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A sentence never before spoken in the English language: “This term paper was clearly written the night before with insufficient research and little editing, but it is a fabulous piece of writing: lucid, well argued and based on good evidence.”

The reason it’s never, ever before been pronounced by any of us—and is almost sure never to be uttered—is that there’s no way to write well when you start too damn late, too near the deadline.

And our students are chronically unable to start early.

There has been some research on the topic. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires (INSEAD) gave the students the option to set their own deadlines but then required them to stick to those deadlines. The results were underwhelming: “People have self-control problems, they recognize them, and they try to control them by self-imposing costly deadlines. These deadlines help people control procrastination, but they are not as effective as some externally imposed deadlines in improving task performance.” This 2002 conclusion has been supported by more recent research in cognitive psychology: people (read: students and professors) do better with numerous, small-scale projects with staged, externally imposed deadlines.

Having always put off everything until the last minute, our students have little experience with starting earlier. They don’t realize that starting early leaves time to change topics if they can’t find enough sources, to get help from research librarians, to submit a rough draft to their instructor for some initial feedback and then to edit the final draft. Students often have the same beliefs that some faculty members do (confession: and that I used to have) about writing, such as “I write better under pressure” or “I need an entirely open day to write; I have to get in the zone and then write the whole thing.” And they don’t realize that empirical research shows the opposite to be true. As both Robert Bryce and Paul J. Silvia have shown in their books Advice for New Faculty and How to Write a Lot, people who write in brief daily sessions write much more—and with much less stress, I’d add. When students fall back on the old “best under pressure” saw, I ask them, “But have you ever tried starting a final paper at midsemester?”

After years of trying to convince students that it was in their best interest to start working on their research papers early, I decided I’d just require them to do so, much like I do for office hours. I began by using a time-tested technique: breaking assignments into stages or smaller pieces. I then have combined this extended chronology with three other tools: “long-ass prompts” (as one student memorably labeled them), templates and rubrics.

While I have other types of assessments—the mandatory office hours mentioned before, course journals, smarter online quizzes and what I call “class-adjacent socializing”—the classic research paper has become my central assessment for all of my classes. It is a vehicle for seeing if students really have achieved the course’s learning objectives. “Distinguish between primary and secondary sources.” Check. “Provide sources to show knowledge of the scholarly literature on a historical subject.” Check. “Combine sources to create a narrative with an argument.” Check. I break up the final paper in five stages: 1) two ideas, 2) outline, 3) first 1,250 words, 4) rough draft and 5) final paper. Each assessment is worth progressively more, and each very intentionally builds on the prior assessment.

Two ideas (1 percent). This is as low stakes as it gets and essentially pass-fail. In the second or third week, I give students some examples of previous semesters’ paper topics and what the scope of theirs should be, then share an edit link to a spreadsheet (example). That sheet has all of their names, and I ask them to write in the adjacent column two possible topics for their final paper. I give them time in class to do that, and then I go back through and leave comments in the third column. Usually, one of the topics is far too broad, or the student would have difficulty finding sources. Sometimes I require them to come to office hours in the fourth week discuss the ideas with me. That allows me to quickly and relatively easily give some initial feedback.

The outline (5 percent). I usually invite research librarians to do a presentation in class about how to find sources. During it, they use as examples some of the ideas the students have listed as their possible topics. This is useful because when the students turn in their outlines two weeks later, they have to not only list three historians who have dealt with the topic, as well as their works on it, but also provide some of the primary sources they’ve already found.

For example, an outline for my U.S. Food History course might have several cookbooks from different eras, a recipe published in a magazine and some newspaper articles. Instead of just turning in an annotated bibliography with some scholarly sources, my students actually have to do some initial archival research to see if they can find enough primary sources to support their provisional argument.

I try to teach and then drill all the skills they’ll need for the outline phase in the weeks before it’s due. We practice distinguishing between the primary and secondary sources in the footnotes of their readings; I have them search for lit review phrases like “Many scholars have examined …” and “Some research on this topic has suggested …”

This assignment is when students get their first long-ass prompt (example). Most of us had some version of the following prompt for a final paper in one of our undergraduate classes: “Write a 4,000-word essay on some aspect of the history of the environment in what is now the United States. Your essay should engage with the current literature and critically evaluate the historical variables that created whatever event you focus on. Due April 30.”

At the suggestion of one of my pedagogical mentors at Harvard University’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Jonah Johnson, I started writing prompts in an FAQ format. Questions range from the more conceptual (“Why am I writing the beginning of this paper in the middle of the semester?”) to the more pragmatic: “How do I find primary sources?” or “Do I have to use Zotero to insert the footnotes?” I try to give students a step-by-step guide, organized in short questions and answers with lots of links, for researching and starting to write their paper. When in the course of the class I get a question that isn’t in the prompt, I add it.

Such long-ass prompts are, well, long, so I use questions in my weekly online quizzes to draw students’ attention both to the existence of the prompt and to the main points. In these questions, I link to the prompt and then query students on what it asks them to do: “According to the prompt for the outline, how many primary sources do I need?” I also mention helpful resources in the prompt, like recommending that students make an appointment with the research librarians, linking to the page where I give hints on searching for sources, linking to videos that show how to use the research software I require and so on.

In addition to that prompt, one of my key additions to those staged assignments has been a template Word document (example). I give students an example of an outline, annotated with directions in comments. That reduces the cognitive load, as they can simply download and modify it. It also makes grading easier, as I don’t have to muddle through all sorts of different kinds of outlines.

This is the second time I give students feedback, but I often find that in doing the outline, they realize that a certain topic isn’t a good one because they have problems finding sources on it. Again, the chronology helps: it’s a disaster to discover that during the 14th week, but at this stage, students are simply disappointed and, with my help, find a better subject. I tell them over and over in the run-up to the outline being due that they can change topics even after they turn it in.

First 1,250 words (10 percent). This portion of the term paper includes a vignette, a short lit review and two body paragraphs. For the first 1,250 words assignment, there’s of course a prompt (example); I again use a template, too (example). This one is pretty elaborate: it’s 1,250 words of Lorem ipsum–type gobbledygook, broken into roughly 300-word paragraphs. I do this because students often don’t know how to structure a history paper. History writing is formulaic, so I insert comments for each of the paragraphs, saying things like “This paragraph here is the historiography/lit review. In it, you should list the three historians you found who have written on your topic and briefly describe …” I use comments and the footnotes to help show them what I’m looking for, though certain sentences are in English, like “In this paper, I argue that between 19XX and 19XX, there was a change in XXX because of …” I ask the students to keep the English and simply replace the X’s.

As with the outline, I do in-class exercises with them in the weeks before they have to write the first 1,250 words on subjects like building a paragraph from a topic sentence, evidence and analysis to more prosaic tasks like footnoting. One new addition at this stage is a rubric that highlights what I’ve already described in the prompt and shown in the template: the number of primary and secondary sources, the citation, the mandatory maximum lengths of body paragraphs, an explicit statement of argument, and the like.

I find that this stage of the paper is the most work-intensive. I have to correct a lot of the writing, the use or lack of evidence, and so on. The huge upside is that after giving lots of feedback on the first 1,250 words, the work of correcting the rough draft (15 percent) is far less, especially because I again provide both a long prompt (example) as well as a template, a longer version of the earlier one (example). It also means that grading the final paper (20 percent) is easy for me.

All of this probably sounds like—and indeed is—a lot of work, with feedback at every stage. I have a Word document with the comments I use most often so I can just copy-paste, and I’ve tried to make my other assessments either no-work (self-grading online quizzes) or low-work (course journals, class-adjacent socializing). But I must still do a good bit of initial work to create the prompts, templates and rubrics that guide the students. It’s only possible if you have a relatively small class, as I usually do now, or TAs. You also have to use less of your class time for content-centric instruction and more for skill-building.

The pros, however, are numerous, starting with the fact that students report far less stress in researching and writing, and that their papers are some of the best they’ve written (shocking only to them). For my part, since I started doing staged assignments with all the scaffolding of long-ass prompts, templates and rubrics, I’ve enjoyed—really enjoyed—having markedly better papers. In fact, they have been the best ones I’ve received in my career.

Zachary Nowak is a lecturer in the Harvard University Extension School and the director of The Umbra Institute in Perugia, Italy.

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