May 7th, 2009

Why Students Procrastinate and What You Can Do About It


It’s no secret that undergraduates are especially prone to procrastination. A wide array of studies link procrastination to a lack of motivation, deficiencies in self-regulation, external locus of control, perfectionism, trait and state anxiety, fear of failure, low self-efficacy, and low self-confidence. But short of therapeutic intervention, is there anything teachers do control that influences how much students procrastinate in their courses?

Yes! Although it has been studied much less, some work has been done on identifying the characteristics of tasks or activities that impact the extent of procrastination. The excellent study cited below looks at “how instructors can structure their courses and assignments to minimize procrastination.” (p. 6)

These faculty researchers used an interesting study design to do so. Early in the semester, they asked students (almost 200 juniors and seniors) describe an important assignment they had completed the previous semester assignment and the amount of time they were given to complete it. The average amount of time was 6.5 weeks. Then students were asked how many days before the due date they started the assignment. The median response was three weeks. So, on average, these students used about half the available time to complete the assignment.
Based on previous research, the investigators identified 10 constructs related to procrastination that they operationalized as assignment-related variables. Among those 10 characteristics that made a difference in the extent of procrastination were the following:

Interest in the assignment — Low procrastinators reported more interest in the assignment than those in the high group. Investigators recommend using “real and realistic projects, assignments that develop practical professional skills, and projects chosen because of their personal relevance to students. . . .” (p.8) Later they propose giving students choices among assignments.

Skill variety — Assignments that require students to use a variety of skills were perceived as more interesting and therefore more effective at motivating students to begin work earlier.

Clarity of instructions — Interestingly, the perceived difficulty of the assignment did not emerge as one of the aspects of assignment design that affected motivation, but clarity of instructions did. If students were not confused about what was expected or what they needed to do in order to succeed, they were more motivated to get started.

Rewards and incentives — Students in this study got started earlier when there were rewards and incentives for doing so. These can include points, or simply encouraging written comments on work in progress.

Interdependence — Breaking large assignments down into interdependent parts and requiring completion of those parts got students working on larger assignments earlier and kept them working more consistently.

Social norms — If the teacher and other students set the norm for promptness and timely completion, those likely to procrastinate were less likely to do so. If norms that validate procrastination were established, they influenced even those not prone to procrastinate.

It’s easy to lay the procrastination problem on students and certainly they must own a big part of it. But this research indicates that professors are not powerless. There are ways assignments can be designed and courses structured that can decrease the amount of procrastination.

Reference: Ackerman, D. S. and Gross, B. L. (2005). My instructor made me to it: Task characteristics of procrastination. Journal of Marketing Education, 27 (1), 5-13.

Excerpted from Doing it the Night Before: Preventing Procrastination, The Teaching Professor, May 2005.

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11 comments on “Why Students Procrastinate and What You Can Do About It

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