Practicing Prepared Procrastination

Students and Faculty both procrastinate.  The biggest difference between the two groups is that faculty can procrastinate and still get things done at a high level because they research more efficiently. Over the past few  semesters, I’ve been trying to figure out ways to impart efficiency in the research habits of my procrastinating students.  My most recent solution is to make it very difficult for students to procrastinate while at the same time letting them do all the work on a complex research project at the last minutes.

I’ve been experimenting with this approach to teaching student research in my undergraduate historical methods course.  This is required for all history majors and is taught at the 200 level.  Most of the students are sophomores or juniors who are taking both other mid-level classes (e.g. 2 year language classes and some courses for their “essential studies” requirements) and some upper level courses. As they encounter the larger and more complex projects associated with upper level classes, the tendency to procrastinate will have more problematic consequences. Many students can put off writing a 3 page paper until the last minute and be successful, but the success rate declines significantly with a 10-15 page paper.

To create the experience of procrastination (and rush of adrenaline that so many students claim to need to work), I have created a series of short assignments due on short deadlines which together combine to form the core of the larger project. The pace is fast and the consequences of missing a step are brutal and immediate. (Some of my explanation for this approach comes from the University of Oregon’s coach Chip Kelly’s approach to coaching. He has all of his players practice at a pace faster than they are likely to experience in a game. The pace not only creates a high energy atmosphere at practice (which is good for conditioning), but also gets the players comfortable executing at fast pace during the game.).

The first 9 weeks of the course is a historiographic introduction to historical writing.  The project section of the course begins at week 10, which is about as early as one can hope for a student to begin a research project of any substance.  The final project is a 2000 word prospectus due at the end of the semester.  Students tend to view the end of the semester as a hard deadline without any need for me to emphasize or reinforce it. Here are the assignments:

Week 10: Topic
Week 11: Starter Bibliography
Week 12: Annotated Bibliography
Week 13: Outline for Book Review
Week 14: Book Review (1500 words)
Week 15: Outline for Research Prospectus and Thesis
Week 16: Draft of Prospectus
End of Semester: Prospectus for Research Project (2000 words)

In seven weeks, we go from a vague topic to final project writing close 5000 words in an annotated bibliography, book review, and final prospectus for a research paper.  The book review and the prospectus are worth 50% of the courses grade and the short assignments are worth another 10%. The consequences of falling behind on a short assignment are fairly immediate because most of the short assignments build toward the more major assignments.  So, the value of the shorter assignments (e.g. the starter bibliography or outline) is directly tied to performance on the longer assignments (book review and final prospectus), but there is very little latency in encountering the consequences of ignoring this cumulative approach.  If you skip the starter bibliography, you’ll need to develop it and the annotated bibliography the next week.  If you skip both of them, then you will need to find a book to review, review it and develop a broader historiographic perspective on the topic in three weeks.  The pace is quick. Skip a step and the problems compound quickly.

The goal of this high pace experience for the students is to embrace their tendency to put off work on major assignments to the final third of the semester and show them how to do it efficiently. Moreover, the capstone project for the history major is a major research paper that will require many of the steps introduced in my mid-level historical methods class.  Unlike the assignments outlined above, the capstone paper can not just be a prospectus, but must be a well-executed final paper.  To get to that stage, however, we encourage students early in the process to develop a formal bibliography, use a system of note taking (like an annotated bibliography), write a prospectus and prepare an well-developed outline. To get them to do that before working on the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of a 20 page paper is difficult, but perhaps showing them how to do it efficiently in a lower level, adrenaline fueled, high intensity environment will show them that you can still get the rush of doing things are the last minute without the pain of failing to do them well.


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