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?

Friday, May 22, 2009

"Writing" is self-paced, but a narrow view of writing

In "Writing as a Mode of Learning," Janet Emig indicates that writing is self-paced, and that "one writes best as one learns best, at one's own pace" (12). I'm reading and rereading this in context to try to determine whether this has anything to do with procrastination. Out of context, I could jump up and say that if writers ideally write at their own pace, we must be careful of pushing deadlines and labelling writers "procrastinators" for not meeting those deadlines.

But I hesitate to say that's what Emig was really getting at. She elaborates on the sentence in question by saying that "to connect the two processes [writing and learning], writing can sponsor learning because it can match its pace" (12). Now this may still imply that students have to write at their own pace, but I don't think that is Emig's point here. I think she's saying that students learn through writing because they only go as fast as they put words on paper. In fact, I think she's using the narrow view of writing I mentioned in my last post--actually sitting down and putting words on paper, not considering an assignment, thinking about a topic, doing research, and so on.

This reading of Emig is supported when she cites Sartre, who said he couldn't write anymore because listening to himself on tape was no kind of way to revise. He might need to review his words slowly, or he might want to skim through, but where writing and reading allow for that kind of self-pacing, talking and listening to a recording do not (13).

Emig, Janet. "Writing as a Mode of Learning." 1977. Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2003. 7-16.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Writing vs. Doing Homework

It just occurred to me as I am reading old process literature, that it was quite easy to skip over procrastination based on certain approaches to studying process.

A certain segment of process researchers were looking for a scientific way to study writing. They used tape recorders and coding systems. They wanted to be objective and to have replicable results. These are essentially lab-based studies, then. The researchers would set up the lab, give the student an assignment, and study them on the spot, likely asking the student to talk through their thoughts and actions as they wrote.

This kind of research is useful and even important, but by being lab-based, it loses the ability to study procrastination at all. I mean, I suppose some students would still delay in a lab environment, but it's a rather different kind of situation than being given an assignment to turn in within a week, let alone by the end of the semester.

This makes some sense, in that the researchers were more interested in writing itself, not "doing homework." On the other hand, psychology researchers have tended to be more interested in the "doing homework" side, and this explains why I have found more of their research to be directly relevant to my study.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Procrastination is a Process Issue

So I'd like to go over the state of research in procrastination in writing over time.

The sixties seem to be the last decade devoid of procrastination research. However, this decade is far from being irrelevant. In the sixties, we are introduced to "process pedagogy," a way of teaching writing that emphasizes "process"--the steps writers go through as they produce a document--over "product"--the final document. A product-oriented pedagogy asks "What does good writing look like?" But with a process-oriented pedagogy, the question is, "How do I produce good writing?" The distinction here is that knowing what makes for a good product doesn't explain how one goes about producing it.

So why is process pedagogy relevant to my study of procrastination in writing? Because procrastination is not an element of the written product, it's an element of the writing process. Theoretically, a product-oriented pedagogy shouldn't care about procrastination. As long as the paper turns out okay, it doesn't really matter when it was started.

But in process pedagogy, writers are expected to go through certain steps in producing their work. These steps may not be hard and fast--we can divide simply into prewriting, drafting, and revising. But because of the time crunch in procrastination, some of these steps may be rushed or skipped.

I need to go back to some early process literature to see if anyone hints at issues of procrastination or time crunch.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Citing a self-help book

I've noticed several articles cite that procrastination rates may be "as high as ninety-five percent." My impression was that this number was frequently cited because it was the highest, not because it was the most accurate. I flipped to the reference page. The reference? Overcoming Procrastination, published by the Institute for Rational Living. I was a bit concerned that we were citing a book here, not a study. And not the most scholarly sounding book at that.

I requested the book. I opened it to the first page. Here's the opening:
How many college-level individuals procrastinate? Often? Seriously? No one seems to know. Incredibly, this important question has not inspired many factual studies. Our guess? About ninety-five percent. (Ellis and Knaus 1)
So it's just a guess? And this thirty-year-old guess is still being cited? The authors aren't even researchers; they're psychotherapists. Which is not to say they don't know what they're talking about, but rather to ask why on earth serious researchers keep citing them instead of doing some actual research on the numbers. I wonder if some of the citations were borrowed from other sources without checking the original source. It's not a scholarly source. It's a self-help book.

Work Cited

Ellis, Albert, and William J. Knaus. Overcoming Procrastination, or How to Think and Act Rationally in Spite of Life's Inevitable Hassles. New York: Institute for Rational Living, 1977.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Procrastination and Learning Disabilities

I'm not particularly interested in learning disabilities, but I do care about diverse learning styles in the classroom. For my purposes, the label LD tends to obscure that diversity, so I didn't find "Procrastination and Motivation of Undergraduates with Learning Disabilities: A Mixed-Methods Inquiry" all that useful.

Students with LD were more likely than others to procrastinate (144). The researchers found that self-efficacy is differently related to students with learning disabilities than those without. (Self-efficacy is how good you think you are at something.) Apparently non-learning disabled students were less likely to procrastinate, the more self-efficacy they had with the task (144). But LD students have comparatively inflated self-efficacy (145). Compared to those not considered learning disabled, those with LD are more likely to think or claim they can handle academic tasks they aren't so great at. Perhaps because of this, self-efficacy isn't closely related to procrastination in students with LD.

One more thing, the researchers note in their literature review that procrastination is still less studied than other parts of psychology. In their review of PsychINFO in 2006, they "found 11,374 articles on self-efficacy, 4,056 articles on self-regulation, and only 422 articles with procrastination as a key word" (138). So while I'm personally impressed with the amount of studies on procrastination in psychology, especially in the past couple of years, there's still a lot of room in the field. It's pretty much under-studied across the board.

Work Cited

Klassen, Robert M., Lindsey L. Krawchuck, Shane L. Lynch, and Sukaina Rajani. "Procrastination and Motivation of Undergraduates with Learning Disabilities: A Mixed-Methods Inquiry." Learning Disabilites Research and Practice 23.3 (2008): 137-147.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Procrastination and Lack of Feedback

I'm really happy to have found "Individiual Differences in Academic Procrastination Tendency and Writing Success" by Barbara A. Fritzche, Beth Rapp Young, and Kara C. Hickson. These researchers are interested in composition. As in, they actually cite compositionists in addition to psychologists. They're not just looking at what psychologists have found about procrastination, they're looking at what compositionists have said about the writing process.

In particular, Frizche, Young, and Hickson are studying the relationship between feedback and procrastination. They hypothesized that high procrastinators would be less likely than low procrastinators "to seek feedback on their writing prior to submitting it for a grade" (1550). On the other hand, they figured that those high procrastinators would see a bigger improvement from the feedback they did get.

They found that "high procrastinators wrote their papers early only when they received feedback" (1554). I'm looking at the numbers, but I can't tell much from them. I'm guessing this means that many high procrastinators received feedback without starting early, but few or none started early without receiving feedback?

Fritzche, Young, and Hickson conclude that "students may be able to mitigate some of the negative outcomes associated with their procrastination tendency by seeking feedback on their writing prior to turning it in for a grade" (1554). I'm a bit troubled by this phrasing. Feedback mitigates the problems with procrastination? What if the lack of feedback was the real problem, not the procrastination? It seems like the researchers are implying that problems caused by procrastination and problems caused by lack of feedback are independent, but that students can make up for a lack in one area by improving in another. But at this point I see no reason to assume the two are independent, especially considering that the researchers have already demonstrated a relationship between procrastination and not seeking feedback.

In the end, the researchers suggest something of a bridge between composition pedagogy and counseling psychology. Instead of relying solely or mostly on counseling to work on procrastination, teachers can help in how they structure assignments. They suggest that "requiring or making available writing center consultations, teacher student conferences, or peer workshops can provide students with an additional deadline: if they habitually procrastinate to their deadline, the extra incentive to complete at least some work earlier" (1555). They also suggest breaking up larger assignments into chunks that are turned in before the final draft.

Okay, so we already do all this, right? But composition research suggests feedback for a different reason, doesn't it? Feedback is good on its own, it's not just a way of forcing students to work on their papers earlier. But I'd say Fritzche, Young, and Hickson are actually on to the way these techniques are really used by Practioners in composition. I think we do often use peer review to force students to produce a draft, rather than making them have a draft so they can participate in the independently important peer review. Am I wrong?

We really need to straighten out what we know about procrastination, what we think about procrastination, and what we do about procrastination. Otherwise we could be going at this all wrong. Like, if procrastination isn't the real problem, then artificially removing procrastination by compelling students to turn in multiple drafts isn't going to fix the problem. Whereas if procrastination is correlated with something (like lack of feedback) that is directly harming the student's writing, getting at that issue should be more helpful.

Work Cited

Fritzche, Barbara A., Beth Rapp Young, Kara C. Hickson. "Individual Differences in Academic Procrastination Tendency and Writing Success." Personality and Individual Differences 35 (2003): 1549-1557.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

It's not poor study habits that cause procrastination

Laura J. Solomon and Esther D. Rothblum (1984) conducted a study to see if procrastination was about more than merely poor study habits. Apparently this was a common belief among psychology researchers in the 80s. They figured there were plenty of possible reasons to procrastinate that hadn't been studied: "evaluation anxiety, difficulty in making decisions, rebellion against control, lack of assertion, fear of the consequences of success, perceived aversiveness of the task, and overly perfectionistic standards about competency" (503). In the end, they determined that major reasons for procrastination other than poor study habits/time management boiled down to fear of failure and task aversiveness. (You may recognize these terms from Onwuegbizie and Collins's article cited in my last post. Solomon and Rothblum designed the questionnaires Onwuegbizie and Collins used.)

This is really important because, as Solomon and Rothblum point out, if time management isn't the major cause, we might not want to act like it's the only solution. If our students are procrastinating because they're afraid we'll grade them harshly, maybe the more helpful thing to do would be to help them be more comfortable being evaluated. Review drafts without grading them. Avoid making ad hominem comments on papers (the dreaded "I expected more from you"). Don't put an undue amount of emphasis on a single assignment (break it up into mini-assignments if necessary). If our students are procrastinating because they don't like the actual act of writing, help get them comfortable. Lots of in-class writing. Talk to students about their ideas before having them turn things in. Have them talk to each other. Have them write informally. Use mini-assignments that can later be used as jumping off points for or even sections of larger papers.

As for which factor accounted for most of the procrastination, the answer is statistically complicated. A large group of students reported task aversiveness, but the small group of students who reported fear of failure often reported that as their only reason for procrastination. So both angles are important to tackle.

Work Cited

Solomon, Laura J., and Esther D. Rothblum. "Academic Procrastination: Frequency and Cognitive-Behavioral Correlates." Journal of Counseling Psychology 31.4 (1984): 503-509.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Study about Procrastination in Writing!

I perked up pretty quickly at noticing an article had the both the words "writing" and "procrastination" in the title. What these authors (Anthony J. Onwuegbuzie and Kathleen M. T. Collins) have done is to administer a couple of questionnaires to a group of masters' students. One measured writing apprehension (which is what it sounds like, being apprehensive about writing); the other measured academic procrastination (procrastinating on school assignments).

According to Onwuegbizie and Collins, "these findings suggest that graduate students' apprehension about writing appears to be related to academic procrastination stemming from fear of failure and task aversiveness" (562). I'm skeptical about their use of "stemming from." Seems like a way to say "cause" without tripping the readers' mental alarms about confusing correlation and causation. In fact, Onwuegbizie and Collins go on to suggest that the situation feeds itself, that procrastination also causes fear of failure and task aversiveness...but they don't suggest any mechanism for that.

I'm not sure whether they mean that procrastination triggers guilt or other bad feelings which become associated with the task being avoided, or if they actually intend to suggest that procrastination causes bad writing, which reinforces the fear of failure. (The difference between fear of failure and task aversiveness is that fear of failure means you think you'll get a bad grade or harsh critique. Task aversiveness means you hate actually sitting down to write, even if you expect a good score.) I'm having trouble seeing another mechanism for reinforcing the fear of failure other than actually getting bad grades or something.

Now, this study is of grad students, where I'm studying undergrads. I skimmed an abstract today that suggested that level of education was not a major factor in amount of procrastination, but age was. Need to find that again.

Work Cited

Onwuegbuzie, Anthony J., and Kathleen M. T. Collins. "Writing Apprehension and Academic Procrastination among Graduate Students." Perceptual and Motor Skills 92 (2001): 560-562.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Do we really think we're keeping students from procrastinating once they're out of our classes?

My thesis advisor asks if we writing teachers tend to assume procrastination is only an issue for our classes, not for classes other than writing. The implied answer seems to be yes, but it wasn't an implication I'd intended in my writing. It's not a question I'd ever thought about.

Isn't the whole point of having a required composition class that these writing skills are applicable across the curriculum? (It seems like that might also be the point of not having a required composition class, as was the case where I got my bachelor's.) We force students to take a writing class because we're going to teach them stuff they need for other classes, but stuff we figure they wouldn't actually learn in those other classes.

I think we know that students procrastinate in other classes, but maybe we think that our process models of writing are the key to preventing this. (I'm pretty sure we work under the assumption that procrastination should be prevented.) In theory, we hope our students will use the techniques they learned in the writing classroom in their other classes. I mean, this is what I told my students over and over again to justify to them why they had to take my class and why they had to write papers they thought were pointless. It's about learning these techniques which will serve as tools in the future.

It's a bit suspicious that I had to verbalize this belief so often. Was I trying to convince myself? Did I even believe my class was important? Did I secretly believe my students would learn to write better (as I had) when they had writing assignments that weren't merely exercises and attempts to teach techniques?

Maybe I was lucky to have some professors who were good at teaching writing, despite teaching classes that weren't necessarily writing classes.

I don't think most of us really believe that are students take away from our classes this great store of writing techniques and apply it to the rest of their classes. I think the most we hope for is to get them to think beyond the rigid rules they've picked up along the way and put more than five paragraphs in an essay.

I also think we're pretty moralistic about all this. I think we want to show our students how well things work when they don't procrastinate (because we require them to do in-class prewriting, submit drafts, revise based on peer review, and so on). I think we expect them to go right back to procrastinating in most cases, but now we can feel like we've taught them and they should know better. They deserve what they get now.

I don't mean this harshly. But the more I think about it, the more I feel that we care about procrastination because it is an easy way to judge students. They know they oughtn't to procrastinate, so when they do it, we can write them off.