Gentle Reader ,

Like many of you, I have established a formal term paper as the culminating product of my upper-level courses. And like many of you, I have experienced the phenomenon of student procrastination about doing the research necessary for a well-crafted term paper. For years I suggested to students that they “check-in” with me periodically with their progress on their research. These suggestions have tended to go un-heeded. So I ramped-up the tone of the suggestions to the level of “strong suggestions.” These too tended to go un-heeded. Finally, I have faced the inevitable conclusion that suggestions go un-heeded. My attempt at solving this persistent problem is the establishment of formal (graded) check-ins, with specific required components. My check-in requirements reflect standards of my discipline, sociology, which shares many characteristics with other social and behavioral sciences, but colleagues in the humanities and other discipline groups have recognized similarities in what would help students along the path of well-thought-out research or creative effort. Here are the check-ins I have used lately —

First check-in: The question. What question are you asking? In the social sciences we say hypotheses, but I think all disciplines ask questions. Why is it of value to ask this question? Has it been asked before? How has the question been operationalized in the past? Will you apply the question to a different population or database? How will you know that you are shedding light on the question?

Second check-in: Literature review. This springs from the question “Has it been asked before?” Frankly I don’t know how we did this before data-bases. I remember thumbing through the card catalogue, but what I sense we have replaced with computer-based literature searching is the process of mentorial relationships between students and faculty. Only about a quarter of my students make an appointment to take me up on my offer to guide them in their searches for relevant literature. Probably even fewer take my advice to seek the guidance of a reference librarian, who I always identify by name. I am still working on that angle. Also due with this check-in is a working title. I emphasize that the title should change as the work progresses. Being fixated on a title too early can blind a researcher to unanticipated source material that turns out to be illuminating.

Third check-in: The briefly-annotated bibliography. In this step, the student has constructed a working bibliography which consists of sources that seem appropriate, formatted in style of the chosen style-sheet. Each source is described briefly for its content and suggestion of its relevance to the project. In the old days, we put this information on index cards, and spread them out before us on a desk, moving them around and musing out-loud to the amusement of roommates about how they might relate to each other. A Windows desk-top can be easily configured to replicate this process. Toward the end of this exploratory bibliographing, I have students write the first draft of the Abstract, a paragraph-long statement that describes the paper.

Fourth and Final check-in: The first draft. One value of this step is that if they take my advice to utilize the Writing Center, their final product is likely to be worthy of one letter-grade higher. Since I have emphasized this probability in classes, more of my students have used their first draft as the basis of a Writing Center consultation, and I am certain that those who do so have benefited. Even if a student does not utilize the Writing Center, just having a draft sitting there for a week or more before submitting the paper opens opportunities for re-thinking, revising and sprucing-up that can make a difference. To be honest, I don’t think many of my students do much after this step, but ha-hah, it’s too late! They have already lived with the work through four steps and there’s no salvaging total procrastination now!

Research Help Links for Students and Faculty:

  • Research consultations: appointments with librarians, either in groups or one-on-one
  • Library Instruction for Faculty: various options, including Drop-in Workshops, Reference Assistance, Research Consultations, and Research Tools
  • Ask a librarian chat window: available at any of the library links, on the right hand side of the page.

Writing Center Links: