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Friday, May 10, 2013

What Fools These Mortals Be! How Personality Type Affects Term Paper Madness

Learning to Learn Series
By Jim Larkin and Jack Powers 

As we approach the semester’s end, the madness often reaches levels akin to those experienced in Shakespeare’s quasi-hallucinatory “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Indeed, the chaos that ensues in the final days before a term paper is due may cause one to exclaim, “What fools these mortals be!”

You’ve likely observed a variety of approaches to term papers among classmates -- some have been writing them since assignment day, while others are just now getting started. Before you pigeonhole people as slackers or over-achievers, let’s take a look at some of the personality type-related factors that influence how individuals approach term papers.

Judging vs. Perceiving preferences
According to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® instrument, the Judging/Perceiving preference influences how we take in information -- whether it be through a very structured, methodical approach (Judging), or in a more flexible, organic manner (Perceiving).

Even my footnotes have footnotes. Those who prefer Judging (J) may tend to jump right in and begin the process of gathering info and writing the paper early. They’re not necessarily over-achievers -- their mental process requires a very organized, structured approach. For them, it’s easier to work consistently along a well-defined timeline than to feel rushed at the end.

I wrote my paper before the note card. Someone with a Perceiving (P) preference, on the other hand, will tend to wait a bit longer to get started -- at least on the writing portion. While it may appear that the P-oriented student is procrastinating, often they’re actually working just as hard as the J -- the work is just going on “below the surface.”

For Ps, too much emphasis on process can be intellectually stifling. While the J-oriented student is busy taking notes, creating outlines, etc., the P-oriented student may be just as busy absorbing and processing information -- they may in fact be writing the paper in their head, so to speak.

As a result, a P may be able to crank out a substantive paper in an amount of time that seems quite puzzling and counter-intuitive to the J-oriented student -- they may very well create the notecards after the paper .

Is one approach better than the other?
Either approach can yield a very well thought-out paper. However, there are a few things about term papers that folks who prefer Perceiving may want to keep in mind:

  • They require documentation. Regardless of how well versed in the subject you may be, you don’t want to be formatting footnotes the night before your paper is due.
  • The unexpected. Factors outside your control that can add to the time it takes to write a term paper -- computer problems, illness, unexpected assignments. As Monthy Python put it, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” The P tendency to wait until later in the game to begin writing can get you into trouble -- something that sets you back a single 24-hour period can make the difference between several letter grades.

Ps should take a cue from Js, but not necessarily vice versa
While either approach can work, Ps are wise to take at least a few cues from their Judging classmates, and put some structure and timing in place. For them it may require a balance -- if they try to be too structured, they may drive themselves crazy. However, if they exclusively follow innate tendencies they may produce a paper that lacks credibility in the professor’s eyes.  

Js, on the other hand, may not want to take cues from Ps -- at least when it comes to delaying the writing process. Because of their preference for structure and process, the last minute rush may have a markedly more stressful effect on a J than on a P.

S.L.A.C.K.E.R -- the universal personality type
One final note: Your Myers-Briggs® personality type describes how you work best, but says nothing about your work ethic. Js and Ps can be equally hard-working or lazy, and that student you see waiting til the night before to write their paper might be a J -- their head will just be spinning faster than a procrastinating P.

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