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How Postgraduate Students Deal With Writing Anxiety English Language Essay

Abstract

Previous research studies of writing anxiety have been centered on ESL learners and specific writing tasks and writing strategies. However, there is a little information available on writing anxiety perceived by EFL learners. This preliminary study, therefore, attempts to investigate which factors generate writing anxiety in EFL learners and how these learners cope with their anxiety while writing a research paper. Four postgraduate students (3 Thai, and 1 Chinese) studying in the first-year of Applied Linguistics at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi, were required to submit a full research paper based on their interests in language learning at the end of the course. The Second Language Writing Anxiety Inventory (SLWAI) questionnaire was administered to assess their anxiety level while they were writing a research paper. A semi-structured interview was used to elicit the causes of writing anxiety and coping strategies that they had used. After that, the participants’ responses were categorized and verified by two inter-raters. The coping strategies that EFL students frequently used were: (1) Relaxation, (2) Revision, and (3) Peer/Expert Consultation. In conclusion, the findings suggest that language teachers may stimulate using Peer/Expert Consultation sharing empathy and reflective ideas while writing a research paper.

In the past two decades, studies on foreign language anxiety centered on the classroom setting, learning tasks, and particular language skill, such as speaking (Liu, 2006). Many studies (Gangschow & Sparks, 1996; Von Wörde, 2003; Young, 1990, 1991, 1992) reveal that anxiety has a negative influence on foreign language learning, language performance, as well as language achievement (Horwitz, 2001). For English language teachers, it is very important to consider the causes of languages anxiety, how to help students become less anxious while studying a foreign language, and how the students should cope with their own anxiety in language learning.

1. Writing Anxiety

Language anxiety can be divided into three types: trait anxiety, state anxiety, and situation-specific anxiety. The trait anxiety can be defined as “a predisposition towards feeling anxious” (Richard-Amato, 1996, p.116), showing a long-term worrying personality (Scovel, 1978). Conversely, the state anxiety means “an unpleasant emotional condition or temporary state, activated by an individual's nervous system, such as the apprehension before taking an examination (Spielberger, 1983)” (cited in Wang, 1998, p.14). The situation-specific anxiety refers to state anxiety perceived in a particular situation or specific events (Ellis, 1994; Horwitz, 2001).

For writing anxiety, prior studies were done in the area of Second Language Learning, focusing on writing strategies/performance and writing tasks (e.g., Atay & Kurt, 2006; Cunningham & Holmes, 1995). The investigation done by Atay and Kurt (2006) found that 85 Turkish students, prospective teachers of English (ESL), were anxious about writing organization, generating ideas, and poor vocabulary knowledge. As far as the present researcher has been able to determine, there has a little information available on writing anxiety perceived by EFL learners. This preliminary study, therefore, aims to examine the situation-specific anxiety as “the feeling of worrying while the EFL postgraduate students were writing a research paper”. These EFL postgraduate students were required to submit a research paper based on their interests in language learning.

2. Second Language Writing Anxiety Inventory (SLWAI)

The writing anxiety can be assessed by using the following questionnaires: the Daly-Miller Apprehension Test (WAT) (Daly & Miller, 1975), the English Writing Self-Efficacy Scale (EWSS) (Shell, Murphy, & Bruning 1989), the Writing Anxiety Scale (WAS) (Petzel & Wenzel, 1993). However, the above questionnaires were constructed based on the experience of first language learners (Atay & Kurt, 2006) so these instruments were not suitable for measuring second language anxiety. The latest development of writing anxiety questionnaire, the Second Language Writing Anxiety Inventory (SLWAI), was proposed by Cheng (2004).

The Second Language Writing Anxiety Inventory (SLWAI) was constructed to measure writing anxiety of second language in terms of Somatic Anxiety, Avoidance Behavior, and Cognitive Anxiety. Some studies report the effectiveness of the SLWAI because this questionnaire has high reliability and validity (Atay & Kurt, 2006; Cheng, 2004) and can be used to assess the writing anxiety within EFL (Cheng, 2004) and ESL contexts (Atay & Kurt, 2006). As a consequence, the SLWAI survey was utilized in this study to differentiate the level of writing anxiety into three levels: low anxiety, moderate anxiety, and high anxiety. Nonetheless, this questionnaire cannot examine the coping strategies how the target students deal with the writing anxiety while writing a research paper.

3. Coping Strategies

Coping strategies in this study refer to the processes individuals use to deals with their anxiety while writing a research paper. Kondo and Ying-Ling (2004) have stated that “the question of what students are actually doing to cope with their anxiety in language classrooms has received hardly any attention, nor has the possibly been considered that such coping behaviors may play an important role in the customary decrease in the performance of highly language anxious students” (p.259). They proposed five coping strategies of foreign language classroom anxiety (FLCAS) perceived by Japanese students studying the English fundamental course at the tertiary level. The results show that these Japanese students frequently used Preparation, Resignation, and Positive Thinking strategies in order to deal with their anxiety.

The coping strategies of foreign language learners, therefore, should be further investigated to help learners deal with the causes of anxiety which have negative effects on language learning, achievement, and performance (Horwitz, 2001). Many English language teaching studies focus on writing processes/strategies rather than coping strategies of writing skills. Hence, the current study aims to investigate the causes of writing anxiety within EFL contexts and to investigate the coping strategies used by postgraduate EFL students in dealing with their writing anxiety while writing a research paper. The research questions were proposed as follows:

What factors contribute to writing anxiety of EFL postgraduate students while writing a research paper?

What coping strategies do the EFL learners use while writing a research paper?

4. Research Methodology

4.1 Subjects

The subjects were four postgraduate students (3 Thai, and 1 Chinese), studying in the first-year Applied Linguistics program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT), Thailand. They enrolled in Theories in Language Learning (TLL), an obligatory course, in the second semester of the academic year 2008. Based on their background information, these postgraduate students had no experience in writing research papers and were also required to conduct a small-scale study according to their interests in language learning and submit a research paper at the end of the course. This writing assignment was new to them though these subjects had high English proficiency, working as English teachers at tertiary level.

4.2 Instruments

Two research instruments were used in this study: the Second Language Writing Anxiety Inventory (SLWAI) developed by Cheng (2004) (see Appendix I) and semi-structured interview with six questions, as shown in Appendix II.

The Second Language Writing Anxiety Inventory (SLWAI), which consists of 22 items with a five point Likert scale ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” , was used in this study to measure the anxiety level how much the individual feels anxious while writing the TLL research project. This SLWAI questionnaire was administered in English due to the fact the students have high English proficiency, studying in the international program. Some research studies (Atay & Kurt, 2006; Cheng, 2004) also report the effectiveness of SLWAI that this questionnaire can measure the second language writing anxiety and has good internal consistency.

Semi-structured interviews, one of the qualitative approaches, was used in this study to find out the factors that contribute the writing anxiety of ELF postgraduate students and to examine the strategies how each student used to cope with their writing anxiety in EFL. At first, there were eight interview questions but two overlapping questions were removed after piloting. The subjects were also interviewed individually to elicit their ideas and to avoid any influences from the others (Rubin & Rubin, 1995). As a result, the individual interview with six questions was employed in the present study to report the students’ experiences, reasons for feeling anxious, and their coping strategies.

4 .3 Procedure

The study was conducted in the second semester of academic year 2008-2009. The SLWAI questionnaire was administered during Week 10 and Week 14 while the subjects were writing a research paper in order to examine the degree of anxiety and the change of their anxiety level of writing. To find out the causes of writing anxiety and the coping strategies, the subjects were individually interviewed to ensure that their responses were not influenced by others. Each semi-structured interview, held in Week 14, lasted for 10-15 minutes.

5. Data Analysis

The data obtained from the SLWAI questionnaire were analyzed and interpreted to determine how much anxiety each student felt anxious about writing this research paper. The anxiety level can be divided into three levels based on the total score of the questionnaire, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: The interpretation of anxiety level (Atay & Kurt, 2006, p. 5)

Anxiety Level

Total Score of SLWAI

Low anxiety

 58

Average anxiety

59-82

High anxiety

 83

The students’ responses from the individual interviews were transcribed and analyzed to find out what the causes of writing anxiety were while doing their projects and to examine what strategies the individual used to cope with their writing anxiety. In addition, the strategies that each postgraduate student used to cope with their anxiety of writing were reported and categorized by two inter-raters in order to double-check interview data.

5. Results and Discussion

5.1 Analysis of Writing Anxiety Level

The scores of the Second Language Writing Anxiety Inventory (SLWAI) can be divided into three levels: low anxiety, average anxiety, and high anxiety. In this study, the results show that all postgraduate students were in the low anxiety category or perhaps had no writing anxiety at all because these postgraduate students have also worked as a teacher of English at tertiary level. These results also support prior research studies (Gobel & Matsuda, 2003; Gregersen & Horwitz, 2002; Hassan, 2001; Horwitz, 2001; Horwitz, Horwitz, & Cope, 1986; Liu, 2006; MacIntyre & Gardner, 1991a; MacIntyre & Gardner, 1991b; Ohata, 2005; Tallon, 2006; Wang, 2005; von Wörde, 2003; Young, 1990, 1991, 1992), indicating that the more proficient in English or target language the students are, the less anxious they seem to be.

5.2 Analysis of Factors Causing Writing Anxiety

In order to answer the first research question, four subjects were interviewed in the final week to identify the causes of writing anxiety while the subjects were writing a research paper. Although the subjects were not aware of writing anxiety, they still reported the emotional change and the physical change while they were writing a research paper. For emotional change, two students (Interviewee 2 and Interviewee 3) described their strong negative feelings, such as getting tired and panic. Other symptoms of anxiety also reported were the physical change, such as, headache and trouble sleeping while doing a small-scale study. The table below provides a summary of the emotional change and the physical change while the target students writing up their research paper.

Table 2: A summary of emotional change and physical change

Change

Transcription

Emotional Change

Interviewee 2: I’m quite tired at whole level. I have to work very hard** and I keep thinking the day after day

Interviewee 3: I can say that I feel more dizzy while I’m typing. I feel panic, everything. I feel I have two choices, die or finish this project

Physical Change

Interviewee 1: I have an eyesore and a headache.

Interviewee 3: The first one is trouble sleeping. Every time I think about this process or other project, or the project that haven’t finished.

* Interviewee 2 was a full-time student so “work” refers to “work hard for this assignment

The interview data provides in-depth information, reporting other factors which contributed anxiety, such as writing processes and time constraint, and the student’s feeling of worrying. The causes of writing anxiety perceived by EFL postgraduate students were: (1) Writing processes, (2) Self expectation, (3) Teacher’s expectation, and (4) Time constraint, as summarized in Table 3. All postgraduate students (100%) were highly anxious about how to carry out the ideas and how to write the technical terms. This is contrary to the questionnaire data that showed the subjects felt less worried about writing a research paper. Followed by an individual and teacher’s expectation (75%), the findings show the high expectations of the postgraduate students including, reaching their own criteria and teacher’s criteria, getting a publication and achieving a good score in this course. Half of the student (50%) also reported that time constraints were the cause of their writing anxiety.

These EFL subjects with low writing anxiety did not worry about the difficulty of writing a research paper in English because of having high English language proficiency. However, the interview data show that these target students were highly anxious about writing procedures and organizing their ideas while writing a research paper. The investigation by Atay and Kurt (2006) also found similar results that the prospective ESL teachers with moderate and high writing anxiety in Turkey had difficulties in organizing their thoughts and producing ideas while writing in English.

Table 3: Factors that contribute writing anxiety

Causes of Writing Anxiety

Transcription

1. Writing Processes (100%)

Technical terms

Organizing ideas

Writing organization

Writing difficulty

Interviewee 1: For writing, I don’t have this problem. It doesn’t mean that I write so good but the problem is how to present ideas.

Interviewee 1: Well, I never write a research article about the learning before so I’m a little bit worried. How? the technical term, writing research article is not difficult but you have to write something after you learn or after you know it.

Interviewee 2: I think the key term which is quite difficult, I have to revise it many time to get a right definition.

Interviewee 3: But if you ask this question, while writing, the difficulties come from language itself. The organization is the most important. Maybe the language is important, but not important like the organization.

Interviewee 4: … so I think the problem in doing this thing is thinking about your idea how to make use of your idea. I don’t know. To me, thinking is more difficult than writing, writing your thoughts.

Table 3: Factors that contribute writing anxiety (cont).

Causes of Writing Anxiety

Transcription

2. Self expectation (75%)

Reaching their own criteria

Things the students want

to achieve

Interviewee 1: I have a lot of anxiety doing TLL project because I want to write article that can be published in the future. I have to graduate within 3 years so I have to do it best so that it can be published…. It seems like I lost.

Interviewee 2: To me, my expectation because I try to do a good job.

Interviewee 4: I’m worried about the grade because I just want to pass. I don’t mean to be excellent. You know? Just to pass what I’ve expected…

3. Teacher’s expectation (75%)

Criteria that the teacher

W wants students to achieve.

 Teacher’s standard

Interviewee 1: Teacher evaluation is also important. I care about teacher’s expectation rather than grade.

Interviewee 1: This is the expected way, the instructor should do it in an appropriate way so it caused more anxiety to do, to meet their expectation. Writing is not difficult but when you have to reach their expectations and this causes me a high anxiety.

Interviewee 3: The second one may be the teacher’s expectation maybe the factor to leave some anxiety but not much on that.

Interviewee 4: I don’t mean to be excellent. You know? Just to pass what I’ve expected or the teacher’s expectation.

4. Time Constraint (50%)

Limit of time

Due date

Time management

Interviewee 3: Yes, time constraint is the first one that make me feel anxious. If I can do it and submit any time. I don’t feel anxious. But every project needs a due date.

Interviewee 4: And the time constraint, this ….we have this limit time doing this.

Interviewee 4: Hm.. maybe work. I’m not sure whether it’s related or not. But Yes, I have work and I have to do this at the same time so I cannot do each separately.

For writing anxiety, the present findings reported that the time constraint was one of the factors causing anxiety while writing a research paper. These findings were consistent with the investigation by Atay and Kurt (2006), indicating that the due date could also contribute the writing anxiety of second language. Some studies (Aydin, 2008; Atay & Kurt, 2006; Liu, 2006; Von Wörde, 2003), which mainly focus on ways to reduce anxiety in ESL/EFL learning and teaching, point out that other factors such as the instruction, the tasks or activities, and teachers (native or non-native) can contribute language anxiety as well.

5.3 Analysis of Coping Strategies

The coping strategies in this study refer to the behaviors or the techniques that the postgraduate students used to cope with their writing while writing a research paper. According to the students’ responses verified by two inter-raters, three coping strategies that the postgraduate students frequently used were: (1) Relaxation, (2) Revision, and (3) Peer/Expert Consultation. Relaxation relates to the processes that the students do something else for their enjoyment or rest while writing a research paper. Revision means the processes that the students use to make their writing assignment better, including idea and writing reorganization, literature/related research article revision, and rewriting. The last one is peer/expert consultation, can be defined as strategies that the students use to share their feeling or to get advice from their classmates, friends, or teachers.

According to the students’ responses, as shown in Table 4, all students (100%) reported that they used the relaxation strategy, such as stop doing it, or take a rest when their ideas got blocked, so they could continue writing their research paper. The findings also reveal that the majority (75%) of the total number employed revision strategy while writing TLL research paper to improve their written task by reviewing more relevant articles. The least strategy that the postgraduate students used was peer/expert consultation. Half of the students (50%) reported that they shared their feeling with friends as a motivation to continue working on this writing assignment and getting reflexive feedback so that they could enhance their knowledge of what they had studied.

Table 4: Coping strategies with writing anxiety

Coping Strategies

Transcription

1. Relaxation (100%)

Ignoring the assignment

Taking a break /rest

Doing something else

Interviewee 1: Well, when I have anxiety, if it is too much for me, I ignore it. I cannot pay attention to it. I have to leave it for a while.

Interviewee 2: If we cannot write, sometimes we need to stop because your ideas are not available so I stop and keep thinking.

Interviewee 3: The first thing I do when I’m anxious. I will stop doing project and doing anything else if I have time.

Interviewee 4: Take a rest, forget it for a while but actually you cannot forget it because it will haunt you.

2. Revision (75%)

Reorganizing ideas

Reviewing related article

Rewriting written task

Interviewee 1: I will read and read more. I read, try to absorb try to understand it. And also talk to my friends.

Interviewee 2: Anxious or not? sometimes if I could not go ahead, I got blocked by myself, I stop and keep thinking. If we cannot write, sometimes we need to stop because your ideas are not available so I stop and keep thinking …

Interviewee 3: I have to stop writing it. Maybe reread or anything but when I’m anxious I can say that I can’t continue my work.

3. Peer/ Expert Consultation (50%)

Getting feedback

Sharing feeling

Getting advice

Reflecting ideas

Interviewee 1: So I like to ask the others what they are doing but it does not mean I want to compare but I don’t like being behind so if I know my friends have done a lot of things, I will have an anxiety because it helps me to catch up.

Interviewee 2: I will stop and go to read more and go to consult, also talk to my friends. We cannot finish early, we have to do along.

Interviewee 2: If we cannot write, sometimes we need to stop because your ideas are not available so I stop and keep thinking and get feedback from my teacher.

The present study partly agree with the investigation by Kondo and Ying-Ling (2004) in terms of developing the types of coping strategies, however, their coping strategies categorization was developed based on the idea how Japanese university students reduced their anxiety in the foreign language classroom. This framework, therefore, might not be suitable to allocate the coping strategies for writing of EFL in the present study. The results of the study, nonetheless, show that these EFL learners used Peer/Expert consultant, to share their empathy and experience while writing a research paper. These findings were consistent with the study by Kondo and Ying-Ling (2004), showing that Japanese university students also used Peer Seeking strategy to deal with their language anxiety in the classroom.

5. Conclusion

Considering the causes of writing anxiety, these EFL students with high language proficiency were anxious about their writing processes, including how to write research article, how to organize their ideas, and how to write academic English for publication. These findings, therefore, suggest that there should be a workshop on how to write a scholarly publication, not only to advance their writing, but also evaluate the research articles written by EFL learners. In addition to teacher/individual’s expectation, this factor seems to be a positive reinforcement for the postgraduate students putting their best in writing the TLL research paper.

In summary, the EFL students may use coping strategies more frequently, especially peer/expert consultation which can provide not only reflective ideas but also sharing empathy among students. These coping strategies enable the postgraduate students reduce anxiety of writing a research paper. The results of the study can also be utilized for teaching writing English as a foreign language so that the teachers make the students less anxious while doing writing tasks. Further investigation on writing anxiety may focus on the relationship between writing procedures and coping strategies, the longitudinal writing anxiety over a semester, and how effectively

6. Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the Office of the Higher Education Commission, Thailand for supporting by grant fund under the program Strategic Scholarships for Frontier Research Network for the Ph.D. Program Thai Doctoral degree. I thank my postgraduate classmates for data collection and proofreading this paper.

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