted to have a home and be able to buy nice things for my children, not struggle. Everything I did was toward that end.

    My parents were poor, so the only way I was getting into college was through loans and scholarships. So did whatever I could to earn scholarships to offset any loans I would have to take.

    I never wrote down a single thing.

    Guess what? I have a BS, own my own home, no student loans (paid them off first), have been married for over a decade and we’re doing fine.

    The act of writing it down has NOTHING to do with being successful. It’s all about actively choosing your goal and making decisions that lead you to it.

    Sadly, there are many people who assume(?) they will be successful without ever trying.

    • I think you already had in your expectations the kinds of goals others need to write out. In other words, you didn’t need the exercise of putting it on paper–you just got there mentally.

      I was expected to do well in school, and did. I was expected to go to college, and did. Et cetera.

      From time to time I’ve written down goals. I’ve achieved many things, but I don’t think that my sporadic writing has helped because I didn’t really keep it up. I’m going to try this.

      P.S. My Dad went to Harvard and did very well.

  5. I was lucky enough when I first started writing, to read an outstanding book about writing by Brenda Ueland.

    She talks about the power of writing – that even if you never make a dime on your writing, even if you never show it to a single soul, and regardless of the its’ quality, writing will transform you, and from that, your life.

    That is the real true benefit of writing – it transforms you.

  6. My poor folks expected and wanted us to excel in school, in part to offset the egregious discrimination they suffered daily. We were not able to do that for them. Filled with dyslexia and other learning issues, we did horribly in school I am afraid, even though our folks still held high expectations. It was so awful to time and again see the sadness and anger in their eyes that we could not ‘succeed’ as other kids leapt ahead… and made their folks proud.

    College? Seriously? English was not our parents first nor second language. It was their third. So much opportunity but we were so not connected in even the most simple ways to any who knew the way ‘through’ we had no idea of where to go or what to do , but what our people had always done– honorable trades: horses, hops, crops, animals, trades of the hands.

    Schools we went to felt strongly we were to go into the trades or ag. The elementary schools we went to had decided before high school we were not ‘college material.” We had our deepest educational experiences growing up in the rural outback including huge forests, deserts and water sources– and growing our food, being near the animals, and being self sufficient in ways that have mostly disappeared today.

    Yet… we still felt called even though we were considered backward, slow, hayseeds and dumb immigrants’ kids and blah and more blah.

    In my twenties [I am in my 70s now] attending a gathering where far more educated persons than us, told us if we wanted to go somewhere we had to draw a map. Then follow it. I went home, could hardly wait. I drew my map for what I felt called toward and the pathways I imagined, regarding where and who and how, to get there.

    I drew the map on the backside of a huge piece of wrapping paper that I’d saved back from a Christmas gift I’d gotten of a swell ‘used but looks like new parka’ [for it was cold as spit winters where we lived]. My map looked like a monopoly game with pathways to –I think it was called ‘baltic avenue’ and the lower and midpriced joints– as I thought maybe having more resource as a goal that was moderate, was better than owning one high end jobber, like park place [or whatever it was called]

    That was then. This is now. I followed that map to the letter. I had three end goals. They have all been met. And well. Tons of hard work. Vacation? what’s a vacation? lol. I took astronomical student loans. They are all paid back. I had no scholarships [are you kidding, no one gave scholarships for a person being well, let me say it as nicely as I can without recrimination: eccentrically gifted, lol]

    I have a ph.d [we joke amongst ourselves and call it ‘piled higher and deeper’, lol] and a post-doctoral diploma. Hard, hard earned. And these have served my calling well. I pulled those down over many years, non stop, while raising kids, taking care of our elders. I referred back to my ‘christmas wrapping paper map’ many many times over the years. Go here now. Check. Go there next. Check.
    Check. Check. Check.

    Own a veritable ranch. Married? H yeah. How many years? You mean like all marriages or just most recent? lol. For the former: All my adult life. For the latter, currently 30 years and counting. Kids, grandkids and coming to age of possible great-grands. And look forward to it.

    For me, my writing down [this christmas wrapping paper map has red santas and fawn-colored reindeer in fancy tack, and nave blue starry night sky all over the other side. couldnt be more perfect…] was everything. Partly because I was from the only generation of my family that ‘could’ write. It was thrilling to dream on paper, and to dare to think I might somehow, by yet unknown means, be able to enter my callings, to bring those to the needful world.

    It was hard. There were years of ‘so far down, it looks like ‘up’ to me.’ But also there were radiant beings along the way, who sometimes stepped out to help or shelter or offer some words about something that made it possible to go on without falling into despair.

    I just thought to tell a bit of my story might be helpful, in order to say that not sure what ‘success’ is… it seems very much to depend on who’s looking. When I look at my children and grands… they are my success of my heart. My work in the world, I feel lucky. Lucky to have fought my way through. Lucky to have made it through some very dark nights.

    I guess a man could ride a horse or walk to the same place. How he gets there, if its a decent trek, may not matter. It is true some get carried in gilded coaches. Or were walking and got a lift from royalty who own the road.

    BUt as for writing down or not writing down. Seems like ‘getting there’ is what is important. And there’s a saying in the country: A man on foot has more stories to tell than the man in the Cadillac Seville [dont ask me where that came from, i just LIVE here. lol}

    If someone asked me, and they had the many well lets just say lacks in background we had, I’d say yes, write what you want, esp if it is complicated, is going to take a long time, and you’ll have no one to help you, stranger or relative. Yes, write it down. Even if the map has errors, they can be corrected as you go along.

    Dont want to write down? Then dont.

    • I had an 8 paragraph response to this. It was garbage.

      Really I just wanted you to know I read every word of your post and was nodding my head the whole time, “Yeah.”

      • thanks Joseph. I read what you write too. Appreciate it and also all the other thoughtful people here/ it is often an oasis in the midst of food fights elsewhere, lol. Keep on, man.

    • That’s some real stuff, there, USAF.

      Consider calling it “The Christmas Map,” turning it into a 20,000+ word book about the good and bad times, and making bank. Donate the proceeds, if you like, to a worthy cause.

      I’d buy it.

  7. USAF,

    I was quite moved by your post and the honesty that came through your words. Everyone has a different way to reach whatever it is they want. It’s the perseverance towards the end result that counts, as you and the Other Diana have shown. We all have different methods to capture what it is we want (5 top goals, maps such as yours (such a heartfelt image), NaNo, whatever…). One step forward, three steps back, but there’s that step forward again.

    I’ve been lurking here for years, and just want to thank everyone for their thought-provoking comments, and to PG for providing this forum. I rarely leave the page without something to think about.

    • Susanne, I agree with your thoughtful comments: “It’s the perseverance towards the end result that counts, as you and the Other Diana have shown. ”

      “One step forward, three steps back, but there’s that step forward again.
      man is that true.

      and this too, I agree totally: “want to thank everyone for their thought-provoking comments, and to PG for providing this forum. I rarely leave the page without something to think about.”

  8. Very touching story USAF. I wish you many more years of good health and hope that map now brings nothing but good luck to you and your family from now on.

    • that is one of the nicest things any one has ever said. Thank you Vera. And same to you and your loved ones also.

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