November 15th, 2017

Examining the Unexamined: Why Do Students Procrastinate?

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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.


  • Stephanie Bullard Lancaster

    Interesting topic, especially in a time when there is so much anxiety and pressure for top performance (whether self-imposed or not) amongst our students. I think that fear of failure – however “failure” is defined by each individual – definitely plays a role, particularly in assignments that involve higher stakes like a culminating project at the end of a course. One thing I have found that helps with that is to provide an exemplar of what the finished product might look like, but in a one-off version to avoid thwarting creativity and original thought in my student. I sometimes even attempt to infuse a little humor in doing this. For example, if the assignment is to create a concept map based on the history of a profession, I might provide a concept map based on the history of pizza or of the TV show The Simpsons. I also think that having a lot (potentially too much) on one’s plate – again, whether that is self-imposed, self-perceived, or factual – contributes to waiting until closer to the due date to work on an assignment. As a doctoral student myself, I see this as strategic time management rather than procrastination.

    • Laura Shulman

      Stephanie, I agree with your last/second observation regarding “strategic time management” – putting off until later work that has a later due date.
      Though I disagree with you that “fear of failure” plays a role in procrastination for many students. For some yes (likely the “perfectionist” student who feels she always needs to get an A on everything), but I think lack of motivation is a more pressing issue. If the project just does not strike a student as interesting they are likely to delay getting started on it and then realize they do not have enough time to finish it or they present a product that is not well thought out and of low quality (a “half assed” job “slapped together” at the last minute).
      So, WHAT CAN WE DO to make projects more exciting and interesting for students so that they are more self-motivated (intrinsic motivation)? The promise of a grade (or threat of a poor grade in the course due to not doing a given project) does not seem to work for many students.
      Project directives may also contribute to procrastination. If our directions are either too vague or overwhelmingly complex, this will impact on students not getting started on the project in a more timely manner. So, WHAT CAN WE DO to write better directives that are neither too vague nor too complex and confusing for students?

      • Stephanie Bullard Lancaster

        Hi Laura,
        I think our contexts may be different and that’s why our perspectives differ on the “fear factor” issue. I teach in a graduate level healthcare degree program. Along with other high performance standards, the minimum GPA to apply to get in to the program is 3.2; only ~10% of those who apply are accepted. All that to say that in programs like this, emotions associated with fear of failure are much more commonplace than lack of motivation. I understand there are bound to be differences in different settings and situations but wanted to clarify the point I made earlier as I feel it stands as a solid reason for procrastination amongst many students in higher ed.
        In response to your question of what to do, my thought is to add some degree of personal relevance and agency into the equation. For example, in a course where students are learning about politics in Latin American countries, let students choose a topic under that umbrella to research and present or write a paper on. In one course I teach which involves healthcare interventions for people with neurological disorders, I have each student choose from a list of ways they can increase their understanding of life with one of the neuro conditions we study. Some students interview a patient, some read a biography, some watch a movie like Still Alice, some read a blog, and some read research articles. I feel this teaches them how to be self-directed and helps to motivate them as lifelong learners as well as supporting their learning on topics directly addressed in the course.

  • Laura Shulman

    I have dealt with student procrastination, especially in my distance learning classes. I have experimented with a variety of solutions to the problem. Some work better than others.
    Procrastination is a common human foible, not mainly just a problem with students. Due dates, I believe, are the most effective method of getting people to get things done. How many of us delay paying our bills until the due date? Why not pay when we get the bills and get it out of the way?
    I have found that due dates/deadlines have the biggest impact in reducing procrastination in students. I have had recommended due dates (submit a given assignment by this date to remain on target to finish all work by end of semester without having to cram) and absolute deadlines (must submit the given assignment by this date to avoid being withdrawn). When I have been more flexible with deadlines, most students took advantage of this and delayed submitting their work until the very latest deadline. When I advanced that latest deadline and added additional work due by the withdraw date, most students met the new (advanced) absolute deadline. I get the bulk of submissions on or near the stated due dates. Advance the due dates and most student will meet the new due date. Clearly they can get work done earlier when pressed by deadlines to do so.
    I have tried incentives for submitting work early as well as penalty for submitting work late and forgiveness of the penalty at the end of semester if they only have one late submission. Incentives did not seem to make a difference. Some students do only have one late submission but these may be students who would ordinarily not be late anyway, other students are consistently late with their work regardless of deadlines.