Writing about Writing Processes: Self-regulation and Process logs

Writing about Writing Processes: Self-regulation and Process logs

Ryan Roderick, Husson University | Bangor, ME, USA


In this post, I consider how WAW pedagogies might benefit from research on self-regulation of writing. Self-regulation refers to an ability to monitor and control knowledge and practices in pursuit of a goal. Drawing on self-regulation research, I present a prompt I call the “process log” that encourages students to self-regulate their writing. Then, I analyze some of the process logs I’ve collected as part of IRB-approved studies, to offer some examples of what researchers might learn when using process logs as an artifact of analysis. Ultimately, I suggest that WAW courses might use the process log as a way to encourage students to write about writing processes.


When was the last time you wrote something that you struggled with, and what did you do that may have helped or hindered your progress? If you can answer this question, then you are likely demonstrating at least some self-regulation strategies.

We know well that what works for someone in one context might not work for a different someone or a different context. Nevertheless, some strategies are creative and helpful. For example, the faculty member working on a manuscript is able to schedule deliberate interruptions that allow her writing to incubate by doing laundry while she writes (Prior and Shipka).

In contrast, other strategies for writing do not seem as helpful. Like the student who is stuck in a cycle of repeatedly procrastinating and then busting out essays shortly before the deadline, which are subsequently met with a failing grade from the instructor and the student’s regret for not having used more effective strategies (Cleary).  

As a writing teacher, I want to know what effective and ineffective strategies might look like across diverse writers and contexts in order to help students develop an ability to recognize and adapt their own writing strategies as they encounter difficult or unfamiliar situations. In other words, I ask: How might a writer’s self-regulation strategies correlate with their writing, and how might we help students develop their knowledge about self-regulation in the context of a WAW classroom?

In the rest of this post, I suggest that WAW courses could benefit from self-regulation research to help students in WAW courses write about writing processes. Self-regulation research offers a structure to prompt students to more consciously self-regulate their writing, and it serves as a lens through which to write about writing processes. In the following four sections, I first touch on self-regulation as a theory, then discuss how I’ve drawn on this theory to create a “process log” protocol that prompts students to self-regulation, and I analyze some examples of student logs in order to model an approach to writing about writing processes.

Link to any of the four sections below:

  1. What is self-regulation?
  2. Prompting students to self-regulate: The writing process log
  3. Two Studies: Analyzing process logs as artifacts of self-regulation
  4. Working Conclusions: Using Process Logs to Write about Writing Processes

What is Self-regulation?

Rooted in socio-cognitive theories of writing (Flower) and educational psychology (Bandura), self-regulation of writing refers to the conscious or unconscious processes that individuals use to monitor and manage thoughts, feelings, and practices in order to pursue goals (Pintrich; Zimmerman).

Socio-cognitive theories of self-regulation (Zimmerman & Risemberg) often differentiate among three dimensions:

  1. A writer develops motives and goals for writing;
  2. A writer implements a set of practices for making progress; and
  3. A writer self-evaluates and reacts to progress as it unfolds.

While sometimes presented linearly, these dimensions operate recursively as part of the rhetorical context of writing. Motives, goal-setting, writing practices, and self-reflection each inform the other. For example, the faculty member working on a manuscript who sets a laundry load to interrupt her typing deliberately builds in opportunities to self-regulate.

This theory of self-regulation has informed how I’ve prompted students to self-regulate on their own writing. In addition, I’ve used this theory as a lens to identify and interpret patterns of self-regulation reflected in student logs.

Prompting students to self-regulate: The writing process log

To help students recognize and develop their self-regulation practices, I have been asking students to keep a “process log.” The process log consists of a series of short-answer questions that prompt students to reflect on their writing process (Li; Riazi; Segev-Miller). 

There is a rich body of scholarship on self-regulation of writing that spans K-12, post-secondary, and graduate levels (e.g. Harris and Graham; Negretti and Mezek; Castelló et al.). Self-regulation plays a key role in a writer’s expertise (Beaufort & Iñesta), and teaching students self-regulation strategies can help a diverse range of students in grades 2-12 develop the quality of their writing (Harris and Graham).

Instead of teaching students explicit strategies, the process log allows self-regulation to emerge more organically as students compose. 

The kind of log I ask students to keep uses a series of questions that turn a writer’s attention to setting goals, monitoring, and evaluating progress (Figure 1). Thus far, while some students occasionally see this as “busy-work,” many have told me they find these questions helpful for writing, especially when they feel “stuck.”

Figure 1. Process log questions used to prompt students to self-regulate their writing process.

Once completed, the logs provide a fascinating window into the challenges that emerge for students and the strategies they use to cope.

Granted, the process log, like any in-process protocol, is not without its limitations. A student’s self-regulation practices are already altered from what they might have been by responding to the log entry questions. Like an iceberg, there is always more going on beneath the surface that is left unarticulated.

Despite their limitations, process log entries offer evidence of self-regulation in action, which can help us learn about writers from different backgrounds, contexts and the writing practices they use at a particular time and place. In other words, it is the similarities and differences in student responses to log questions that I find most interesting.

Two Studies: Analyzing process logs as artifacts of self-regulation

Study 1: Comparing self-regulation strategies among student writers

In mid-2010s, I compared process logs from four graduate students enrolled in a seminar on writing center research (Roderick 2019). This seminar was part of the students’ training to work as a tutor in the university writing center. As part of the seminar, each student was assigned to write a research proposal that dealt with an issue relevant to research on writing centers. Throughout the project, they recorded process logs, and I wanted to see what self-regulation strategies they used and how those strategies correlated with the writing they produced.

The comparison revealed patterns of goal-setting and problem-solving that appeared to align with their success on the project. Here is one example of self-regulation strategies that emerged in the two graduate students whose final drafts were characterized as most successful (names are pseudonyms).

 [My paper is] kind of like in chunks. The sources are not integrated very well. And I also am struggling to figure out like, is prosody its own section or should it be part of the section about the importance of intonation in general? (Kara)

I have this feeling that I do not trust my writing, because if I’m understanding it more as I’m writing about it, that means my draft is probably going to reflect someone who’s thinking and learning as opposed to delivering information. So, maybe its writer-based prose and I have not yet moved to reader-based prose. (Connor)

Each of these writers responds to a challenge by developing new goals. In addition, both of the most successful students reported the project helped them develop their knowledge about writing. In contrast, the two writers who had less success either glossed over the difficulties or vented on the difficulty without appearing to overcome it.

While the above comparisons places the emphasis on writers and their habits, it is also important to understand how these habits might be prompted by contextual factors that emerge at the level of curriculum and assignment.

Study 2: Comparing self-regulation across FYC curricular contexts

More recently, my focus has shifted to explore how context might be “intertwined” in students’ self-regulation strategies (Negretti). To do so, I am comparing logs from students enrolled in two different FYC curricula. One group whose FYC curricula focuses on composing research that “contributes” to social issues (Charney and Neuwirth). The other group is drawing on personal experience and primary sources to compose a short ethnography (Cook et al.).

By comparing these two groups, I’m looking for patterns in self-regulation that might be unique to each group, and exploring how those patterns might correspond to elements of the curricular context. My more focused questions include:

  • To what extent are patterns of student self-regulation similar or different between institutions and curricular approaches to first-year writing?
  • How might unique patterns of student self-regulation be linked or disparate from the social context of the curriculum?

To pursue these questions, I am comparing process logs from students in two different groups of FYC students, which I refer to as group “ethnography” and “contribution.” The ethnography group includes first-year undergraduates at a small, private teaching-oriented university who have been instructed to use an ethnographic approach (field notes, artifacts, informant interviews) to write about a culture that is accessible yet unfamiliar to them.

In a separate institution and curriculum, the contribution group includes first-year undergraduates at a larger, private research-oriented university, who are instructed to write a thesis-driven argument that “contributes” to a body of sources that represent different perspectives on a contentious social issue.  

I’m hoping these comparisons can teach us more about how pedagogical approaches to FYC encourage or discourage self-regulation practices.

Emerging findings indicate that, compared to the ethnography group, the contribution group set a significantly higher proportion of goals that were multi-layered and hierarchical. These goal hierarchies include goals that are explicitly interdependent, such as when someone says,

 [When planning my research] I was hindered by how broad/well-known “activism” as a term is. I need to start looking for more specific articles, or reevaluate how I’ll obtain a “definition.” (Contribution Log Entry)

In this contribution log entry, the student creates an interdependent goal when they respond to difficulty defining “activism” by realizing they “need to start looking for more specific articles or revaluate” their knowledge about the subject matter. Compared to the ethnography group, the contribution group’s logs explicitly linked goals together occurs more frequently (comprising an average 20% of contribution logs vs. 15% of ethnography logs; p<.05).

Why did contribution group logs mention more interdependent goals? My scope restricts an exhaustive answer. Instead, I want to focus on just one factor: the way sources were involved in in students’ goal-setting.

There’s something interesting in the way contribution group involves sources in their logs. Contribution students’ goals for using sources tend to be more diverse. For instance, students mentioned sources, such as “papers” and “articles” were linked to the following set of interdependent goals:

  1. Contribution students involve sources with goals for “structuring” writing

I think my final structure would not explicitly follow the IMRD nor the problem-solution structure. To figure this out, I will consult all of the example papers we looked at in class and examine the choice of structures in the papers. (Contribution Log Entry)

  • Contribution students involve sources with goals for concept-building

[When planning my research] I was hindered by how broad/well­known “activism” as a term is. I need to start looking for more specific articles, or reevaluate how I’ll obtain a “definition.” (Contribution Log Entry)

  • Contribution students involve sources with goals evaluating knowledge

My hypotheses about the opinions of Greenwald and Simon regarding gun control were also incorrect, so I will have to find a different angle to include them or other readings from class into my topic. (Contribution Log Entry)

The above examples suggest contribution students involved sources as a means to not just develop knowledge about what to write about, but they also used sources to inform their knowledge about the genre expectations relevant to their paper’s “structure.”  

In comparison, ethnography students did not involve sources with goals for structuring their writing, save for one exception. This is surprising since sample student essays from previous semesters were made available for students to reference.

What ethnography students did do is use sources goals for goals to develop knowledge about subject matter.

My goals for this session are to gather all of my artifacts for this project, and to begin analyzing my artifacts so that I can later include them into my paper. (Ethnography, Log Entry)

I also want to make sure that I look over my interviews once again to be able to make sure that I got all the information that I needed out of them and into my writing (Ethnography, Log Entry)

These examples reflect how ethnography students involve sources with learning what to say, such as when gathering “artifacts“ to “include…into my paper” and using “interviews” to get “information…into my writing.” In addition, the terms artifacts and interviews emerge from assignment (and curricula’s) focus on ethnographic methods. In contrast to contribution students, evidence does not suggest a pattern of ethnography students mentioning sources for goals other than to gather and include information in their paper.    

While there is still more to learn here, these initial comparisons begin to highlight examples of how self-regulation strategies are “intertwined” with the social contexts of writing, as Negretti & Mezek put it (30; see also Negretti, 170). For instance, the comparison in study 2 (above) draws attention to the way that expectations around using sources might be involved in students’ goal-setting. While the ethnography group valued sources for their information, the “contribution” group treated sources as part of a conversation, and those students appear more likely to involve sources for goals related to knowledge about subject matter and rhetorical concerns like “structure.” 

It might be tempting to accuse the ethnography curriculum of limiting opportunities for goal setting, particularly when sources are involved. However, the scope of these findings limits attaching a value to the strategies. Instead, the patterns reflected across the logs only help make areas of the curriculum more visible (like how students use sources). Along these lines, a more extensive comparison is needed.

If we did want to encourage more of the students in the ethnography group to use sources for more diverse goals, we might try to set up a conversation to which students are expected to “contribute.” Such a conversation might include reading a selection of ethnographic essays that offer diverse perspectives on a particular culture. Such a dynamic might show students what is being written about the culture they are researching as well as how their writing might sound.


Working Conclusions

When patterns in self-regulation do emerge across an assignment, it can inform how we might adjust the expectations we construct in our assignments and curriculum. Speculating even further, we may find new ways to cultivate curricular contexts that encourage “problem-exploring,” as opposed to “answer-getting” (Wardle).

In addition, students may do well to learn about self-regulation and observe examples of writers demonstrating diverse self-regulation strategies. Learning by observing, has helped undergraduate students overcome obstacles (Rijlaarsdam et al.). What might happen when students observe and compare their own self-regulation practices with each other? Such a question calls on students to write about writing processes.


Ryan Roderick is an Assistant Professor at Husson University in Bangor, ME, where he teaches courses in first-year writing, professional writing, and interpersonal communication. Reach him via email at roderickr@husson.edu.


Works Referenced

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