‘I just don’t know where to start’ is by far the most common response I get from both undergrad and postgraduate students. They often give up before they even begin the process of answering an assignment question. I often think this is spurred on by prior negative experiences around testing learning through written assignments. It’s not a question of not wanting to do their best. As creatures of habit, we don’t like the sound of having our work cut out for us; be it constructing a research question or getting to grips with an assignment title for that term paper. In such cases, we are burdened by the wish to quickly attain a far distant product rather than focus and work on the process before us.
Initial blocking begins when students don’t deconstruct questions. A certain amount of performing to lecturer begins when students first impulse is to scamper and regurgitate your own lecture notes without going any deeper. Students know that they need to enter into and engage with the particular discourse of their field but this doesn’t help relieve the distress of feeling they need to climb an academic Everest and can’t make out which route to take. Old familiar chestnut cues and habits kick in. Valuable time is lost in an effort to put the journey off to a fallacious better day or decide to detour to the nearby town of procrastination. We’ve all been there.
It’s not just about relearning and resetting old patterns. We need to unlearn strategies that simply don’t work. We wouldn’t use an app if we deemed it to be of substandard quality – we’d simply download another one. Why, then, do we sell ourselves short when it comes to repeating the same old unworkable strategies that simply get us nowhere?
For me, it’s a question of scaffolding and instilling confidence in students. Getting them to tease out the facets of a assignment while maintaining a sense of possiblity and meaningful contribution they can bring to answering it. Articulating our expressed perspectives in relation to a title is a good starting point. This brings me back to my adolescent days of hashing out challenging questions with my mother. She’d simply put the onus back on us to own and develop our own lines of thinking by asking us to ‘back up our statements’. Sounds simple now but not a bad rule of thumb when it comes to tackling an assignment paper!
I don’t believe the majority of students go out to simply cut, paste and plagiarise their way through essays (although some admittedly, unashamedly do). Many plagiarise by default. Thinking back, I don’t remember learning how to properly paraphrase in secondary school or for that matter, learning how to structure an essay from a solid theoretical framework until I well into my masters. Only then did I learn to to scale back and make my evolving points clear and cohesive. I learnt to draft and endlessly redraft, speak them aloud, punctuate when I ran out of breath, and enact a Zorro style of editing when I felt paragraphs needed a more cablese style.
I don’t like the term ‘binge writing’ but there is something to be said in downloading a Pomodoro and setting yourself 20-40 minutes of pure webbed thinking that turns into focused writing.
I encourage students to shed the need to edit while they write. Dr Barbara Oakley puts it brilliantly by using the analogy that at the table of writing, we shouldn’t clear up as we eat. I can’t stress this enough. Why edit while you write? It seems fruitless to use up such valuable mental real estate while you’re trying to digest and develop your evolving argument. Writing for a solid 40 minutes in the morning for three days in a row helps support free flow writing without the shackles of spillchick killing your creative buzz. I suggest students then take mental breaks from the writing for two days and then come back to it on a Friday or Saturday with fresh eyes.
I’m not denying that structuring in the form of fronting points, coherence and cohesion are writing skills that need to be taught but by applying the ‘backing up your statement’ idea, students can start to overcome the threat of plagiarising by citing as they write.