The effects of cognitive task complexity on writing

Frear, Mark Wain
Bitchener, John
Furbish, Dale
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

This thesis contributes to research on the effects of cognitive task complexity on the written complexity of second language learners, an area currently underrepresented in research. In addition, the variables pre-task planning time and post-task editing time, which bookend the writing process, are investigated, as are the potential effects of task motivation on syntactic output.

This research was conducted on 94 intermediate English learners from three Auckland language schools. Two variations of the positivist/normative approach were used: an experimental model investigating cause and effect between the main variables, and an associative model to explore the strength of association between task motivation and syntactic output. Participants were placed in three groups in which three letter-writing tasks of varying cognitive complexity and Likert-scale questionnaires were performed over two sittings. Each group had different conditions; these were no planning time, 10 minutes pre-task planning time, and 10 minutes post-task editing time. Additional factors investigated were the potential benefits of using a patently low complexity task, the effects of modality, the use of a non-standard measure of syntactic complexity, and the efficacy of Robinson’s predictions for resource-directing and resource-dispersing variables.

The results suggested that increases in cognitive task complexity may adversely effect dependant clause production, but benefit lexical production; however, the inclusion of pre-task planning time appeared to aid dependant clause production while slightly decreasing lexical complexity. Proficiency issues rendered the post-task data unusable.

Potential support for Robinson prediction was posited for lexical complexity in the non-planning group, and both syntactic and lexical complexity in the planning time group; however, this support came with the caveat that the results were framed within a limited attentional framework.

Overall, the patently low complexity task appeared useful, though the potential for the low complexity task to be a different task type remains a potential issue. Modality only appeared to benefit task complexity development when it was compounded with pre-task planning time. The new measure of syntactic complexity revealed significant results not noticeable using the older measure.

Regarding task motivation and subordination, negative perceptions of task relevance and expectancy may have contributed to decreases in motivation and thus attention demanding syntax. However, a further negative construal was posited to have elicited either positive or neutral results. Negative task construal, and its theorised reduction of attention maintenance across Dörnyei’s (2002, 2003, 2009, 2010) motivational task processing system, may be especially effective during the attention demanding formulation of dependent clauses under increasing cognitive task complexity.

Complexity , Writing
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