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The Situated Dynamics of Purposes of Engagement and Self-Regulation Strategies: A Mixed-Methods Case Study of Writing

by Avi Kaplan, Einat Lichtinger & Michal Margulis - 2011

Background: Common conceptions of motivation and self-regulation view them as related but distinct entities. Most research on motivation and self-regulation investigates quantitative relations between level (e.g., self-efficacy) or type of motivation (e.g., mastery goals) and level of self-regulation.

Purpose: Alternatively, the current study proposes that motivation and self-regulation strategies are integrated in purpose-strategies action orientations, which are constructed through a situated and dynamic meaning-making process.

Participants and Setting: The current study presents a case analysis of one Israeli ninth-grade female student who engaged in a writing task.

Research Design: The qualitative case study employed mixed-methods data that included traces in the written product, microprocesses observation, stimulated-recall interview, and a general interview. Analysis sought to triangulate findings from the multiple data sources in order to construct the dynamic and situated flow of purpose of engagement and strategies.

Findings: Triangulation of data from these different sources demonstrated that individual and contextual characteristics interacted to result in a dynamic flow of situated purpose-strategies actions along the student�s engagement in the writing task.

Conclusions: The findings suggest that the situated purpose of engagement should be an integral element in conceptions of self-regulation; that different purposes may call for different types of self-regulation; that conceptualization and investigation of motivation and self-regulation should be domain specific; and that mixed methods, as used in this article, can provide productive tools to assess the dynamic and situated process of self-regulation.

In the past two decades, a growing body of literature has focused on understanding, assessing, and promoting self-regulation in educational settings (Schunk & Zimmerman, 1998; Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001). Arguably, most conceptualizations of self-regulation view it as an individual-differences construct: a set of cognitive, metacognitive, motivational, and behavioral strategies that students who have the strategic knowledge employ during engagement. Research has also emphasized the important role of students’ motivation in instigating and maintaining self-regulation (Schunk & Zimmerman, 2007). Most empirical investigations treated motivational constructs and self-regulation strategies as related but distinct theoretical entities and hypothesized that higher motivation would lead to greater use of self-regulation.

The current study proposes an alternative perspective on the relations between motivation and self-regulation. We suggest that rather than being viewed as distinct entities, motivation and self-regulation strategies may be conceived of as integrated into the situated meaning that a student constructs for engagement in an achievement situation. This situated meaning is a comprehensive psychological framework, or a sociocognitive scheme, that involves the purpose of engagement in the task as well as the actions that are perceived to serve the pursuit of this purpose (Kaplan & Maehr, 2002; Maehr, 1984). The purpose represents the underlying reasons for engagement in the task, and it provides the intentional framework that guides setting objectives and selecting mode of action (Ames, 1992; Maehr; Nicholls, 1989). We suggest that the use of certain self-regulation strategies should be considered as inseparable from the situated purpose for engaging in a task. This perspective on motivation and self-regulation implies that self-regulation is not a unitary set of strategies, but comprises different strategies, each of which may fit better the pursuit of different purposes of engagement in the task. The aim of this particular study is to support the notion that situated purposes of engagement and regulation strategies may be integrated in “purpose-strategy” action orientations: a situated and dynamic phenomenological network of reasons for engagement, goals of engagement, and engagement strategies in a particular task.

The method employed for supporting the notion of an integrated purpose-strategy construct is a mixed-methods case study investigation. We present the case study of one high school student engagement in a writing task. Empirical support for the integration of purpose of engagement and self-regulation strategies may point to the contextualized, situated, and dynamic meaning-making processes of engagement as the desirable unit of analysis in investigations and in interventions concerned with self-regulation.


Self-regulation in academic settings has been defined as the “active, constructive process whereby learners set goals for their learning and then attempt to monitor, regulate, and control their cognition, motivation, and behavior, guided and constrained by their goals and the contextual features in the environment” (Pintrich, 2000a, p. 453). Research in past years has focused on identifying general and domain-specific components of self-regulation, including cognitive, metacognitive, motivational, and behavioral strategies by which students can actively and strategically control and modify their learning to achieve desired academic outcomes (Butler & Winne, 1995; Zimmerman, 1989).

Several models of self-regulation in academic settings have been postulated (Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001). These models emphasize different aspects or components of the self-regulatory action. However, most of them also share important key characteristics. Two important characteristics are the conceptualization of the self-regulating student as a motivated proactive agent, and the depiction of the self-regulatory process as progressing along phases. The phases commonly include the assessment of task conditions and of relevant personal resources; goal-setting and selection of strategies to pursue these goals; application of the strategies and metacognitive monitoring of this application; and evaluation of the products and metacognitive control of the continued use of the strategies (i.e., whether to maintain the strategies or change them). These phases are thought to operate cyclically, with the evaluation phase leading back to the planning phase of goal-setting and selection of strategies, and so on (cf. Winne & Hadwin, 1998; Zimmerman, 2000).


Writing is a complex task that involves multiple and diverse cognitive, affective, and behavioral processes (Boscolo & Hidi, 2007). Research suggests that capable writers regulate their actions and use a variety of strategies to achieve writing goals, such as improving skills and enhancing the quality of their text (e.g., Graham & Harris, 2000; Page-Voth & Graham, 1999; Zimmerman & Kitsantas, 1999, 2007; Zimmerman & Risemberg, 1997). In addition to more general metacognitive strategies such as monitoring, organization, and evaluation, and motivational strategies such as regulating task value and efficacy, academic writing requires the employment of domain-specific rhetorical and regulatory strategies such as phrasing, revising the text, and being aware of and catering to potential readers (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987). In the past few years, research concerned with identifying such strategies and investigating variables associated with their use has increased (Bruning & Horn, 2000). Nevertheless, knowledge concerning self-regulation in writing is still developing and requires further research (Graham & Harris; Zimmerman & Kitsantas, 2007).

Zimmerman and Kitsantas (2007) conceptualized self-regulation in writing along Zimmerman’s (2000, 2002) three-phase cyclical model of self-regulation. The process begins with a “pre-writing” phase of forethought, in which the writer evaluates the task at hand and personal sources of self-motivation, sets writing goals, and engages in strategic planning that is appropriate for the task and setting: The self-regulating writer assesses the task requirements and the environmental conditions for writing; evaluates self-efficacy and level of interest in the task; adopts an orientation toward learning from the task and developing writing competencies; sets appropriate goals for engaging in the task and for the product; and selects strategies that would promote the production, organization, and improvement of the text, such as idea generation, writing an outline, and time and space assessment.

Writing continues with the performance phase, in which the self-regulating writer engages in self-control and self-observation. Self-control involves enacting strategies that promote the efficient production and organization of the text, including verbalization of ideas and reading aloud drafts; imagining settings, plots, and characters; employing outlines, metaphors, and mnemonics; focusing attention to avoid distractions; managing writing time; arranging conducive environmental conditions for writing; using self-rewards such as self-praise or tangible benefits to motivate oneself; and seeking information or help from sources such as books and people. Self-observation involves physical record-keeping and metacognitive monitoring of the writing activity, its progress, and the factors that affect it. These strategies clearly depend on the products of the forethought phase: Monitoring would be much more efficient if the writer had set clear goals and selected specific strategies than if she neglected to do so.

The third phase of the self-regulation of writing—the self-reflection phase—involves strategies of self-judgments and self-reactions. Self-judgments refer to evaluating the information gathered from monitoring the writing progress and making causal attributions for writing results. Good writers make controllable attributions for their writing results, which sustain their confidence in their ability to improve their writing. Self-reactions refer to writers’ reactions to their evaluations of their writing process and product. These can take the form of a sense of satisfaction and positive affect, or disappointment and negative affect. Writers also make adaptive or defensive inferences in reaction to their self-judgments and evaluations. Good writers avoid defensive reactions and adopt adaptive inferences that motivate them to revise the draft and improve the product. These self-judgments, evaluations, and reactions affect, in a cyclical manner, the adjustment of goals and strategies, and beliefs about efficacy and interest, which guide the writer in another cycle of forethought, performance, and self-reflection phases (Zimmerman & Kistanas, 2007).


An important assumption in most models of self-regulation is that students’ motivation plays a crucial role in their adaptive self-regulation (Schunk & Zimmerman, 2007). Zimmerman (2000) argued that “self-regulatory skills are of little value if a person cannot motivate themselves to use them” (p. 17). As is apparent in Zimmerman’s (2000) model of self-regulation, students’ motivational beliefs, such as their self-efficacy for the task and for the use of self-regulation strategies, or their valuing of the task for its own sake, are crucial for their actual and successful engagement in self-regulation (Zimmerman, 2002). In the past two decades, a large body of research has investigated the role of beliefs such as self-efficacy, outcome expectancies, and task value in students’ self-regulated engagement (Zimmerman, 2000). In the domain of writing, for example, research found that self-efficacy for writing was associated with the use of self-regulation strategies such as goal-setting and self-evaluation, as well as with the quality of the written product. Self-efficacy for writing was also reciprocally associated with students’ interest in writing (Zimmerman & Kistanas, 2007).

Another fruitful line of research on motivation and self-regulation in the past two decades has been in achievement goal theory (Pintrich, 2000a). Unlike the outcome goals that students set when planning their engagement, achievement goal theory focuses on the broader purposes or reasons that students adopt for engagement in the task (Anderman & Maehr, 1994; Kaplan & Maehr, 2002, 2007).1 Whereas specific goals or objectives refer to what the student is aiming to achieve (e.g., a perfect score), the purpose of engagement refers to why the student is engaging in the task (e.g., to learn more about the topic; Anderman & Maehr). These purposes, or underlying reasons, were labeled goal orientations and were thought to frame the student’s interpretation of the task and to guide her task engagement (Ames, 1992).

Most research focused on two types of purposes, labeled mastery goal orientation (sometimes referred to as learning goals or task goals) and performance goal orientation (sometimes referred to as ability goals or ego goals; Ames, 1992). Mastery goal orientation refers to a purpose of increasing competence and thus to a focus on learning, understanding, and mastering the task. Performance goal orientation refers to a purpose of demonstrating ability and thus to a concern with appearing smart and able, and not appearing unable. Researchers also make a distinction between approach and avoidance orientations within mastery and performance goal orientations, with approach goal orientations referring to a focus on the possibility of success, and avoidance goal orientations to a focus on the possibility of failure (Elliot, 1999). Thus, mastery-approach goal orientation refers to engagement with the purpose of increasing competence, whereas mastery-avoidance goal orientation refers to engagement with the purpose of avoiding deterioration of competence or of missing opportunities for learning. Performance-approach goal orientation refers to engagement with the purpose of demonstrating high ability, whereas performance-avoidance goal orientation refers to engagement with the purpose of avoiding demonstrating low ability (Elliot, 1999; Pintrich, 2000a).

Students’ purpose of engagement, or their achievement goal orientation, is considered an important motivational factor that affects their self-regulation. In Zimmerman’s (2000, 2002) model of self-regulation, achievement goal orientations constitute one of the four motivational processes that students draw on in the forethought phase. In elaborating on this motivational process, Zimmerman (2002) argued that a mastery (learning) goal orientation for engagement facilitates adaptive self-regulation, whereas a performance goal orientation does not.

Research over the past couple of decades supported the notion that different purposes of engagement are associated differently with various components of self-regulation of learning. For example, findings strongly suggest that mastery-approach goal orientation is associated with initiation of self-regulation, choice of deep learning strategies, high self-monitoring and control of cognition during engagement, persistence in the face of difficulty, interpretation of feedback in relation to progress, and self-evaluation of comprehension (Pintrich, 2000a). In comparison, research findings suggest strongly that performance-avoidance goal orientation is negatively associated with adaptive self-regulated learning and is associated positively with avoidance of effort and with self-handicapping strategies (Urdan & Midgley, 2001).

Findings concerning the performance-approach purpose are more complex. Several studies suggested that performance-approach goal orientation is positively associated with adaptive self-regulation (e.g., Bouffard, Boisvert, Vezeau, & Larouche, 1995; Pintrich, 2000b; Wolters, Yu, & Pintrich, 1996). However, other studies suggested that this purpose of engagement is unrelated to positive indicators of self-regulation (e.g., Kaplan & Midgley, 1997), and some suggested that it is related to some undesired cognitive, emotional, and behavioral processes that provide negative indicators of self-regulation (Middleton & Midgley, 1997; Miller, Behrens, Greene, & Newman, 1993). Finally, research on mastery-avoidance goal orientation is still relatively scarce, and no generalization can be stated at this point about the association of this purpose of engagement with cognitive and motivational strategies (Pintrich, 2003).


Past research led to some important generalizations concerning the association of different purposes of engagement and level of self-regulated learning. Yet, similar to research that highlighted the positive relations between self-efficacy or task interest and self-regulated learning, most conceptual and empirical investigations viewed purpose of engagement and self-regulated learning as distinct entities that are related quantitatively—for example, suggesting that higher mastery-approach goal orientation would be associated with more self-regulation.

However, early conceptualizations of achievement goal orientations offered a different perspective of motivation and action than a linear quantitative relation. These early models viewed students’ actions as based in the meaning that students constructed for situated engagement (Ames, 1992; Dweck, 1986; Maehr, 1984; Molden & Dweck, 2000; Nicholls, 1989). This meaning involved the purpose of engagement as well as actions that would promote the pursuit of that purpose (Maehr). From this perspective, purpose of engagement is not simply related to higher or lower levels of a unitary set of self-regulated strategies. Instead, purpose of engagement is inherently integrated with certain strategies that are construed as relevant for its pursuit. Pintrich (2000a) suggested, for example, that adopting a mastery-approach goal orientation would focus students on learning and understanding, guide them to set objectives, monitor cues, and select learning strategies that would promote their purpose of developing competencies. In comparison, adopting performance-approach goal orientation would focus students on appearing able and guide them to engage in self-regulation strategies that would promote their purpose of demonstrating competencies. Whereas some self-regulation strategies may serve the pursuit of mastery-approach and of performance-approach goal orientations, some other strategies may cater more to one purpose of engagement or the other.

More comprehensively, Nicholls (1989, 1992) argued that purposes of engagement represent a lay theory about what it means to succeed as well as how to achieve this success. For example, students who believe that success in a task is defined by deep understanding (a feature of a mastery goal orientation) also believe that success in school can be achieved through strategies such as working hard, cooperating with others, helping others, and trying to understand. Students who believe that success in a task is defined by demonstrating high ability (a feature of a performance goal orientation) also endorse strategies for success, such as trying to do better than others, impressing others, and behaving as if they like the teacher.

Similarly, Maehr (1984) argued that engagement in a task integrates the purpose of engagement with action possibilities—those strategies that the person perceives as available for herself in the situation in light of her purpose of engagement. Maehr’s model of student motivation (Kaplan & Maehr, 2002; Maehr) describes a process in which purposes of engagement and strategies are dynamically constructed in achievement situations. This meaning-making process integrates three main psychological components: the perceived purpose of engagement in the situation, relevant self-perceptions (e.g., self-efficacy for the task, aspects of identity), and the perceived action possibilities for engagement. The integration of the three components results in a situated action orientation that involves the purpose of engagement and the actions to pursue that purpose in the task, including the specific goals and engagement strategies. The model also emphasizes that all three of these components are themselves constructed within a cultural milieu through social interactions, are affected by sociocultural meanings, including those of “achievement,” “self,” and “engagement,” and are continually shifting in response to personal and social dynamics that take place in the achievement situation (Kaplan & Maehr, 2002).

The theoretical models that integrate situated purposes of engagement with self-regulation strategies suggest that attention should be given to the purposes of engagement that students construct in each educational context and task, as well as to the particular strategies that these students perceive as relevant for their engagement under these purposes (Kaplan, 2009). This understanding requires the investigation of self-regulation as a dynamic situated event rather than as a general aptitude (Winne & Perry, 2000). However, with few exceptions, most research investigating the relations of purpose of engagement and self-regulation used instruments such as surveys or general interviews that are more in line with the general aptitude view of both purpose of engagement and self-regulation (e.g., Ainley, 1993; Kaplan, Lichtinger, & Gorodetsky, 2009; Pajares, Britner, & Valiante, 2000; Silva & Nicholls, 1993; cf. Pintrich, 2000a and Zimmerman, 2008). In the present study, we adopt a view of engagement as a situated and dynamically changing event.


In the present study, we aimed to investigate the dynamic integration of spontaneous and naturally constructed purposes of engagement and self-regulation strategies. Specifically, we expected to find that in a specific writing situation and task, a student may employ (or not!) various writing and self-regulation strategies depending on the relevance of these strategies to her subjectively constructed situated purposes of engagement in the task. In this article, we present an in-depth analysis of these processes in a case of one ninth-grade student’s engagement in a specific writing task.

The assessment of the self-regulation strategies that students employ in a situated task is a methodological challenge (Cascallar, Boekaerts, & Costigan, 2006; Perry & Winne, 2006; Winne & Perry, 2000; Zimmerman, 2008). Our interest in assessing purposes of engagement and self-regulation strategies as situated events necessitated the use of methods that allow access to the student’s mental processes during engagement. There are various methods that researchers have used to assess self-regulation as a situated event (e.g., think-aloud, error detection tasks, trace methodologies, observations; Winne & Perry; Zimmerman, 2008). However, as Winne and Perry noted, this domain still faces significant challenges (see also Pintrich, 2003). One strong recommendation that researchers have made is using multiple methods (Winne & Perry) and mixing methods to achieve data triangulation (Patrick & Middleton, 2002). Patrick and Middleton emphasized the benefit of mixing data collected by different methods because “it allows for the inherent weaknesses of one method to be compensated for by another” (p. 34). In addition, Patrick and Middleton noted that achieving triangulation of such diverse data sources on the same processes “affords researchers opportunities for greater completeness with respect to answering questions, compared to a mono-method approach, and confirmation of information where data overlap” (p. 34).

In choosing the specific methods for the current study, we considered several issues. One issue was the theoretical assumption that students’ situated perceptions of certain self-regulation strategies as serving their purpose of engagement would depend on their dispositional purpose of engagement and on their self-regulation aptitude or repertoire (cf. Kaplan & Maehr, 2002). Therefore, while focusing on engagement as an event, we also wanted to account for students’ dispositions in purpose of engagement in writing and for their writing self-regulation aptitude.

A second issue concerned the challenges to the validity of students’ self-report of the strategies that they used (Perry & Winne, 2006). Such self-reports have been found to be valid indicators of self-regulation as an aptitude (Zimmerman, 2008). However, researchers have found discrepancies between students’ self-report of the strategies that they used in a specific task, and the actual strategies that they employed (Winne & Jamieson-Noel, 2002). Researchers have addressed this challenge by successfully training students to think aloud while engaging in the task and by designing software that traces students’ self-regulated tactics (Perry & Winne, 2006). However, talk-aloud protocols were also found to interfere with the process of writing (Janssen, Van Waes, & Van den Bergh, 1996) and may prove problematic in attempting to assess self-regulation in naturalistic settings such as classrooms. Software that traces students’ self-regulation is often limited to the in-built strategies that the software affords and traces, and may be less suitable for collecting data on diverging and spontaneously occurring strategies. We were also looking for methods that would increase validity without the need for sophisticated and expensive technology and that may be rather easily applicable to different settings.

This consideration resulted in a combination of methods: (a) traces of strategies in a writing product; (b) a microprocesses observation on the writing process; (c) a stimulated-recall interview (SRI) using the observations as a memory trigger; and (d) a more general interview about the experience of engagement in the task, self-processes related to writing, and self-regulation aptitude. For the purposes of demonstrating the construction of integrated purpose-strategy actions during engagement in a writing task, we present the case of one high-achieving ninth-grade student.



The current study presents a case study of the writing process of one Israeli-Jewish ninth-grade high-achieving girl, Yael,2 as she engaged in a specific writing task. Yael was one among 30 ninth-grade Israeli-Jewish students (15 boys and 15 girls) from two high schools in the South of Israel who participated in a qualitative study on motivation and writing strategies. Students were selected based on teacher nominations of students’ ability in writing as high, moderate, and weak. Yael was nominated by her writing teacher as a highly able writer. The two schools represent different learning environments: a traditional learning environment that is geared toward excellence, and a progressive learning environment with child-centered practices and an alternative evaluation system. Yael was a student in the traditional learning environment. She was selected among the students for this case analysis because her case provides a good demonstration of the situated and dynamic construction of purposes of engagement and their integration with writing strategies.3


All students in the ninth-grade cohort in the two schools received parental permission to participate in the research. Yael, as were the other students, was asked to take part in a task that would help to investigate students’ writing processes. Data were collected individually. Yael was asked by her writing teacher to arrive at an empty classroom in her school where she met a female research assistant (RA). The RA introduced herself, restated the purpose of the meeting, and told Yael that she would be asked to engage in a writing task, after which she would be interviewed about her writing. Then, the RA handed Yael a sheet of paper with task instructions, a blank sheet of paper, and a pen, and asked her to complete the assignment.

The writing assignment. The instructions of the task were: “Write to a school newsletter, which is read by students and teachers, about: ‘What’s an ideal school?’ Refer to different topics (learning, exams, etc.), and compare the ideal school to your own school.” This topic was chosen because it was thought to build on each of the students’ experiences, to be meaningful to students, and to require little formal prior knowledge. The students were given pens rather than pencils so that corrections and changes would leave traces on the written page (as opposed to being erased with an eraser).

Microprocesses observations. The RA positioned herself at the student’s side, somewhat out of the student’s line of vision, but in a way that allowed her to observe the writing. The RA conducted a microprocesses observation on the writing process and wrote down all of the student’s actions. The observation sheet for Yael is presented in Appendix A. Students’ specific actions were written in 1-minute cells, starting from the first minute of engagement in the writing process and ending when the student indicated that the writing process was finished. RAs were trained to write down every specific behavior that the student performed, including an indication of the location on the page (e.g., “at the middle of line 3, stops for a second and continues”), the length of time of the action (e.g., “Puts the pen on page and waits, 5 sec.”), and the specific action (e.g., “On line 7, third word, changes a letter”). A different rubric on the observation sheet allowed RAs to record their impressions of the students’ cognition, emotion, motivation, and behavior (e.g., “seems like she is going over what she wrote”). Students did not seem to be aware of or bothered by the observation. None of them indicated an interest (e.g., glances) in the observation sheet; most of them ignored the RA during the writing process, and on only a few occasions, students turned to the RA with informational questions (e.g., “How long does it need to be?” “Do I need a title?”) or with questions regarding the instructions (e.g., “Do I need to write about what the school needs to be like, or about what I know?”). All this suggested that the observation itself probably had relatively minor effects on the students’ engagement in writing.4

Stimulated-recall interview. Immediately after the student indicated that he or she finished the assignment, the RA initiated a SRI about the student’s writing process. The first question the RA asked was a general question about the participant’s feeling—a question meant to create a cooperative attitude: “How was the assignment for you?” Most participants responded briefly with an affective response (e.g., “Fine, I had things to write”; “OK, it was OK”; “At the beginning it was difficult, but then it got better”). Then the RA said, “I would like to ask you now a few questions about what you did in the assignment.” The RA continued by asking a question that referred to the first indication of action on the observation sheet (e.g., “spends a minute reading the instructions”: “I noticed that it took about a minute since I gave you the assignment until you started writing, can you tell me what you were doing?”). The SRI continued with the RA asking the student to recount his or her thoughts and actions concerning any notable behavior indicated in the observation.

Open-ended questions about the meaning of the achievement situation. Following the SRI, the RA asked the student more general questions concerning his or her experience in the situation. The first questions aimed to elicit experiences that may have primed the student’s meaning of the achievement situation and asked about the student’s experiences just prior to arriving at the meeting: “What did you do just before you came here?” “What kind of mood were you in when you came here?” Then the RA asked questions that aimed at the student’s general experiences before, during, and after engagement: “What did you think and feel before you started writing?” “What were you feeling and thinking during the writing?” “How did you feel and what did you think at the end of the writing?”

Open-ended questions about the purpose of engagement. The next set of questions in the interview addressed the student’s purpose of engagement. The questions built on the notion of purpose of engagement as the subjective definition and criteria of success in the task (cf. Nicholls, 1989, 1992).5 Specifically, the RA asked the student to elaborate on his or her notion of success in this particular assignment: “Do you feel that you succeeded in this assignment? Why?” “What would you consider a success in this assignment?” “What helped you succeed?” “What interfered with your success?”

Open-ended questions about general purposes of engagement in writing. The questions then turned to the more general purposes of engagement that the student holds in the domain of writing: “What makes you succeed or not succeed in writing?” “What do you feel about writing?” “What’s important for you when you write?”

Items concerning the purpose of writing. For purpose of validation, the section of the interview concerning the purpose of engagement in writing also included asking the student to respond to seven specific questions, each assessing an aspect of a different achievement goal orientation for writing. All questions had the stem of “How important is it for you. . . ?” (cf. Midgley et al., 2000) and were followed by asking the student to elaborate on “Why?” The questions were: Mastery-approach goals: “. . . to learn things from writing?” “. . . to improve your writing skills?” “. . . to affect people through writing?” Performance-approach goals: “. . . to have people think you are a good writer?” “. . . to get a high grade?” Performance-avoidance goals: “. . . that you are not considered a bad writer?” “. . . not to get a low grade?”

Open-ended questions about self-regulation aptitude. The final section of the interview attempted to elicit the general declarative and conditional knowledge that the student had about self-regulation strategies. The questions aimed at eliciting spontaneous responses from the student about self-regulation strategies in writing beyond those she engaged in and reported on in the SRI. To elicit both declarative and conditional knowledge of strategies, the student was asked to compare the current writing situation to other writing situations that were similar in the task but different in requirements: “If this essay was really going to be published in a school’s newsletter, would you have done something different? What?” “If this was a class assignment, would you have done something different? What?” In addition, to tap on more general declarative knowledge of self-regulation strategies, students were asked questions about coping with challenge in academic writing situations: “What do you do when you get a boring writing assignment in class?” “What do you do when you get a difficult writing assignment in class?”

Items concerning self-regulation and writing strategies aptitude. Finally, for purposes of validation, the section concerning self-regulation aptitude also included asking the participant to respond to 14 closed questions adopted from a scale assessing self-regulation of writing (Kaplan et al., 2009): “Now I’m going to present to you some things that people do when they write. Please tell me if you do these things when you write:”

“People set goals and design a plan how to achieve these goals.”

“People think about the readers to write to.”

“People plan and divide the time of writing.”

“People focus their attention on the task and try not to think about other things.”

“People have a model of good writing that they try to imitate.”

“People write themselves comments to help with their writing.”

“People organize their writing.”

“People imagine things to help with their writing.”

“People monitor their process of writing.”

“People remind themselves that if they do the task, they’ll get a good grade.”

“People tell themselves that doing the task will improve their writing.”

“People give themselves prizes or compliments for their writing.”

“People seek help from friends or adults.”

“People evaluate the quality of their writing.”


Analysis of data was conducted by two independent raters. The two coders coded the data independently and then met to compare analyses. Any discrepancies were resolved through discussion. The analysis followed several steps. In the first step, the analysis sought traces of strategies indicated by observable features or marks in the written product itself. The strategies that were sought were general categories of self-regulation strategies, including planning (e.g., the existence of an outline, opening paragraph that defines the topic, and margin comments such as doodles or a table comparing an ideal school with one’s own school), organization (e.g., the existence of paragraphs and their content, the logic of the argument, the existence of a conclusion, and the use of various rhetorical strategies such as leading to a surprise conclusion), elaboration (e.g., richness and complexity of the ideas), and monitoring (e.g., change of ideas, replacement of words, and correction of spelling mistakes). In addition, categories included writing-specific strategies such as the use of mental images and metaphors, and reader awareness (e.g., rhetorical strategies addressing the reader). Yael’s written product appears in Appendix B.6

In the second step, the analysis sought traces of strategies in the observation. These included indications of the major categories of the self-regulation strategies, including planning (e.g., spending significant time reading the instructions and waiting before starting to write), monitoring (e.g., going over sentences with the eyes or with the pen, corrections of ideas, words, or letters, and going back to read the instructions after starting to write), and evaluation (e.g., reading what was written after finishing the assignment). Other general strategies that were sought were attention regulation (e.g., maintaining engagement despite disturbances) and help-seeking (asking the RA for clarification or information). A sample segment of the observation on Yael’s writing is presented in Appendix A.7

In the third step, the analysis triangulated the traces from the written product and from the observation with the student’s report from the SRI. This resulted in a description of the thought processes and the strategies used in particular points throughout the writing process. The process began with the first indication in the observation of an action (e.g., that the student waited before beginning to write). The analysis continued with a search for the corresponding place in the written product and then in the SRI (e.g., the student’s response to the question concerning waiting before writing). The data from the two or three sources were then compared, and an attempt was made at triangulation. In case of triangulation—that is, corresponding indication by different sources of data—the identification of the strategy was considered to be supported, and the different sources of data were integrated to create a rich description of the strategy.

Figure 1 presents an example of the triangulation of the three sources of data from Yael’s case, indicating the use of strategies of evaluation of clarity, attending to the reader, and phrasing at a particular point in the writing process. The focus of the example is on the beginning of the 11th line in the written product. The analysis of the written product included a crossed-out word following the mention of students’ high grades as an indicator of school quality. The observation included a note that Yael stopped for 5 seconds after writing the word, crossed it out, and continued writing. This suggested that Yael engaged in a strategy that was related to the use of this word in the sentence on the topic of students’ high grades—most likely a type of monitoring or evaluation that led to correction. When asked about it in the SRI, Yael reported that she engaged in evaluation of the clarity of the expression of her thoughts in writing, considered her readers, and phrased the sentence differently. The triangulation of the three sources of data—the observation of a break in the flow of writing and the crossing-out of a word, the crossed-out word in the sentence about grades, and Yael’s report of engaging in specific strategies that matched the traces—was taken as an indication for the use of these strategies at that point in the writing process. The accumulation of these specific triangulated indications of actions resulted in a depiction of the thought processes and actions that Yael engaged in from the point of receiving the task to the point of completing the assignment.


The fourth step in the analysis aimed at identifying the student’s purpose of engagement in the task. This step followed Maehr’s (1984) model of purpose of engagement and involved identifying several components hypothesized to integrate into the construction of the situated purpose of engagement in the task (Kaplan & Maehr, 2002): (a) self-processes and affect relating to the task and to writing more generally (e.g., perceived efficacy and affect during engagement in the task; perceived ability in and enjoyment of writing—for example, “I like writing”); (b) purposes and objectives pursued while engaging in the writing process (e.g., developing understanding, following instructions, good prose, making sense, sounding good, being correct, changing readers’ minds—for example, “If someone reads this, maybe he or she will think a bit differently”); (c) the general purpose of engagement in academic writing (e.g., developing skills, demonstrating high writing ability, expressing ideas, changing readers’ opinions—for example, “If people give me compliments and say it’s beautiful, it really makes me want to write”); and (d) general aptitude in writing and self-regulation strategies (e.g., positive coping strategies, general self-regulation and writing strategies—for example, “I mostly think before I start. I don’t write straight away”). These components were used for understanding the purposes that guided the student while writing. Importantly, whereas the initial intention was to mainly rely on the open-ended part of the interview for the generation of the student’s purpose of engagement, it soon became clear that the stimulated recall part of the interview was providing very valuable information regarding these purposes, particularly when the student explained the reasons and objectives for using a certain strategy (e.g., a purpose of writing enough meaningful ideas about the issue: RA: “When you finished, you stopped, looked for a second, and put down the pen. Do you remember what happened there?” Yael: “I was thinking, wait a minute, is it enough or do I have something else to write? . . . . I managed, more or less, to relay what I wrote and I was thinking if I needed to write something more”).

The final step in the analysis integrated the student’s dispositional purposes in writing and self-regulation aptitude, the characteristics of the context, and the specific flow of purposes and strategies for generating an integrative narrative describing the student’s purpose of engagement and actions during engagement in the task.


The presentation of the results follows the steps in the analysis. First, we present the analysis of the strategies detected from the traces in the written product. We follow by presenting the analysis of the strategies detected from the traces in the observation, and then the strategies detected from Yael’s self-report in the SRI that corresponded with the traces in the observation and the written product. We then present the analysis of the interview, focusing on the more general meaning of the task to Yael, following with sections focusing on her self-processes and affect and her self-regulation aptitude. We end with a section that describes the integration of different analyses into an understanding of Yael’s engagement in the specific achievement task, highlighting the central role of purposes of engagement in her use of self-regulation strategies.


Yael’s written product included traces indicating the use of several strategies while also potentially revealing aspects of her purposes of engagement. First, the overall structure of the essay provided an indication for the use of an organization strategy. This was manifested in the division of the essay into five sections: an opening sentence and elaboration on the opening sentence, presentation of the main idea, development of the main idea, examples for the main idea, and a closing sentence. Importantly, the organization of the essay was thematic but not aesthetic: there was no underlined or centralized title and no clear visual distinction between the sections (see Appendix B).

Second, there was indication for the use of rhetorical-elaboration strategies that also involved awareness of the reader. This was noted in the opening sentence, which was a general question—“What is a good school?”—and continued in lines 2–4, which included four possible answers to the first question, themselves posed as questions: “Is it a school in which students’ grades are high? Is it a school in which the student body is a cohesive social group? That the teachers are good? That the atmosphere is good?” On line 5, Yael provided a summary question—“What among these indicates that the school is ‘good’?”—and ended on lines 6–7 with the answer—the main idea of the essay: “The answer is actually simple. A combination of everything together. Sounds complicated but not at all.” Clearly, Yael did not simply jot down answers to the question, but rather engaged in relatively elaborated thinking about the issue, which she related to the reader through the use of a rhetorical strategy that led to the presentation of her main idea in her essay.

Yael’s use of elaboration strategies was further indicated in the next section in the written product (lines 8–12) in which Yael presented her logical reasoning of the main idea:

(8) When the teachers are good the grades are good and therefore the atmosphere

(9) is good and as a result the students become a cohesive social group. When the social group

(10) is cohesive, the atmosphere is a good atmosphere, students’ grades are high,

(11) and this makes it easy on the teachers, and vice versa.

(12) One thing causes the other. When one thing is good, everything is good.

Tentatively, the preceding section may suggest that one of Yael’s purposes in writing the essay and in employing the elaboration-rhetorical strategy is to relay a meaningful idea in a way that would entice and make sense to the reader. This is an adaptive goal of writing, which is not one of the goal orientations highlighted by achievement goal theory. This highlights the notion that there are important purposes of engagement other than mastery and performance goal orientations (cf. Maehr, 1984; Urdan & Maehr, 1995) that should be considered as more or less adaptive depending on the subject domain, task, and setting (see Silva & Nicholls, 1993).

In the following section in the essay (lines 13–16), the one before the ending sentence, Yael provided an example to support her argument. This example includes a trace of a compare-and-contrast strategy. However, as the analysis of the content suggests, the strategy was not used appropriately; the example that Yael gave neither adds information nor provides good support for the argument. It is general and simplistic, and only reiterates what she wrote already8:

(13) One can see it clearly in successful schools—it is possible

(14) to see the cohesive body of students, the good atmosphere,

(15) the high grades etc. In comparison, in schools

(16) which are less successful one can notice the difficult atmosphere, the low grades etc.

The ending sentence of the essay, in lines 17–18, provided an indication for Yael’s monitoring of task instructions (specifically the one asking to compare the student’s own school with the ideal school). However, similar to the previous section, the ideas expressed in the sentence are almost perfunctory and seem to indicate mere compliance with the instruction rather than the use of a comprehensive or meaningful cognitive strategy or process: “In my opinion, [my school] is a successful school on all counts—the teachers, atmosphere, cohesiveness, grades—everything.” This may suggest that at this point, Yael’s purpose of engagement shifted toward finishing without much investment while complying with the instructions (e.g., work avoidance; cf. Nicholls, 1989).


The writing process lasted for just over 10 minutes. The observation suggested the use of several strategies and cognitive processes, including planning, attention regulation, monitoring of task instructions, and monitoring of punctuation and/or content. Planning was indicated by the observation of Yael spending 20 seconds reading the instructions and 5 seconds more with the pen on the paper before starting to write. Attention regulation was clearly apparent by the observation of Yael stopping her writing but resuming and maintaining it when, during the first minute of the writing process, a few noisy students entered the classroom and stayed until the end of the 3rd minute. Attention regulation was also apparent later in the 9th minute, toward the end of the writing process, when there was another loud noise outside. During this event, Yael did not stop the flow of her writing.

Monitoring of task instructions was indicated by the observation of Yael stopping and looking at the task instructions. Monitoring of punctuation and/or content was indicated during the 5th minute by the observation of Yael going back to read the line she just finished writing, using the pen to point to the words she was looking at. When she finished looking at the words, Yael was observed drumming with her fingers for a few seconds, which may have indicated evaluation or further planning. At the 7th minute, Yael was observed again going back to read a line she just wrote, and adding a comma to the line. Although the observation indicated that Yael glanced over her essay for a few seconds after she finished writing, this was too short a time to suggest a meaningful evaluation of her writing.


The SRI corroborated findings from the observation and the written product and added richness to the descriptions of the strategies that Yael engaged in along the writing process. Importantly, the SRI also gave indication for some of the purposes and objectives that guided Yael’s use of strategies. The strategies that were identified by the interview included planning ahead of writing; elaboration; attention regulation; rhetorical strategies with readers in mind; planning during the writing process; monitoring of content, phrasing, punctuation, and task instructions; organization; and evaluation. The interview also had some indication for the automatic, or subawareness, use of some actions.

The triangulation of data from the SRI interview and the other sources of data was achieved already at the first minute of engagement. The SRI corroborated the trace in the observation of Yael’s engagement in planning ahead of writing. When asked about waiting before starting to write, Yael responded,

At first I read the instructions and I had no idea what to write about, because actually I never thought about what is a good school. Then, I got the idea that actually, a good school is not one thing, it’s many things. That’s it. I started and asked “what is a good school”. . .

This description of her thought process also suggests that Yael’s planning involved elaboration strategies aiming to clarify to herself ideas she never considered before. In other words, although not stated as such, it seems that one purpose of Yael’s employment of the planning and elaboration strategies at this early stage of engagement was developing her own understanding of the issues she was writing about—a purpose akin to a mastery-approach goal orientation.

Several events took place during the 2nd minute of engagement for which triangulation of data was achieved. First, Yael’s SRI corroborated her use of attention regulation to cope with the noise made by the students who entered the classroom: “I like lost my concentration. I forgot what I wanted to write, so I stopped for a few seconds, and then I continued despite the situation . . . I read again what I wrote and tried to remember what the idea that I wanted to write about was.” Yael’s description of using attention regulation also supported her use of planning—she had an idea she planned to write about, which was forgotten because of the distraction. Importantly, this also seems to suggest that Yael’s purpose of engagement in the writing at that point in the process of engagement was the expression of her ideas—a purpose suggested also by traces of content and organization in the written product.

Another triangulation of data at the second minute of engagement was of Yael’s use of elaboration and rhetorical strategies that were noted in the written product. The observation noted a break in Yael’s flow of writing at the middle of the third line. When asked about it, Yael said, “Ah, yes. I wanted to write all kinds of questions about what is a good school. I wrote the first question and then I wanted to ask another question and I thought what people would think that a good school is.”

In the this description of her action, Yael noted an additional strategy to those identified by the written product and observation—imagining other people’s thoughts about the topic—which she employed to support her elaboration and rhetorical strategies. Together, these strategies seem to be a part of her organizational strategies: She is employing them in order to lead to the presentation of her main idea in the essay. These strategies also seem to be pointing to her purpose of writing to an audience other than herself.

A third triangulation of data during the 2nd minute of engagement suggested the use of planning during the writing process. The observation noted that Yael wrote line 4 slowly and stopped at its end for 5 seconds. When asked why she did that, Yael responded,

In order to think.

RA: Do you remember about what?

Yael: What to write. I wanted to write something that would be true and that would also sound good.

Here, Yael’s response combines an indication of engaging in a planning strategy—thinking about what to write—with an indication of the specific objectives that the strategy came to serve—credibility and good prose. These objectives imply a purpose of writing that is guided by standards of credibility and aesthetic prose. This purpose may be self-oriented, such as writing to oneself, or it may be other-oriented: writing credibly and well in order to relay one’s ideas to others. The previous indication of a purpose of writing to an audience suggests that it is the latter.

The next triangulation of data occurred in the 3rd minute of engagement and focused on a note in the observation indicating a 5-second break after writing the words “the answer is” in the 6th line of the essay. In the SRI, Yael explained her thoughts during the break as follows: “The answer is actually everything and I thought that it doesn’t sound good so it’s not actually everything. So I was thinking.” The analysis suggested the use of a strategy of monitoring content and the purpose of developing a coherent understanding of the issue—a mastery-approach goal orientation. In contrast to such explication of her thoughts around this incident, Yael did not remember changing a letter on line 7, stopping for 5 seconds at the end of that line, or looking at the instructions—all actions noted in the observation.

The 4th minute of engagement provided triangulation of data supporting another event of attention regulation. The observation noted that the noisy students were passing by Yael, who did not raise her head and continued to write. When asked if it interfered with her concentration, she said, “A little bit, but I managed to concentrate. It wasn’t terrible.”

Also in the 4th minute, the analysis indicated the use of a combination of monitoring of content and elaboration. The observation noted that Yael stopped for 2 seconds after the first word on line 9, and then wrote line 9 slowly with frequent breaks. The first word on line 9 ends the argument that was started on line 8 and that concerned the effect of good teachers on good grades, and in turn on a good atmosphere in school. The rest of line 9 describes the effect of the good atmosphere on group cohesiveness. When asked about her actions, Yael said,

I was thinking if the fact that the atmosphere is good really says that the social group is cohesive.

RA: You mean, you checked what you wrote before?

Yael: Yes. I checked what I wrote and if what I’m going to write justifies it.

RA: Explain a bit more.

Yael: I wrote that if the teachers are good and the grades are good, then the atmosphere is good. I was thinking to myself that it is not necessary, that what I wrote is not always true, because many times it is a competitive atmosphere and all kinds of stuff like that. If the grades are good, it does not say that the social group is getting cohesive, but if the atmosphere is good, the social group does get more cohesive.

This example also suggests that the use of monitoring and elaboration strategies was guided by the purpose of writing credible ideas, which in turn involved a purpose of developing a better understanding of the argument—again, a purpose that is akin to a mastery-approach goal orientation.

The use of monitoring and elaboration strategies just described was corroborated also in the 5th minute of writing, with the addition of the strategy of planning during the writing process. The observation noted that Yael stopped toward the end of line 9 for 2 seconds, then continued to line 10, stopped for 2 seconds after the fifth word on line 10 and then added a comma, and continued to the end of the line before moving to line 11. From the written product, it was apparent that from the end of line 9 through line 11, Yael provided another example of the reciprocal relations among teachers, students’ grades, and the social atmosphere. When asked about taking the break at the end of line 9, Yael noted, “I was thinking about what to write, what drives what the second time, because I gave a few examples of something driving something. At the beginning it was relatively easy to write because this is the more standard example, and in the second example, I was thinking what in fact [drives something else].”

In the 6th minute of writing, the observation noted that Yael stopped for 5 seconds after writing the first word on line 11, crossed out the word, and then continued to finish the sentence. The written product included the marked word (see Figure 1) and indicated that it came just before the final example relating the characteristics of cohesive group, good atmosphere, students’ grades, and teachers’ load. When asked about it, Yael explained,

I wanted to write that the students’ grades are high and that it testifies that the teachers are good, and again there was an issue with phrasing.

RA: What does phrasing mean?

Yael: I think about something in my head, and in my head I don’t think about it phrased nicely and I want to put it in writing. Sometimes I write the way it comes to me in my head, but if I want that it would sound more understandable, because not always people understand what goes on in my head, then I change it.

The data just presented converged on the strategy of monitoring for prose, or phrasing. Importantly, Yael indicated that the use of monitoring for phrasing was guided by the objective of being understood by the reader, which may suggest, again, the purpose of writing to relay meaningful ideas to readers.9

A triangulation of data from the 7th minute of writing supported the use of monitoring of task instructions and of the strategy of compare and contrast. The observation noted that Yael took a 2-second break before starting to write line 13. In the written product, lines 13–16, include the section in which Yael compares successful and unsuccessful schools. When asked about taking the break at that point, Yael reported, “I think that I read the instructions again because I remembered that you need to compare between schools and I looked to see what exactly I need to compare.”

At the 8th minute of writing, the analysis supported the use of monitoring of punctuation. The observation noted that Yael wrote lines 13–15 without any break. At the middle of line 15, however, she stopped and returned to the end of line 14 to add a comma. She reported, “Yes. It happens to me many times. Sometimes I continue to write but I run the last sentence in my head to see if it is true and then I say to myself that it does not sound good, here I need a period, here I need a comma.” Interestingly, Yael reported on monitoring her punctuation as support for the more central strategy of monitoring content for credibility and for prose. Together, these seem to imply that Yael is guided by the purposes of credible writing and of aesthetic prose, which again seem to be part of the more general purpose of writing in order to relay credible and meaningful ideas to the reader.

Monitoring content for credibility was also supported by analysis of data from the 9th minute of writing, during which Yael wrote the final sentence of the section comparing successful and unsuccessful schools—line 16. In the written product, this line concerns the example of unsuccessful schools. The observation noted that Yael wrote this line slowly while taking breaks. In response to the RA’s question about her actions at that point, Yael reported,

In that line I wrote about unsuccessful schools and I don’t think I know such schools. So I was thinking to myself, what did I hear and all kind of stuff. It’s not from personal experience.

RA: I mean, the fact that you don’t know, how did that affect the writing?

Yael: I was a bit more skeptical . . . not to say what I don’t know.

During the 10th and final minute of writing, the analysis of data suggested a clear shift in Yael’s purpose, objective, and strategies. The observation indicated that during this minute, Yael wrote the last sentence in her essay—lines 17 and 18. The observation further noted that just before starting to write this sentence, Yael lifted her head from her hand and took a break, after which she wrote the whole sentence quickly and without stopping. The content of the last sentence concerned Yael’s own school and its character, although, as noted, the sentence was very simplistic. When asked about the break she took before writing the sentence, Yael explained, “I decided that it is time to finish. I’ve exhausted the idea. I didn’t want to finish with this line. This is like a school’s newsletter, so in the last line, I wanted to relate it to my personal school.” Yael’s statement clearly points to the objective of finishing the process of writing—a shift from the previous objective of comparing successful and unsuccessful schools. The statement also suggests planning and organization strategies that aim at the end of the essay, and perhaps also monitoring of task instructions, which asked for relating the essay to one’s school. The purpose of engagement that emerges from the data, at this point, seems to be to finish quickly.

Finally, the observation indicated that after finishing writing, Yael spent a few seconds looking at her essay. The SRI suggested that she engaged in superficial evaluation:

RA: When you finished, you stopped, looked for a second, and put down the pen. Do you remember what happened there?

Yael: I was thinking, “Wait a minute, is this enough, or do I have to write anything else? Do I have something else to write about this, or did I exhaust it?” I managed, more or less, to relay what I wrote, and I was thinking if I needed to write anything more.

Although her evaluation of the writing was not rigorous, Yael did engage in some evaluation that seemed to have been guided by a purpose of conforming to task instructions and, more important, by what seemed to be the purpose of writing her ideas and feelings and communicating them clearly to the reader.


Yael arrived at the task situation, a bit tired but in a good mood, from a free hour that she spent talking to her friends. The achievement situation she entered took place in a classroom in her school and likely triggered school-related associations and purposes. However, the situation was also different from Yael’s regular experiences of school writing. The context was of research rather than of the regular school’s writing instruction. Therefore, the situation may have emphasized additional purposes to those common in Yael’s traditional school environment, such as development of writing skills and demonstrating ability through high grades (e.g., pleasing the RA).

Yael’s reflection on her engagement in the task as a whole in the general interview corroborated several of the conclusions reached from the analysis of the other sources of data. Specifically, in the general interview, Yael explicitly stated her purposes of affecting readers through writing credible content and using strategies of monitoring content and prose. For example, Yael noted that her main sense of success in writing comes from the sense that she affects the reader: “That I really changed thinking. If someone will read it, they may think a bit differently.” This challenging purpose requires adopting smaller level purposes, and sometimes explicit goals, such as writing credible ideas: “I had the problem that there are things that I’m writing that I’m not so sure that they are clear truth and that I can publish them in a newsletter and say that that’s it, it is true. So I deliberated whether to write them.” According to Yael, these purposes and challenges called for a general strategic approach that involves monitoring and regulating:

In order to write, it really helps me to read what I’ve written and to see if what I wrote is actually what I want and what I’m trying to write, and if not then to change the whole style. . . . I think I did it until here [points to line 7]. All the time I looked at the questions that I wrote at the beginning to see if I’m relating to it.

To pursue the purpose of communicating her ideas and affecting the reader, Yael also attended to technical aspects of writing, such as style and prose: “Also in terms of the phrasing it is very important to me and if I succeed to communicate what I’ve been trying. . . ” Thus, the analysis of data from the open-ended general interview suggested that Yael’s main purpose of engagement in the writing task was affecting the readers through writing credible content and coherent prose—purposes and goals that call for strategies such as monitoring and regulating these aspects of her writing. Importantly, affecting the reader is a social/relational purpose that is somewhat different from the commonly investigated purposes of engagement in achievement goal theory (cf. Silva & Nicholls, 1993).

Another, perhaps more minor, purpose that Yael mentioned in the general interview was conforming to the instructions. However, this purpose seemed to be second to the main purpose of relaying meaningful ideas to the reader:

At the end, when I finished, I looked quickly at the instructions and I saw that something of the instructions I didn’t do, so I said like “Oye.” But, I wrote more or less what I had to, and more or less I feel that I relayed what I tried to say and what I think.


The analysis of the part of the interview that focused on writing as a domain indicated that Yael has positive self-perceptions in relation to writing. Yael reported that she “loves writing.” She also has a high perceived ability in writing. When describing what makes her feel successful in writing, she mentioned positive feedback on her talent and creativity. Interestingly, Yael’s description of positive experiences in writing is not in school but in social events with peers. For example, Yael mentioned high compliments she received for writing birthday wishes in rhymes. These compliments made her want to write more.

Yael reported that she likes to write about topics she understands and that she feels she can relate to. In addition, in a way that corroborated earlier findings, she said that what is most important to her in writing is to affect the readers, to make the readers think about what she wrote, and perhaps even to influence the readers to change their attitudes. When asked to rank how important other motivational purposes were for her, she indicated that being considered a good writer, not being considered a bad writer, and improving her writing were very important; learning from writing and not getting a low grade slightly important; and getting high grades as not important at all.


Analysis of the section of the general interview that targeted Yael’s self-regulation aptitude included indications of relatively developed conditional knowledge. When asked what she would do if asked to improve the essay, Yael asked to look at the essay again and then indicated that she would engage in better planning: “I would have thought a bit more before beginning to write about what I’m going to write, because I was writing and I thought less on the later parts than in the beginning.” When considering the possibility that this essay was indeed to appear in a publication, Yael said, “I would have changed here and there a few words and several phrasings.” The strategies would have also been modified a bit if the task had been administered in class: “I might have written about the same topic but I would have changed . . . not changed the opinions, but phrased my opinions a little less bluntly . . . I would have tried that as many people would think about what they are reading after they finished it.” Again, the choice of strategies is mentioned in relation to her purpose of engagement—affecting the readers’ thoughts and opinions.

Yael also reported on additional strategies that she would have used in different situations. If administered a boring writing assignment in class, Yael said that she would have “tried to check the topics that it relates to. In most cases there are topics that in a roundabout way relate to it and you can write about.” When asked what she would do if administered a task that she perceived as unimportant, Yael started by saying, “I don’t have much that I can do.” However, she quickly added indications for knowledge of motivational regulation strategies:

But I try to turn it into something that would be a bit more interesting, to talk about topics a bit more important. For example, if they ask about the paint color of the tables, you can talk about how it affects the students and their approach to school and maybe turn it into something a bit more important.

An additional evaluation strategy that Yael mentioned appeared in her elaboration on a response she made to a closed self-regulation item: “When the assignment is difficult I succeed more. At the end I also go over it.”

Finally, in her responses to the closed self-regulation items, Yael indicated that she tells herself that she can succeed in order to motivate herself to write, and she added that when she feels less able or when the assignment is difficult, she tells herself that she needs to put forth effort and improve her performance. Sometimes, she tells herself that doing the assignment will contribute to and improve her writing, but she is not motivating herself by the reward of a good grade or by appearing to be a successful student.


Combining the analyses of the various types of data about Yael and her writing resulted in a conceptual integration of Yael’s engagement process. The integration followed Maehr’s (1984; also Kaplan & Maehr, 2002) model, highlighting the roles of personal dispositions, the broad environmental context, and characteristics of the specific situation in framing the situated meanings of engagement in the task and their dynamics.

Yael is a highly able writer with a large repertoire of writing self-regulation strategies and high perceived competence in writing. She is learning in a traditional school environment, in which writing assignments are evaluated by grades and writing topics are commonly assigned by the teacher. However, she values creative writing outside of school more than school writing. Yael is clearly motivated in writing by multiple purposes and goals (cf. Harackiewicz, Barron, Pintrich, Elliot, & Thrash, 2002). She is particularly motivated by the purpose of affecting her readers’ thoughts and attitudes but also by their impression of her creativity and talent. The purpose of affecting the reader is not a classic mastery-approach goal orientation, because it is not oriented primarily toward development of competence; however, it is an adaptive and meaningful purpose of engagement in writing (Boscolo & Hidi, 2007). Yael’s concern with being considered a good writer and not a bad writer may represent forms of performance-approach and performance-avoidance goal orientations. To pursue these general purposes in her writing, Yael adopts subpurposes and goals that include establishing credibility and producing polished prose and punctuation, and monitors and regulates her writing.

Yael enters the specific achievement situation relaxed. She willingly cooperated with the RA and set to engage in the task. Along with her general writing purposes, Yael adopted the purposes of affecting her readers’ thinking, writing credible content, and producing nice prose for the task at hand. To pursue these purposes, Yael set the initial goal of establishing a coherent idea for the essay, which called for using planning of content before beginning to write. Because Yael did not think about the topic before, the purpose of writing credible content also called for employing elaboration strategies that in turn called for adopting a subpurpose of understanding the topic better—a purpose similar to mastery-approach goal orientation. Perhaps because her essay was not going to be published, Yael seemed not to have been concerned with aesthetics. In contrast, the purpose of affecting her readers’ thinking, which was quite salient, called for employing strategies of imagining the readers’ thoughts and attitudes about the issue, incorporating these through the use of rhetorical strategies into the writing and monitoring credibility and prose.

The purposes of cooperating with the RA, maybe creating a positive impression on the RA, conforming to task instructions, and perhaps also developing an understanding of the ideas she was writing about instilled in Yael a commitment to the engagement that called for using attention regulation when disturbances occurred. Throughout the writing, the purposes of affecting the readers and writing credible content called for monitoring the content and the prose, which in turn called for additional elaboration strategies and the goals of developing further understanding of the content. At times, monitoring of punctuation was also used, although this seems to have happened mostly automatically.

The purposes of affecting the readers, writing credible content, and producing nice prose were dominant in affecting Yael’s self-regulated action in the first five parts of the essay (lines 1–12, 6–7 min.). At that point, another purpose became dominant: conforming to task instructions. This purpose led Yael to monitor her compliance with these instructions and to engage in a compare-and-contrast strategy. Although the purposes of credibility and prose were still providing guidance, they seemed to have become less salient, and the purpose of conforming to task instructions may have led to using the compare-and-contrast strategy in a general and relatively ineffective way.

Toward the end of the task, Yael seemed to have gotten a bit weary of the task and adopted the purpose of finishing the assignment with little additional effort. She set the goal of finishing quickly, which, together with the purpose of conforming to task instructions, called for an organizational strategy of writing a concluding sentence that included a general and rather meaningless reference to her school. The purposes of finishing quickly also led to rather superficial and short evaluation of the essay.


The findings of the current study suggest that the use of self-regulation strategies during task engagement is integrated with the situated purposes that the student adopts for engagement in the task. Yael’s employment of self-regulation and writing strategies emanated from her purpose of writing to affect her readers’ thoughts. Yael’s purpose and beliefs concerning how best to affect her readers—through credible ideas and good prose—guided her to use strategies including planning, setting goals, organizing, elaborating, phrasing, monitoring, and regulating in particular ways, aiming at producing a credible, clear, and enticing text that she believed would relay her ideas to readers. The purpose of engagement, the objectives of writing, and the engagement strategies seemed to be integrated in a coherent phenomenological unit of situated intentional action.

Importantly, the findings suggested that although Yael had an overall purpose for the writing task—that of affecting the readers’ thoughts and attitudes—that guided her general employment of strategies, the flow of engagement was characterized by more situated and temporary purposes, such as developing understanding, conforming to task instructions, and finishing with little exertion of effort. The analysis suggested that the particular strategies that Yael employed at any moment directly served the situated purpose that was salient at that moment. The findings also indicated that these more situated purposes of engagement shifted dynamically through the process of engagement—a shift that involved a corresponding shift in the type of self-regulation strategies employed. This dynamic shift in situated purpose of engagement was likely affected by the stage of engagement (e.g., with developing understanding of ideas as more relevant at early stages, and finishing with little effort as more relevant at later stages) and potentially by other factors such the overall purpose of engagement, task instructions, or fatigue. Importantly, the findings also imply that the shift in purpose of engagement may have been affected in a reciprocal manner by the type of strategies employed (e.g., when monitoring led to the realization that better understanding was required). This dynamic aspect of engagement, and the reciprocal shift in situated purpose of engagement and self-regulation strategies, is understudied and is in need of much theoretical and empirical work (cf. Ainley & Patrick, 2006; Boekaerts, 2001).

Conceptualizing purpose of engagement and self-regulation as integrated in situated purpose-strategies action has important implications for the theoretical conception of self-regulation. It implies that self-regulation is not a unitary construct (Boekaerts & Cascallar, 2006). Instead, self-regulation is a very general term that refers to the overall intentional application of engagement strategies. This general term, however, fails to account for the very different ways by which such intentional application can occur. The different ways represent different purposes of engagement and the actions that are enacted to pursue them, and they may have important consequences for the quality of engagement and of the product (Kaplan, 2009; cf. Patrick & Middleton, 2002).

In accordance with previous understandings (e.g., Kaplan & Maehr, 2002), the findings suggest that the situated purpose-strategies actions emerge from an interaction between dispositional characteristics of the student and characteristics of the context and achievement situation. Yael’s dispositional characteristics, such as her self-regulation aptitude, perceived ability, attitudes, and general purposes of engagement in writing, interacted with contextual and situational characteristics, such as the setting, the RA’s introduction of the task and the task instructions, and with other situated processes, such as Yael’s mood and her rapport with the RA, to affect the meaning of the achievement situation and the purposes of engagement that she adopted. However, although the roles of personal, cultural, contextual, and situational characteristics and processes in students’ situated purposes of engagement have been acknowledged (e.g., Kaplan & Maehr, 2002; Nicholls, 1989; Patrick & Middleton, 2002), arguably, most research has focused on general goal orientations, such as mastery and performance goal orientations (e.g., Ames, 1992; Kaplan & Maehr, 1999; Patrick, Anderman, Ryan, Edelin, & Midgley, 2001). The current findings (see also Silva & Nicholls, 1993), purposes of engagement that seem to be meaningfully associated with different types of self-regulation, may need to be investigated at the level of the subject domain. The goal orientation toward learning, understanding, and self-development—mastery-approach goal orientation—might manifest in quite different purpose-strategies actions in different subject domains such as writing, reading, science, and physical education. Moreover, as is apparent in the current case study, some meaningful domain-specific purposes, such as affecting readers’ thoughts, may not be easily categorized under mastery, performance, extrinsic, or the variously conceived social goals (Urdan & Maehr, 1995). These understandings call for theoretical and empirical work that defines units of analysis for purposes of engagement (e.g., moment, task, course, subject domain, school learning) that may be relevant for investigation of engagement and its various consequences.

Finally, the findings also support the benefit of using a mixture of methods to assess self-regulation as an event (Patrick & Middleton, 2002; Winne & Perry, 2000). More specifically, the triangulation of traces from a product, a microprocesses observation, and a stimulated-recall interview seem to provide a useful way to access the situated flow of mental activity that takes place during task engagement. Assessment of self-regulation as a situated dynamic process constitutes a particular challenge for researchers who are interested in investigating self-regulation in natural contexts such as contemporary classrooms (Casallar et al., 2006). Researchers may be limited in their ability to employ some prevalent methods such as talk-aloud or online sampling because these may interfere with the naturally occurring processes in the educational setting. The researchers are also limited in their ability to introduce technology that is not commonly used in these settings. The mixed-method approach presented here provides a practical tool for such investigations.

The present study has its limitations. Clearly, it is a first step in establishing the method as a viable tool to assess motivation and self-regulation processes in natural settings. The study focused on describing one case in depth and did not concern the diversity of purpose-strategies actions that students can and do adopt while engaging in a writing task. Such data, and their implications for the way individual differences interact with contextual and situational characteristics to manifest in different types of purpose-strategy actions, will be presented elsewhere.

Another limitation of the study is that the current achievement task was contrived for the study and lacked many of the features of natural classrooms, such as contextual history and social interactions. Future research should investigate the types and dynamics of students’ situated and domain-specific purpose-strategies actions in classrooms and in other educational settings. Research in natural settings will enrich theoretical understanding and provide insights that may be more readily relevant to practitioners. We believe that the mixed-method approach presented here could be useful for such investigations.

Finally, although the current study focused on certain processes underlying the construction of purpose-strategies actions and their dynamics, it neglected to account for other highly relevant processes such as sociocultural values, norms, and constructions of action possibilities (cf. Kaplan & Maehr, 2002). For example, one important aspect in investigating students’ purpose-strategies actions is the processes that led students to perceive certain strategies as serving particular purposes. Although this coupling would have an individual difference component that involves self-regulation aptitude, it is very likely also affected by sociocultural constructions of the meaning of achievement in the domain, in the broader society, and in the local school and perhaps even class (cf. Kaplan et al., 2009). Future research could employ the present methodology to investigate students’ constructions of purpose-strategies actions within educational settings that espouse different conceptions of the domains (e.g., epistemological beliefs) and that emphasize different definitions of success.


The current study suggests that conceptions and models of self-regulation should include purpose of engagement as an integral element. Students’ purpose of engagement guides them when they adopt a strategic approach to engaging in the task and when they employ particular types of strategies. Whereas purposes of engagement and self-regulation can be conceived at different units of analysis, the present findings highlighted the situated and dynamic purpose-strategies actions as a meaningful focus for investigation. The findings imply that in addition to enhancing students’ procedural and conditional knowledge of strategies, educators should also focus on students’ purposes of engagement and the strategies that the students perceive as action possibilities under these purposes. Importantly, students’ subjective purposes of engagement and their related type of self-regulation may be more or less compatible with the purposes that educators would like them to adopt. Researchers noted various sociocultural processes in educational settings as facilitating adoption of more adaptive purposes of engagement (e.g., Ames, 1992; Kaplan & Maehr, 1999). However, it seems that for promoting an effective change in the quality of students’ engagement, what may be needed is an open and explicit dialogue between educators and students about the purposes of engagement, their consequences, and the strategies that would serve their pursuit (Flum & Kaplan, 2006; Nicholls, 1989).


The authors would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for comments that significantly improved this article.


1. In the past decade, Elliot and his colleagues have been promoting a different perspective that views achievement goals as the aims of engagement rather than the broader purpose of engagement (Elliot, 2005; Elliot & Thrash, 2001).

2. Yael is a pseudonym.

3. This dynamics of the situated construction of integrated purpose-strategy action was apparent in all the cases; however, cases differed in the richness of the data and the verity of purposes and strategies that were identified. Data from the whole sample were analyzed for categorizing purposes of engagement in writing and their associated self-regulation strategies, as well as for investigating patterns of situated purpose-strategy action orientations among students with different ability levels—both aims that are beyond the scope of the current study.

4. Importantly, the study aimed at creating an achievement situation that is related to students’ school writing experiences (hence the location) but did not presume to replicate it. The perspective guiding this study conceives of engagement as situated within a specific achievement situation, which, in the present research, included the presence of the RA and her actions. The generalization of the findings would not necessarily be to classroom situations, but rather to the theoretical notion of the integration of purpose of engagement and strategies, which are presumed to occur, albeit somewhat differently, in other achievement situations, including the classroom. This, however, is a task for future studies.

5. Nicholls (1989) emphasized the subjective construction of success as the important element in purpose of engagement. Although other researchers may not employ the word success in their conceptualizations, criteria for successful achievement constitute central elements in such conceptualizations as well (e.g., Elliot, 1999, 2005).

6. Most Jewish students’ native language is Hebrew. It is also the language of instruction in Jewish schools in Israel. The written products, therefore, are in Hebrew, which is written from right to left.

7. All quotations from the data have been translated from Hebrew to English. An attempt was made to maintain the tone and quality of language used by the students.

8. In addition, the example is logically insufficient for supporting Yael’s argument because the example may be explained by other processes than the causal one Yael provides.

9. At this point, the observation noted that Yael stopped for 8 seconds and went over the previous line with the pen over the page, drumming with the fingers of her other hand before continuing. Unfortunately, the RA failed to ask Yael about this action.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 2, 2011, p. 284-324
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15978, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 4:09:43 AM

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About the Author
  • Avi Kaplan
    Temple University
    AVI KAPLAN is an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Studies in Education at the College of Education, Temple University. His research interests include students’ motivation, identity formation, and self-regulation.
  • Einat Lichtinger
    Oranim Academic College, Israel
    EINAT LICHTINGER is a lecturer at the Department of Special Education, Oranim Academic College. Her main interests are self-regulation, writing, and learning strategies.
  • Michal Margulis
    Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel
    MICHAL MARGULIS is a school psychologist at the Educational-Psychological Service of the Tel- Aviv municipality and a graduate of the graduate program in school psychology in the Department of Education, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel.
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