Examining the Unexamined: Why Do Students Procrastinate?

why do students procrastinate

“Even with years of teaching experience since then [grad school TA experience], there were still areas of my pedagogy that remained as they always had been—unexamined and essentially running on autopilot.” So writes Kevin Gannon in an excellent piece on redesigning his exams (Chronicle of Higher Education, March 6, 2017). I appreciate the honesty of his admission and suspect it resonates with many of us.

Teaching Professor Blog Some of what’s unexamined in the practice of many faculty are what seem like intractable problems—say cramming and procrastination. Students have procrastinated for decades—some of us did when we were students and a few (?) of us still do. It’s a perennial problem for anyone who teaches, there can’t possibly be a solution or someone would have come up with it by now. In fact, that was basically the conclusion of a colleague who wrote to me recently. “My students procrastinate. It compromises the quality of their work and diminishes what they learn, but I’ve come to accept it as a given.”

In response, I dug around in my collection of articles and revisited a study I hadn’t looked at in many years. Two marketing educators approached the procrastination problem from an entirely different and fully productive perspective. They wondered if there might be characteristics of the assignments themselves or details related to them that encouraged procrastination. They identified what those might be, put them in a survey, and asked students to think about an important assignment they had completed last semester. With the assignment in mind, students answered some general queries about procrastination (allowing researchers to establish a cohort of high and low procrastinators) and 30 questions about features of the assignment and details that surrounded it.

Here are the assignment features and details researchers thought might be related to procrastination (based in part on some previously published conceptual work): fear (worry that the student wasn’t going to do well on the assignment); norms (work on the assignment was started early/late by everyone else in the class); deadline pressure (lots of assignments due before this one); rewards (incentives for getting started early); interdependence (other work in the course couldn’t be done until the assignment or parts of it were finished); interest (assignment was something the student wanted to do); skill variety (assignment required a variety of skills); scope of the task (assignment was time consuming); difficulty (it was a hard assignment); clarity (did not understand assignment requirements); propensity to procrastinate (usually waiting until the last minute before starting assignments).

And did any of these discourage procrastination? Yes, not surprising, students procrastinated less when they thought the assignment was interesting. Think authentic assignments—ones that give students a chance to do work like that done in the discipline. Assignments that involved using a variety of skills also made students procrastinate less as did clearly understanding the assignment requirements. Incentives get students to start working as does having assignments connected to each other, or broken into units, so that the second part cannot be completed until the first part is done. And norms are influential. If everyone else is at work on the assignment, that engenders enough guilt to get others started.

If those features and details aren’t part of the assignment, those likely to procrastinate use them as excuses. It’s not an assignment they have any interest in doing. It’s a writing assignment that requires no other skills, and what the teacher wants isn’t clear. The assignment is due all at once and everybody appears to be putting off getting started.

Interestingly, for this cohort of marketing students, fear did not cause procrastination for either the high or low procrastinators. Students did not avoid working on the assignment because they were afraid they couldn’t do it. Having other deadlines didn’t cause procrastination either. One might assume students are used to deadlines and have learned to deal with them.

The study is 12 years old, but I’m not sure much has changed about procrastination and the assignment features and details likely still make a difference. Whether this particular list makes a difference for students working on assignments in your courses merits exploration. But the point I’d most like to drive home relates to those aspects of our teaching practices that we’re taking for granted, doing as we have done, assuming as we’ve always assumed. They merit our attention, not all at once, but at least on a semi-regular basis.

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