Tag Archives: time management

Why Students Need Milestones & Small Wins

In my first year honors seminar, 5% of the grade is earned by making five posts on a webpage Forum. I added this to the course because I was searching for a way to keep the students engaged between class meetings. I invited students to comment on the readings, posts from other students, and anything else relevant to the course theme. I tried to reinforce their postings by commenting on those that I thought were particularly insightful. By mid-semester, I noticed that only about half the students had posted anything. I sent out an email to the entire class, reminding them of the requirement. Nothing happened.

As we approached the three-quarter mark, with about a month ago, I noticed that a few more students had posted. However, only a handful of the 24 students had come close to meeting the five post-requirement. To my amazement, many students had still not posted anything. I sent out another mass email, with an additional targeted group email to those students who hadn’t posted anything. The response was desultory.

With about two weeks to go in the semester, my disappointment deepened: three or four students had completed the requirement, about half the class had posted two or three items, and four or five students had still not posted anything. I made an announcement in class, reminding students that this requirement was sort of like “free money” in the sense that they got credit for simply making a posting, without any evaluation of its content. I then sent out another email, and this time I noticed that the number of postings began to increase.

At our penultimate class meeting, I made one last reminder of the requirement and encouraged students to set aside a few minutes to complete the requirement. I also sent personal emails to all the students who had posted nothing to that point. I was actually beginning to worry that so few students were going to complete the requirement that the grade distribution would be materially affected, as three or four points can make the difference between a B+ and an A-. (My friend Joe told me he would have stopped before going this far, as he saw my tactics as “coddling” the students.)

I watched the webpage intently over the weekend, and I noticed a few more people posting things. About one quarter of the class hit the five posting goal. But there were still many laggards.

On the evening before the last day, the posts finally began pouring in. Indeed, it was almost like watching a video game – – announcements were rolling into my email account, showing me an hourly tally. By the 5 PM deadline, most students had met the requirement. However, a few still had only one or two postings. One very surprised student discovered, after 5 PM, that he could no longer post to the webpage and emailed me. He ended up with only two postings to his credit.

What had gone wrong with my simple plan to increase out of class engagement with the course? When Melissa came to my office hours, I asked her why she hadn’t done the Forum postings until the end of the term and she nonchalantly replied, “It wasn’t high on my priority list.” She explained that with everything else she had to do, posting to the class Forum fell far down the list. Not only did she have work to do for her other classes but there are also lots of extracurricular activities to contend with, such as athletic events, concerts, and clubs. Other things were simply more important at the moment.

She could see that I was puzzled and volunteered an obvious – – to her – – solution: prevent students from waiting until the end of the term to fulfill the requirement by setting a target of one posting per month, which would result in five total postings. She told me that she was personally disappointed that students had waited, as she found the flurry of postings over the last couple of days of the class really provocative and wished that she had an opportunity to talk with the students in the class about their ideas in a more timely fashion.

As she was one of the five or six students who had also waited to turn in their term paper during the eight hour grace period on the last day, rather than the morning it was due, I asked her why she’d waited. She offered much the same explanation: she had lots of other stuff to do and had counted on the afternoon of that final day to allow her to finish up the proofreading of her paper.

Looking back, I realized that the milestones I had built into the course for completing various parts of the term paper assignment were simply not strong enough. Once again, Melissa volunteered a solution: set up stronger milestones and more closely assess compliance with the course requirements, rather than settling for “check plus” or simple peer review of outlines and drafts.

I’ll admit to being profoundly embarrassed by what I now realize was my failure to take account of the larger context in which my course was embedded. I had committed an elementary mistake inexperienced instructors often make: I thought that if something were important to me, it would also be important to the students. I had assumed I could motivate students by setting up incentives and creating a few simple milestones that allowed me to track students’ progress in meeting course goals. I had failed to account for the complex and overloaded life – as they perceive it — of today’s college students.

Students are confronted with an enormous variety of activities from which they must choose, and the priorities they follow don’t always accord with what we as instructors would prefer. The tasks we set for them are often overshadowed by much more immediate and pressing demands, including not only work for other courses but also their desire to live a richer social life now that they are on their own. Often, we are just not salient in the midst of more attractive options.

What to do? I suggest being much more mindful of the need for building frequent and graded milestones into your course that give you the opportunity to provide feedback on how well students are meeting course requirements. Management theorists talk about the power of “small wins” that give people a sense of making progress toward a goal. When people feel that they are making progress toward a goal, they feel more positive about the process and the positive emotions feed back into the amount of investment they make in the activity. Motivation increases and people began looking for the next small win in the process.

For example, when I enact milestones requiring monthly postings, I give students a periodic and highly visible reminder of the course themes. Because this particular requirement just assesses whether students have posted, rather than the content of their posting, it is also an easy win. An added advantage of requirements that involve highly visible activities is that students also gain public confirmation of their progress.

Small-stakes assignments also mean that students don’t put a lot at risk with any particular submission. Sim Sitkin described this strategy as one of “small losses.” Either way, it can be effective in motivating students to focus on completing assignments.

Term project milestones are bit more complicated, but they too provide opportunities for small wins. Students might simply get a check for turning in a proposed theme or a plan for researching the paper. Turning in outlines and drafts involves higher stakes’ assessments, and I believe instructors should provide fairly detailed written feedback for such assignments. Again, if it is to be a “milestone,” then students must not be given the impression they have passed the milestone until you, as the instructor, give them the go-ahead.

When students fail to keep up in our courses or turn assignments in late, we often accuse them of procrastination. But I’ve argued in this note that part of the problem is our failure to provide incentives powerful enough to motivate students to keep up. By building “small wins” into the milestones we set, we can rely on positive motivation, rather than draconian punitive measures, such as late penalties. If the milestones are simple and clear enough, students will do their assignments on time.

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If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?

One of my favorite expressions is “if you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” I believe that the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden was the first to use this expression. How does this apply to academic writing? After a little thought, I came up with these five examples of putting things off that would have been better accomplished had they been completed at the appropriate time:

John Wooden

John Wooden quote from http://www.brainyquote.com/

First, not doing a full outline before beginning to write a draft. Even in my senior honor’s seminar, open only to the best students in our program, many students give me a funny look when I ask them whether they do an outline before they began working on their papers. Okay, you say, those are undergraduates, what do you expect? However, when I ask the same question of graduate students and even faculty, many say they can’t be bothered, offering various excuses including “it takes too much time,” “I like to discover my central theme as I write,” and my favorite, “it hampers my creativity.” I liken this practice to hikers walking into one of our large national forests on a week long track without a map. What do we call such people? Lost. Somebody will eventually need to rescue them. In academic settings, the rescuers are often editors and reviewers.

Second, skipping a difficult section while writing a draft. Assuming that you prepared an outline, you have an end goal in mind and so the problem is just to execute. However, the only way to test whether the outline actually represents a coherent narrative for your story is to go through it from beginning to end, in order. The difficult bits that you skip over, assuming that they can be written later, might actually be the points where you eventually discover that you can’t get there from here. When writing an outline, it is fairly easy to convince yourself that, as seen from the mountaintop, there is a walkable trail from the park entrance to the creek. On the ground, however, the unbridgeable chasm that was concealed by the tall trees becomes readily apparent. It is much easier to do it right the first time than to walk back to the entrance and start over again.

Third, not recording the full reference for a book, article, or blog post when you first take notes on it. It is easy to convince yourself that you can always come back later and get the rest of the reference you need for the bibliography. Moreover, there’s a chance that you won’t actually use the material in your paper, and so why spend extra time writing down all that information when you’ll never need it. Indeed, why bother? The answer becomes painfully apparent when you discover the incomplete references on the morning you plan to submit the conference paper, to meet the announced deadline, and you find that the library server is down.

Fourth, not doing the descriptive statistics before beginning the multivariate analysis in a statistically based paper. I try to teach my students the relevance of this potential misstep when they bring me the first draft of their paper and I point out the implausibility of a coefficient or two. Could it really be true that people with college degrees earn less than those who dropped out of school? Quite likely, somewhere along the way, a coding error or data transformation mangled the true values. Carefully scanning means, standard deviations, skewness, and other basic properties of the data goes a long way toward reassuring me that you actually understand your data.

Fifth, sending out a paper for comments from your friends and colleagues before you have proofread and copyedited it. Nothing says “I don’t care about your time” more than sending a colleague a paper full of typos, misspellings, botched grammar, and other mistakes that could have easily been caught with an hour or so of careful reading. I suggest first running the paper through a standard spelling and grammar checker on your word processor, then printing the paper out and reading it line by line. To ensure perfection, you might try having a very patient and loyal friend read it aloud to you. Here’s your chance to discover the true meaning of a “strong tie.”

John Wooden was surely right: although each of these shortcuts will seem to save you time in the short run, the gains are purely illusory. You have merely embedded problems in your work that will come back to haunt you later, especially when they are discovered by others. Do yourself, your friends, and your reviewers a favor: take the time to do it right the first time.

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Using the literature in your writing: interpretive notes, not summaries

At the beginning of my doctoral workshops on academic writing, I start with a simple question: “when you sit down to compose your draft paper, what does the space look like around you? Is it covered with books and journals? Photocopies of papers and articles?” Most students confirm this description, but others say no, it’s just them and their computer. However, when I push them, it turns out that they have multiple files open on their computer, with digital copies of papers and articles ready to be consulted. My response is always the same. I tell them they’ve begun to write too soon. They have skipped the stage where they impose their own interpretations on what they’ve read. They have failed to make the material useful for the narrative structure of their own story.

Venice staircase Palazzo Cini

Staircase of the Palazzo Cini in Venice

My claim is confirmed when I ask them why they still have all these raw materials lying around. Students say “I might forget something,” or “I wanted to make sure I got it exactly right” or “the author said it better than I could.” Their responses indicate that they have read the material but not really made it their own. They understood it sufficiently to know that it was relevant but they hadn’t yet put those ideas into their own words – – they still needed the words of the authors.

I probe further, asking what kinds of notes they have taken. Some have copied the abstract, others have made a list of concepts in the form of bullet points, and still others have compiled long lists of verbatim quotes. In all these cases, they are still working with the authors’ words, not theirs. At best, they will be able to offer a condensed version of what was in the original, but now shorn of its primary context. I suggest to them that if I really wanted to know what Mary Douglas had to say, I would just read her in the original. Why trust a pale reflection?

Moreover, by sticking so close to the original text, they’ve deprived themselves of the chance to write in their own voice. And editors and reviewers want original voices. Is there a better way to work with the literature when reviewing it for papers? Let me offer some suggestions.

First, your goal should be to write interpretive notes of what you read and not just simple summaries. Copying words from the text into your notes requires very little cognitive engagement. The words and phrases are held in short-term memory long enough to be transferred from one medium to another, with very little processing taking place. By contrast, writing to capture the meaning of what you’ve just read and explaining its relevance to your project requires higher order cognitive processing that reorganizes and stabilizes memories.

Second, think of the notes you are writing as a message to your future self, who will be reading them in a few weeks or perhaps even months. If your future self sees only bullet points or the reproduced words of a famous author, you may have to go back to the original to figure out why you felt the text was valuable enough to include in your notes. Hence, you’ll find again yourself sitting in your chair, surrounded by piles of raw material. So, make it easier for your future self – – explain in your notes why you feel this material is worthy/unworthy of discussion.

Moreover, because these notes are for your eyes only – – as opposed to the text that you put into the first draft of a paper – – you are free to be as casual, emotional, and judgmental as you wish. If you feel that an author has offered an outrageously ridiculous argument to explain something you’re studying, put that into your notes. Don’t pull your punches, writing something ambiguous that will require your future self to go back to consult the original text. Similarly, heap praise on arguments that you find compelling.

Third, as you begin to think about the notes you are taking as interpretive, rather than mere summaries, push yourself to make connections between this book or article and other things that you’ve read. For the moment, it can be quite simple, perhaps nothing other than simply saying “Merton seems to be having an implicit argument with Lazersfeld in this paper, but I think he missed Lazerfeld’s point.” Later, as you start to sort through your interpretive notes, you can check out this tentative interpretation by looking at your notes on the other authors.

Forcing yourself to think about making connections to other knowledge you’ve acquired in the course of your literature search involves retrieving information from long-term memory, thereby reinforcing it. Using it in a new context and applying it in an evaluative way helps you update your understanding of all the material you’ve read.

Fourth, rephrasing an author’s thoughts in your own words is a great way to deeply learn the material. Elaborating upon what they’ve written and generating your own text gives you the opportunity to express your own voice, rather than merely mimicking that of the authors you’ve read. Indeed, by steadfastly sticking to the principle of writing interpretive summaries rather than faithfully reproducing the original text, you’ll have prepared material that will readily fit into your paper’s narrative. This material is already in your own words, written in your style, and you own it.

Of course, if you do find that some of an author’s text is so perfect that it simply must be preserved, then by all means copy it into your interpretive note, but be sure to adequately document where it comes from. I suspect that as you become comfortable with trusting your own voice, you’ll have fewer occasions on which you feel you need to preserve original text.

When you have accumulated a sufficient stack of interpretive notes, it is time to sift through them, looking for connections, new directions, and arguments that need to be further researched. I like to write my notes on paper, rather than in digital form, as I find I can more easily sort through them, mark them in multiple colors to indicate different themes, and add pictures/diagrams. I use them to suggest an overall narrative structure for my outline, but the notes themselves are not the outline. I number the notes and when I have the first draft of my outline, I work my way through it, indicating by number where I might fit the ideas from a particular note. At this stage, some notes drop by the wayside. By contrast, gaps in my outline indicate where more notes are needed, which requires I go back to the literature.

So, if you find yourself sitting down to “write” your paper but are still burdened with piles of undigested raw material from your literature search, you have begun too soon. Instead, take the time to learn the skill of writing interpretive notes, rather than summaries. Use those interpretive notes to flesh out your outline, and discover the joy of finding that in the process of writing the interpretive notes, you have found your own authorial voice.

Imagination, interrupted: creative writing requires a lot of control

How often has this happened to you? You sit down to work on a piece of writing for which the deadline is fast approaching. You feel energized and optimistic. Shortly after you begin, the notification alert on your smart phone goes off. Or, a colleague pokes her head in your open door and asks if you have a moment. Or, you look back at the previous sentence you’ve written and decide that it could be worded better. And so on. Taken in isolation, such small interruptions seem harmless. However, each of them disturbs your thought process. After you’ve dealt with the interruption, your brain can take 3 to 5 minutes, or more, to get back on track. There is a better way: follow the suggestions below and take control of your environment and of the writing process. You will free your mind to focus deeply on putting into words the ideas buzzing around in your imagination since your last writing episode.

Happy Hippo

Happy Hippo at Rose Bowl Parade 2014

Control the Writing Environment

Blocking out interruptions begins with asserting control over the context within which you’re writing. Three long-term considerations are particularly important. First, make sure you get enough sleep and begin the writing process well rested. Studies show that a high proportion of the population is not getting enough restful sleep, resulting in inefficient and error-prone work behaviors.

Second, establish a regular time and place for your writing activities. Make sure that you set aside this time for writing only, perhaps by blocking it off as a “busy” period on your calendar and smart phone. Pick a time when it is unlikely that you will have any scheduled meetings and be fiercely protective of that slot. Some writers tell me that they like to work in coffee shops and that the constant buzz of activities doesn’t bother them. I know that some think the “white noise” of such spaces is soothing, but the problem is that somebody you know will see you and want to engage you in conversation. Turning down an invitation to talk with them can be awkward, and the very act of telling them that “I am working” constitutes one of the interruptions that you’re trying to avoid. (I suppose you could always wear some kind of disguise, if you can’t break yourself of the habit of working in a coffee shop!)

Third, turn off all notifications on your PC, laptop, and smart phone. Don’t let your smart machines ping you when somebody posts on Facebook or sends you an email. Although you may have the willpower to resist the fatal attraction of social media’s siren song, marshaling such willpower constitutes another interruption to the train of thought that you may have been working on. Prevent such struggles by simply turning off all alerts.

Three short-term considerations are also important. First, whether you are working in the office or at home, keep the door to the room closed. Take a “do not disturb” card from your last hotel stay and put it on the door. Train people to recognize that when your door is closed, you are working. Drive that point home that by being very approachable only when the door is open. Call to people when they are walking by to indicate that you have switched to another mode. Eventually, you’ll train most of your colleagues and friends to recognize the difference.

Second, rather than just turning off alerts and notifications from your phone, be courageous and turn the phone off. The odds of your receiving a call so important that is worth interrupting your train of thought are vanishingly small for most of us. Reward yourself for an hour or so of productive work by turning on your phone for three minutes and checking for messages. Then, turn it off again!

Third, take planned breaks to designated places. Some authorities recommend working in two-hour sessions, whereas others recommend getting up and walking around at least once every hour. Whatever rhythm you choose, stick to it. Binge writing without taking breaks is ultimately counterproductive, as working until you actually feel tired enough to need a break means that you’ve probably been working inefficiently for quite some time. Set a timer and obey it. (I like old-school hourglass timers, but electronic ones will do.)

Control the Writing Process

If you’ve taken control of the writing environment, you’ve gone about half way toward your goal of blocking interruptions. I use three strategies to control the writing process itself. First, differentiate clearly between “free writing” and “production writing.” Use free writing when you are trying to generate ideas, search for connections between ideas, and explore thoughts wherever your imagination may take you. The major discipline required in free writing is the will to keep writing, even when you’re not sure about the quality of what you’re capturing. Interruptions are deadly to this process because you may never get back to that creative thought you were about to set down on paper when the phone rang. Use production writing, my contrast, when you’ve done enough free writing and research to have discovered the narrative that’s going to unify your paper.

Second, when you’re in production mode, but not free writing mode, work from an outline. My outlines tend to be very structured, sometimes with four or five hierarchical levels, and with headings that signal to me the substance of what is needed in the coming section. The joy of an outline is that even when interruptions occur, you really can’t lose your place. Although I don’t achieve it in every project, my goal is to outline the paper right down to the level of having a few key topic sentences in every subsection. If you have your story or central narrative in mind when you begin the outline, you will find that a few topic sentences in each section serve as reminders of what you’re trying to achieve.

Third, don’t copyedit while you write. Every book or article about production writing makes the same point: draft, then copyedit, but don’t try to do both at the same time. Copy editing is a pernicious form of interruption, as you may feel that you are still “working” because words are appearing on your screen. However, interrupting your train of thought to copyedit risks disrupting the coherence of your narrative and is one more intrusive act from which your brain will need to recover to get back on track. I treat copy editing time as a reward to myself, and generally schedule it as a less stressful part of the writing process whenever I finish a major section.

Summary

Interruptions aren’t accidents! They can only happen if you allow them by not controlling your writing environment and writing process. By preventing interruptions from disrupting your writing, you increase the chances that the words in your document will reflect the flight of your freed imagination, rather than the struggle to complete a coherent thought.