Students’ writing procrastination – not anymore!

The post is inspired by a recent Centre for Learning and Teaching (CLT) workshop at Dalhousie University on how to handle students’ writing assignments.

Students writing procrastination - no more! Even under the best of circumstances, the process of writing can be challenging for both professional and novice writers alike. For novice writers such as university students, the difficulties associated with writing can be further exacerbated when it is combined with their tendency to procrastinate and delay starting a paper till the night before it is due. Unfortunately, it seems that regardless of what an instructor may say or do, many students still inevitably get caught in an endless loop of continuous research and debilitating procrastination, to the point of total paralysis. So how can we, as educators, help our students (and ourselves) break out of this loop and start working on their research papers earlier and more consistently?

Below are two different solutions (policy-centric and system-centric) that might help some students overcome their tendencies to procrastinate on large writing assignments.

Policy-centric approach
One possible solution to the students’ writing procrastination problem (which I refer to as “policy-centric”) is to require students to submit their early drafts or parts of a future paper long before the whole paper is actually due. A version of this method for structuring a writing assignment (called “staged method”) was recently presented at a Centre for Learning and Teaching (CLT) workshop titled “A Staged Method to Encourage Impressive Student Projects” on February 9th, 2010. The workshop was lead by Dr. Marina Adshade, an Assistant Professor with the Department of Economics at Dalhousie University.

The main difference between this method vs. the more traditional approach to handling writing assignments is that students are required to submit different sections of their future paper (e.g., Introduction, Literature Review, Method, etc…) in stages over a period of time. The main benefit to students is that they will have an opportunity to get detailed feedback as their papers progress and can improve their papers as necessary. For instructors, the benefit is that they will get better papers from more of their students. There are no grades for these early stage submissions (only the final grade for the full paper), but there are some strict penalties if a student does not submit a particular section on time.

The idea of dividing a writing assignment into smaller parts is not new, but I really liked how Dr. Adshade documented, organized and structured the whole process by providing students with step-by-step instructions, a checklist for each stage and grading rubrics. This way all students have a clear understanding of what they need to write, how long each section should be and when to turn it in. I could not find Dr. Adshade’s rubrics online, but here is another good example of various writing rubrics (see pp.5-6) developed by Dr. Dawn Zimmaro at the University of Texas at Austin.

Personally, I think this is a very interesting and potentially useful method for handling more in depth writing assignments, and I cannot wait to try it out with my students in the future. The only thing that I might do differently is that instead of assessing penalties for each missed submission as originally proposed by Dr. Adshade, I would probably assign a separate grade for each section/stage.

System-centric approach

Another approach to addressing this problem is to introduce students to different online productivity tools specifically designed to make writing less of a chore. For example, tools like FreeMind and yWriter are great for brainstorming and keeping track of writing ideas. To help your students with managing and citing references, take a look at web tools like RefWorks and Zotero. And to help your students with collaborative writing, consider trying out Google Docs and MediaWiki. (See About.com‘s article for some other cool writing tools).

As it happens, students’ information searching behavior and academic writing are areas where I have done some research. Over the past few years, I have been developing an online application that allows users to start writing earlier, while still actively searching for potentially relevant information. The application is called Personal Information Research Assistant (PIRA), available at http://writeNcite.com. This application is designed to address one of the most common hindrances to student writing, i.e. procrastination via endless research.  As Peter Elbow succinctly put it, “the more research you do, the more impossible it is to start writing“. PIRA works as follows. As the user writes (or pastes) text into the build-in text editor, PIRA automatically and continuously extracts significant search keywords in the background, and then retrieves and presents suggested references from various open-access digital libraries and search engines. The more the user interacts with the system (e.g., save a reference, open a link, delete a suggested search keyword, etc), the more PIRA learns about the user’s information needs. One of the benefits of such a system is that it allows the user to jump directly into the task of writing and to stay focused on his or her writing.

Closing thoughts

Persuading students to stop procrastinating on their writing assignments and possibly improve the quality of their writing might seem like an impossible task.  But by adopting both policy-centric and system-centric methods, I think we might see a mark improvement to our students’ academic writing.

Please share with me your thoughts on these and other methods that you are familiar with or have used in the past to help students turn in better papers.  Please post your comments here …

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