Getting Over the Habit of Last Minute Paper Writing

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December 2015

By Heidi Holland from Gonzaga University School of Law

For anyone who teaches a paper course or legal writing, you know the frustration of having to wade through poorly organized analysis and grammatical wastelands. As I have talked to students, I have found that they often do not know the difference between proofreading and editing, rely too heavily on Spellcheck and do not allow themselves enough time to effectively finalize their assignments. While I have yet to find the perfect solution, I have implemented several strategies to help students learn these skills.

First, our students may come to us with the bad habit of doing college papers the night before they were due. To encourage students to develop better habits, I have staggered deadlines for my final legal writing assignment. For example, this semester, I required students to have a research assignment done for our final assignment a week after I handed out the final topic – a month before the final memo was due. After the students’ initial panic wore off, I explained that I wanted them to start their research early so that I could steer them back the right direction if they were having trouble, and if they got in there and started reading cases sooner, rather than later, we’d have better in-class discussions.

The students’ outlines were then due ten days later. I explained that I wanted bullet point style outlines following IRAC for each issue. We talked about how this would help them, among other things, discover where the “holes” were in their analysis, e.g. having several cases to support their discussion of one issue, but only one case on another issue. In class, we talked through organization of the law and analysis and the students asked good questions – the kind that showed they had been appropriately struggling with concepts. My final deadline was to have a full rough draft about a week before the final paper was due.

Students were required to bring a hard copy of their rough drafts with them to class – along with highlighters. First, I explain the difference between proof-reading and editing; then, I take the students through a guided self-edit. I intentionally don’t go in a “logical” order because I have found that students won’t skim over issues that way. (It reminds me of not asking questions in a logical order when doing cross-examination of a witness.) Second, I have students quickly scan their papers for all citations and highlight them orange. (We have a color-coded key we use for editing.) Next, without reading content, I have students do a quick check for paragraph length. If they see a problem, they don’t fix it then; they just make a margin note. We go on to check for numerous content issues, effective use of quotations, proper use of short cites, etc. Once we finish, I advise students to fix the problems they found that day, but then put the paper down for at least one day before they pick it up for the final read.

This system helps the students get in the habit of starting projects earlier and understanding that law writing is an interactive process.

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