Commit, Pause, Revise: Apply it to Academic Writing, Teaching & Productivity

Here’s the setup. Researchers (Lowe and Crawford) wanted to test whether intuitions or further reflection proved more accurate. So, they gave students a test consisting only of true/false questions. All students had two passes at the exam.

The only difference? Half of the students committed in writing to one answer the first time around before choosing a final answer. The other group merely read over the questions before marking their final answer.

What did the study find? Participants that were required to commit to one answer before their second pass scored higher overall than those that only mentally chose an answer.

Research since that study has confirmed this finding. According to a meta-analysis, 33 studies to date have confirmed that “the majority of answer changes are from incorrect to correct” and that “most students who change their answers improve their test scores” overall.

In fact, scholars have found the same result from the high-stakes world of diagnostic medicine. Residents who first committed to a diagnosis before then being required to reflect on their choice changed, on average about 12% of their diagnoses. They were twice as likely to change an answer from incorrect to correct.

The Takeaways: The “Commit then Reflect” Model

This scholarship suggests that a “commit then reflect” model results in the most accurate decisions. This model consists of three required components.

Step 1: Commit Fully, As If It Is Your Final Answer

First, you must commit fully to a choice, decision, or idea. Here committing could be in writing or orally; however, you must choose as if you will have no opportunity to change your answer.

Remember, the students in the first study read over all of the questions and mentally answered them, but they did not score as highly as their peers who had to commit first.

The real benefit seems to come in having an anchor or definite starting point for revising. If you never commit, you never truly have something concrete to revise.

Step 2: Pause & Take a Deliberate Break

Not only must you commit fully, but you must take a break between committing and revising. Doing so helps delineate between your “first pass” and your “revision” and gives your subconscious time to process subtle (or even egregious) problems with your first choice. During this time, it will look for inconsistencies in the evidence you based your decision on. It will also have time to imagine consequences of your decision or idea that you had not taken into account when committing.

Depending on the choice, this break can definitely be short (less than one hour). But you must take one.

During your pause, you will likely experience flashes of inspiration. You might realize “Oh, I can’t do/say that, because…” If you do, be sure to capture these thoughts and commit to them fully as well. Doing so and continuing to pause will have a compounding effect.

You might also experience nagging but nebulous thoughts like “that doesn’t sound completely right to me, but I can’t put my finger on why.” If this is the case, schedule time to deliberately try to identify this “why” as concretely as possible in writing or orally.

Step 3: Revise Your First Answer

As most of the studies found, your intuition is likely mostly correct. But about about 10-15% of your first impressions will be inaccurate. So, after your pause, you must then return to your initial answers or ideas to revise them.

If you had flashes of inspiration or nagging thoughts during your pause, congratulations! These ideas can guide your revisions.

If you didn’t, now is the time to try to provoke them. Use the following questions to guide you:

  • What about this doesn’t sound quite right? Why?
  • If you commit to this idea/decision, what else are you committing to?
  • If you commit to this idea/decision, what are you saying no to?

Applying the “Commit, Pause, Revise” Model to Academic Writing

On its surface, the commit, pause, revise model seems like nothing new when it comes to academic writing. In fact, most reigning writing wisdom encourages scholars to separate the writing and revising stages, suggesting that revising is where the real writing happens.

But even faculty who know and believe in the “commit, pause, revise” model for academic writing in theory struggle to apply it to their own writing in practice.

One main obstacle trips faculty up more than most: we think we’re committing fully, but we’re not. This discrepancy between thinking we’re committing and actually committing fully stems from a strategy many scholars develop to make academic writing more psychologically comfortable. All too often, faculty experience anxiety, self-doubt, and other negative emotions while writing. So, to quell what can be at times crippling anxiety, we tell ourselves, “I can clean this up later. No one will see this. I just need to get my ideas down.”

I’m not saying free writing and generative writing don’t have their place. Rather, the problem comes with staying in this phase too long. You begin to always reassure yourself with this line of thinking. Consequently, you always treat your writing as provisional and never fully commit to your ideas.

As mentioned above, to revise effectively, you need to have a definite anchor or concrete starting point–something you’ve committed fully to and plan to submit to someone else.

So, take this article as a challenge to get into the “committed” stage more quickly. Doing so will make your revisions more efficient and effective.

Applying the “Commit, Pause, Revise” Model to Your Productivity Habits

The commit, pause, revise model also has wider applicability. Here are some ways you can apply it to your academic productivity habits. Commit fully, on paper or using a digital tool to:

Then, after a pause, revise:

  • What about this doesn’t sound quite right or won’t work? Why?
  • If I commit to this, what else am I committing to?
  • If I commit to this, what am I saying no to?

Applying the “Commit, Pause, Revise” Model in your College Courses

Faculty are not the only ones who can benefit from the commit, pause, revise model. In fact, most of the research cited above was conducted to improve student learning outcomes. So, you might consider deliberately incorporating the commit, pause, revise model into your assignments and assessments. Here are some ideas:

  • On exams (especially multiple choice, true/false, fill-in-the-blank, etc.), revise your directions to encourage students to follow the commit, pause, revise model. If possible, use a bit of class time to present why committing first (instead of leaving the answer blank) might be a more effective exam strategy.
  • If possible, on low-stakes real-time quizzes and polling assignments (such as using Kahoot or clickers), require students to answer once. Before revealing the results give them the opportunity to revise their answer.
  • “Think-pair-share” activities lend themselves well to the commit, pause, revise model. To generate class discussion, pose a question. Then, require students to write their answer individually (“think”). After presenting their answer to a partner (“pair”), give students time to revise their initial answers, before sharing with the whole class (“share”). You can even add an additional layer of revision by asking students to write their own “final take” following the discussion.
  • Multi-step or scaffolded assignments (e.g. turning in a proposal, then a thesis statement, then a first draft, then a final paper) also lend themselves well to the commit, pause, revise model because they have commitment and pauses (for you to grade or assess) built-in. However, students often need a lot of guidance in revising. So, consider incorporating small reflection activities after students complete each project stage. Use the questions “what about this doesn’t/won’t work?” and “what about this doesn’t sound quite right?” to trigger insights.

Your Turn

How does the commit, pause, revise model change your view of academic writing, productivity, and teaching? Do you struggle to fully commit to your ideas in writing? Or, do you have any other assignment ideas that organically follow the commit, pause, revise model? Let me know in the comments below or by email.

As always, if you found any of the information above useful, someone else you know might, too! I’d be so grateful if you’d share this post with a friend, writing partner, or your campus’s research or teaching center.

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