Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Feeling "enough time" is not related to actual time starting to write

I never asked the students in my study whether or not they procrastinated. But I did ask them if they felt they'd spent "enough time" on their papers.

See, 80% of procrastinators said they'd spent enough time, while 93% of non-procrastinators said they had. That makes sense, right? If you procrastinated, you're less likely to think you'd spent enough time on your paper. Except that the 93% of non-procrastinators is misleading. Of that 93%, several gave responses on the followup question that contradicted their answer on the "enough time" question. Only 83% of non-procrastinators gave an unequivocal "Yes, I spent enough time on my paper." And that's not out of line with the 80% of procrastinators.

And remember, all we're saying here is that non-procrastinators were more likely than procrastinators to say they'd spent enough time. The large majority of procrastinators still felt they'd spent enough time on their papers.

Here's the cool part. Since there were only five procrastinators in my study, that 20% who said "no" is only one person. This person reported starting to plan 21 days before the paper was due, the maximum of any procrastinator. And she started to draft 3 days before the paper was due. Also the maximum of any procrastinator. So the procrastinator who reported starting on her paper the earliest is also the only procrastinator who doesn't think she spent enough time on her paper.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Moving on to the Results and Discussion

I'm mostly done with my methods chapter now. So I get to move on to the fun parts--results and discussion.

I'm a bit concerned that a barrage of numbers will turn off readers trained in English, so I'm going to try to combine results and discussion. Otherwise I don't know if anyone will actually look at my pretty histograms. (If you want to make a histogram in Excel, here is the best explanation. It's written for an out-of-date version of Excel, but it's so much clearer than version-correct explanations that it's still the most usable set of instructions for Excel 2007.)

So I'll need a section in which I cover the results from my questionnaires. Some of this information is quantitative and lends itself to tables and charts. For instance, I definitely need charts that depict when the students started their papers. I'd like to be able to show on one chart both times planning and times drafting. Maybe some distribution curves? I'm not sure.

I'll also want to have a chart that compares proofreading of procrastinators and non-procrastinators.

But some of the information from the questionnaires doesn't chart well, like "If you feel you should have started your paper sooner, why is that? " So I'll also need to discuss what kinds of answers students put down for open-ended questions.

Then the next section covers the data I pulled from the students papers--the length and the numbers and kinds of errors. I have several charts for this section already, but there are a few more in the works. I also need to do some regression analysis. Or at least find where I wrote down the regression analyses I did before...

Then the final section will be case studies of the actual procrastinators' papers. I didn't plan to do this when I designed my study. But since I ended up defining only five participants as procrastinators, it made sense to look at their papers more in depth. (See here, here, here, here, and here for what I posted previously.) I'm a big fan of quantitative data, but I think the case studies are useful for a few reasons. One, while the quantitative data can help show whether there are differences between the performances of procrastinators and non-procrastinators, it can't give much sense as to why that is. I could just speculate. For instance, since procrastinators appear to have fewer performance errors than non-procrastinators, I might speculate that procrastinators are just using simpler sentence structures. But instead of just speculating, I could actually pull out Mort's paper and note that he actually used complex sentence structures which got him into trouble with subject-verb agreement. Another reason I think case studies are a good idea is because people in the English department might actually read them instead of glossing over them.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Coding Surface Errors

So what is a surface error, anyway? It's usually the kind of thing a student would call a "grammar mistake." It might be a misspelling, a comma splice, or a problem with number agreement. When I coded my data, I decided the best way to standardize my coding was to code those things that handbook listed as an error. Since the department required us to use the sixth edition Diana Hacker's "A Writer's Reference," it was the obvious handbook choice. I knew the handbook well, and I knew that it was a required text for the classes I was studying. I read through each paper marking errors according to the section Hacker covered them in. This method isn't perfect. Some "errors" are actually stylistic choices. But interviewing each participant about each error was out of the question, so I marked them as errors anyway.

Then I counted the errors in each paper. But I figured it was the concentration of errors that was important, not the absolute number. That is, if a student wrote a single paragraph which contained three errors, that translates into a higher concentration of errors than a student who wrote a ten-page paper with the same number of errors. So I calculated each student's average number of errors per 100 words.

The really tricky part is that I decided to divide the errors into "cognitive errors" and "performance errors." Cognitive errors follow a certain mental logic and are fairly consistent. A student may consistently write "a lot" as "alot." Performance errors are slip-ups. A student may type "they" instead of "the." I hypothesize that procrastination should show stronger correlation to performance errors than to cognitive errors. Performance errors may pop up when a student is rushed and doesn't proofread. But cognitive errors are difficult for students to catch in their writing, since they don't usually realize that they are making a mistake at all. So proofreading is unlikely to help, unless the student gets outside help from a friend or tutor.

So how exactly can I look at a grammatical mistake and know what caused it? How do I know if the student merely made a mistake or whether they misunderstood the rules of writing?

Two ways. One, I looked for patterns. If a student always puts a comma before prepositions, that's a cognitive error. They're clearly using a rule, even if it's not the right rule. On the other hand, if a student only once fails to capitalize the word beginning a sentence, there's no pattern. It's not likely to be a cognitive error.

The second way I determined if errors were cognitive was based on my experience as a writing tutor and teacher. I knew that certain errors were more likely than others to be cognitive errors. For instance, students who violated punctuation rules when joining independent clauses were often obeying the "comma when you take a breath" rule. Knowing that certain types of error were quite likely to be cognitive allowed me to classify an instance as cognitive if a pattern wasn't totally clear. But if I couldn't tell, I classified errors as performance errors.

I also calculated cognitive and performance errors per 100 words.

I Remember Coding Data

So I'm working on my methods section. But, you see, it's been a couple of years since I actually conducted my study. I've moved twice since then. So my memory is fuzzy and my records are poorly organized. It took me over a week before I tracked down the questionnaire I used. Now my next goal is to write about how I actually coded the data. Luckily, I put a great deal more thought into coding than I did in formulating the questionnaire. And luckily I recorded at lot of those thoughts on this blog. So I don't have to reconstruct quite as much.

Basically, I looked at three things in the students' papers I collected. Length, surface errors, and use of evidence. So let's start with the simplest one, length.

Length is pretty straightforward. I counted the number of words in the papers. Some of the students who wrote the papers probably weren't familiar with this method of determining length, since they'd enlarged their margins and font size to make their papers physically larger. I did the word counts by hand, since I had hard copies of the papers. I didn't count words that were part of citations or headers. Only the actual body text. I did count words that were part of quotations.

I felt that length might not compare well across classes, because even though the three instructors were working with a pretty standardized syllabus, they might have had very different ideas of what length requirements meant. An instructor who automatically failed any paper which didn't meet a minimum length would likely receive longer papers than an instructor who considered length a guideline to help students figure out how much depth to go into. If such differences existed between the instructors of the classes I studied, I didn't want them to overshadow differences that might be associated with procrastination. So I found the median length of paper in each class in addition to an overall median length for all the papers. I considered a paper short if it fell in the first quartile of length in its class and long if it fell in the fourth quartile.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Does cutting time mean cutting revision?

Believe it or not, I'm actually working on my thesis again. I'm only producing a couple of pages a week, but that's more than I produced for the entirety of the summer.

What I want to look at in the next week is the issue of time. In composition, the main criticism of procrastination is that it leaves the student with too little time to write. "Don't wait to the last minute to start your papers," we advise our students. When procrastination is mentioned in an article, it is usually followed with a reference to abbreviated revision time. Donna Gorrell says that students use procrastination to motivate themselves to write, but this creates the problem that "ideas which are essentially rough-hewn must remain that way, since there is no time for revision" (645). Ronald A. Sudol suggests (in 1985) that limited access to computer labs will prevent students from procrastinating, since they can only write when they can get in the computer lab, and that "the time spent reducing procrastination now can be better spent revising later" (332). This is the composition party line--procrastination is bad because it reduces time writing which eliminates revision.

First off, let's question the assumption that procrastination will necessitate chopping off some element of the writing process. When I delay a writing project, I have in mind how long I think it will take me to churn something out based on my personal writing process. I don't cut down my writing process, I just move it as close to the deadline as possible. I prewrite, I draft, I prewrite, I draft, I revise, I revise, I research, I revise, I revise. This is the same writing strategy I used as an undergrad. I may compress my writing process based on time, but I don't eliminate chunks of it.

Notice that we assume that revision is the part of writing that will be cut--not prewriting or drafting. The obvious reason is that revision occurs at the end of writing, and if we've managed our time poorly, we run out of time before we get to that part. But is that even true? I think Gorrell's example suggests that students use procrastination instead of prewriting, not revision. She writes that "Having a paper due the next morning is a marvelous incentive for the flow of ideas. Thoughts which earlier would not come now suddenly spring forward" (645). Isn't she suggesting that students procrastinate as an invention strategy, a kind of prewriting technique? Maybe where they're cutting time is actually on the front end of writing, not the back end.

And anyway, do we buy this "front end"/"back end" business? I thought we agreed that writing was recursive, not linear. Remember my writing process from above? Certainly revision can't occur at the beginning (unless one is reworking an old project), but it isn't a set amount of time at the end of a writing session. "Okay, done with drafting. Now time for revision." Some people may write that way, but certainly not all people. Even if the back end of writing is what's being cut off when students procrastinate, that's no guarantee that revision is skipped entirely.

My advisor has also helpfully suggested that I look at recommendations to "set aside" writing for an hour or a day or whatever. This is another prescription that revolves around time at the back end of a project for revision. But we should remember that time on the front end of a project can also be useful. We wouldn't likely label it procrastination, but we can let our ideas "incubate" before we start writing, adding time to the front end of the writing process. Donald Murray recommends this in "Write before Writing," and Maxine Hairston suggests that writing teachers can tackle their own procrastination by accepting is as part of a productive writing process and allowing it to pass after a few days (68). But we rarely give this kind of advice to students.

Works Cited
Gorrell, Donna. "A Comment on 'Toward Irrational Heuristics.'" College English 44.6 (1982): 644-645.
Hairston, Maxine. "When Writing Teachers Don't Write: Speculations about Probable Causes and Possible Cures." Rhetoric Review 5.1 (1986): 62-70.
Murray, Donald. "Write before Writing." College Composition and Communication 29.4 (1978): 375-381.
Sudol, Ronald A. "Applied Word Processing: Notes on Authority, Responsibility, and Revision in a Workshop Model." College Composition and Communication 36.3 (1985): 331-335.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Traditional Process Studies Had to Omit Procrastination

My study goes against the grain of process pedagogy, I think. You see, procrastination is a process issue, even if no process theorist has ever talked about procrastination in an article. But I'm really studying the written product! I'm not analyzing protocols of the steps the participants went through as they wrote their papers. I'm circling and categorizing errors. Sure, I'm also looking at questionnaires in which the participants gave some information about their writing process, but this isn't how process studies traditionally go.

And that's got to be part of the reason that procrastination wasn't studied during the heyday of process studies. If you're doing the cognitive protocol-based study, you're in a controlled environment watching the participant go through the whole process of writing. And while you can get useful information that way, you're missing a huge part of the picture of writing. The huge part that allows you to procrastinate for hours, days, weeks, or more. Time.

If you take writing out of a laboratory setting, a lot more goes on. You can't very well follow a freshman around for the whole semester to jot down every time she thinks about her term paper out loud. So while technically procrastination is a process issue, it didn't fit into the model for empirical studies that process theorists were using.

This is bad. What it did was allow our profession to have strong feelings about procrastination as an important issue since it apparently represented a dysfunctional writing process without research to support our beliefs. If we're teaching process, we're not going to just let our students wait until the last minute to start working on their papers--they need to be thinking and prewriting and drafting and revising over the course of time. Not just churning something out the night before the paper is due.

But none of this is based on empirical research. There weren't any studies done in our field to suggest that procrastination led to bad writing--and how do we know it's part of a bad process if we don't know it leads to a bad product?

Sunday, August 30, 2009


Someone I know personally has recently been slinging the insult "uneducated" toward people she disagrees with politically. She, however, did not graduate eighth grade and has a low level of literacy. I don't really know how to react to this. Even if people are uneducated, does that make them bad people? Does it make them unable to have reasoned opinions on political issues? And how does an uneducated person assert her superiority to others by suggesting that they are uneducated? Is the insult that entrenched that she can say it without blinking?