College students are notoriously bad at giving themselves enough time to do their best. As a psychology major, I’ve had the opportunity to work on faculty research into effective and ineffective study strategies. Students often report dissatisfaction with their grades, believing the hours they’ve studied should’ve served them better. But according to John Dunlosky, a prominent education researcher at Kent State University, students don’t often retain what they study because the most effective learning techniques (taking practice tests, spacing study sessions instead of cramming) take more cognitive effort and more time management than passive methods such as rereading textbook chapters and highlighting notes. Though most of this educational research has been only applied to students taking traditional, high-stakes exams rather than writing papers, I believe a similar cramming problem exists when students are given a writing assignment.
Here’s two examples to illustrate my point. Imagine a student is studying for a calculus exam. She’s left the bulk of the studying until the night before the exam, and probably doesn’t have time to learn everything that will be covered (this may or may not be how I studied calculus in high school). So she studies topic by topic until she’s crammed “just enough” into her brain to pass the exam.
Another student has a six-page history paper due at midnight. He has a draft, but he’s not so confident about how his claims link to support his thesis or how he’s got the paper organized. He drops by the writing center, and the tutor recognizes more problems than they can work on in twenty minutes. She thinks about referring the student to a professional tutor, but none are immediately available, and she doesn’t want to appear unhelpful. In order to get the student’s desired result (a good grade), all the work has to be crammed into the next few hours.
Had that student visited the tutor earlier, he would have more time to rework his essay.
Last semester, I was the tutor in that second scenario. I wanted to help, but it was difficult when the student had so much work to do such a short time, and didn’t seem engaged with his own paper.
How can tutors promote viewing the writing process as just that – a recursive process – with different stages?
Cognitive science might be a start. A study by Quinlan et al. revealed that when given the option, most writers chose to work on the bigger ideas of their sentences and paragraphs first, before moving on to smaller editorial issues, such as punctuation errors. This research implies the strongest writers revise and edit in multiple rounds, focusing on a particular concern in each.
But this does not line up with how the typical student writes, nor does it align with their perceptions of the function of a writing center. For the past two years that I’ve been a writing consultant, my fellow tutors and our director have fended off misconceptions held by the student population, faculty, and even campus tour guides who describe our work as an editing service.
Students generally think tutors provide a final polish or that we’ll fix repetitive grammatical mistakes and sentence structure. Perhaps a closely-related belief is that transforming a C-paper into an A-paper doesn’t require any substantial revisions.
That’s what I thought when, as a first-year student, I made my first tutoring appointment after getting a C on a reflection paper. To my surprise, rather than correcting my grammar or style, or even suggesting areas to fix, the tutor asked me open-ended questions that forced me to further engage with the material. I felt as if my mind had stretched, and I walked away better equipped to write at the college level.
However, especially with longer papers, most of the work necessary to get an A can’t be done in the typical twenty-minute session. Even a stylistically-perfect paper is hollow if it lacks a cohesive argument or a logical organization. Furthermore, even in non-academic pieces, writers (myself included) tend to be oblivious to their first or second draft’s flaws – hence the importance of feedback. Deep revision requires distance from one’s work.
At my college, the writing center advertises that we can help writers at any stage of their process. We can help brainstorm, outline, organize ideas, or revise. But most students come to our drop-in hours looking for a quick check before they submit their paper. And telling someone he might have to rewrite his six-page paper a handful of hours before it’s due is neither supportive nor beneficial.
If tutors and faculty encouraged students to give themselves more time to incorporate outside feedback, such as a tutor’s comments, into a draft, our appointments in the writing center would probably feel more productive. One idea is to encourage a staged process in class – perhaps first the students turn in a rough outline and get the instructor’s feedback, or maybe peer critique is required. Lauren Shapiro suggests setting firm time limits to complete the different writing stages: “Without the free time to panic, students often find their writing time is more efficient and their writing more dedicated and focused” (Shapiro). In this scenario, the students should still be reminded that the writing center is available if they need support or want an objective opinion on an essay.
In addition to improving the quality of writing consultations, greater communication between writing centers and faculty would also diminish the abundance of misconceptions surrounding the purpose or goals of writing tutoring. Some professors question what value writing consultants provide if students who have had a tutoring appointment still submit work containing errors. If writing tutors can make it better known that we focus on higher order concerns first, more students might be more open to the idea of, for example, going to an appointment with a rough draft, conscious of the reality that it will need significant revision after the appointment ends.
Solutions to the problem of poor time management will differ among institutions, disciplines, courses, and instructors. But addressing this issue will make for more productive writing consultations and ultimately, stronger writers, which is the true goal of a writing center. Personally, I try to end my appointments by asking the student writer what their next steps will be, to do my best to ensure that they continue working on their own.
Dunlosky, John. “Strengthening the Student Toolbox: Study Strategies to Boost Learning.” American Educator, Fall 2013, pp. 12-21.
Quinlan, Thomas, et al. “Coordinating the Cognitive Processes of Writing: The Role of the Monitor.” Written Communication, vol. 29, no. 3, pp. 345-368.
Shapiro, Lauren. “Time Management Strategies For Student Writers.” Faculty Focus, 30 Mar. 2011,
Jessica Costello is a senior at Stonehill College, studying psychology and creative writing. She has been a writing consultant for two years.