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Using Psychological Science to Improve Students' Time Management for Writing Papers

Posted By Jessica Costello, Stonehill College, Monday, June 24, 2019
Updated: Monday, June 24, 2019

Jessica Costello, Stonehill College

Personal Blog

College students are notoriously bad at giving themselves enough time to do their best.

As a psychology undergraduate, I collaborated with faculty research on how college students study. Students often report dissatisfaction with their grades, believing the hours they’ve studied should have served them better. But according to Dr. John Dunlosky, a prominent education researcher at Kent State University, students often fail to retain what they study because the learning techniques that best aid long-term memory (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, so students are less likely to use the more effective study methods (Dunlosky, 2013). Additionally, students are likely to focus on whatever material is due or will be tested first, and will stop reviewing material once they feel they’ve mastered it (Kornell & Bjork, 2007).

Over two semesters, my colleagues and I surveyed a selection of Stonehill students, mostly first-year students, on their beliefs about various study methods, as well as their actual study habits. When prompted, most students could recognize which study strategies would be more effective (for example, spacing out study sessions over a few days or weeks is more effective for long-term learning than cramming the night before a test). However, when asked about how they actually studied, to continue with the same spacing-cramming dichotomy, 54% of the students in our sample reported that they studied in one session before a test. This is similar to the results of previous research in this area done at much larger universities (Hartwig & Dunlosky, 2012; Morehead, Rhodes, DeLozier, 2016).

Though most of our survey questions mainly applied to preparing for high-stakes exams rather than writing papers, my experiences as a writing consultant in Stonehill’s Center for Writing and Academic Achievement (CWAA) led me to believe that a similar cramming problem exists when students are given a writing assignment.

Consider two scenarios. First, imagine a student has a calculus exam tomorrow. She hasn’t studied much, 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’s 10-page philosophy paper is due at noon on Tuesday. By that morning, he has a draft, but he’s not so confident about how it’s organized or how his points support his thesis. This student visits the writing center, but the tutor recognizes more problems than they can conquer in 20 minutes. She considers referring the student to a professional tutor, but none are available that day, 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.

I have been the tutor in that second scenario on multiple occasions. I wanted to help, but it was difficult to recommend strategies for revision when the student had so much to improve in such a short time. It’s even worse if the writers don’t seem engaged with what they’re arguing or what they can do to improve the presentation.

How can educators get students to view the writing process as just that—a process—with different phases?

Cognitive science might be a start. From a study that asked participants to complete both tasks of completing a sentence and fixing a grammatical error, Quinlan, Loncke, Leijten, and Van Waes (2012) concluded that, when given the option, most writers chose to work on the bigger ideas of their sentences and paragraphs first, leaving smaller issues like misplaced punctuation marks to be dealt with later. This research implies that the strongest writers revise and edit in multiple rounds, focusing on a particular concern in each, and allowing themselves time to repeat the process if the need arises.

My writing center advertised that we could help at any stage of their process—brainstorming, outlining, organizing ideas, revising, or polishing. But in my experience, most students were looking for an overall check before they submitted the paper for a grade. Telling someone he might have to rewrite his 10-page paper a handful of hours before it’s due, when he was expecting a quick review, is neither supportive nor beneficial.

When the student meets with the tutor the night before the paper’s due, it’s often too late to suggest scrapping what is already written and starting over. If 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 or purposeful. Some ideas are 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. Anecdotally, I have benefitted from these arrangements in both academic and creative writing.

Lauren Shapiro, a writing instructor at American College of Healthcare Sciences, suggests that each individual should set firm time limits to complete the different writing stages. Her example is if the writer has three hours to complete a paper, he or she can block out “30 minutes for prewriting; 90 minutes for drafting; 40 minutes for revision; and 20 minutes for proofreading” (Shapiro, 2011). Within this self-imposed structure, students will have less time to procrastinate or panic about not having enough time.

Each assignment, instructor, and discipline can favor some strategies for improving time management over others. But by requiring them to be more conscious of their time and processes, addressing this issue will make students stronger writers and thinkers.


Dunlosky, J. (2013). Strengthening the student toolbox: Study strategies to boost learning. American Educator, 12–21.

Hartwig M., & Dunlosky, J. (2012). Study strategies of college students: Are self-testing and scheduling related to achievement? Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 19(2012), 126–134.

Kornell, N., & Bjork, R.A. (2007). The promise and perils of self-regulated study. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 14, 219–224.

Morehead, K., Rhodes, M. G., & DeLozier, S. (2016). Instructor and student knowledge of study strategies. Memory, 24, 257–271.

Quinlan, T., Loncke, M., Leijten, M., & Van Waes, L. (2012). Coordinating the cognitive processes of writing: The role of the monitor. Written Communication, 29, 345–368.

Shapiro, L. (2011, 30 March). Time management strategies for student writers. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from

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