Unproductive Student Behaviors- PROCRASTINATION

Today’s post on procrastination is the second in a series on unproductive student behaviors. It’s depressing to see students making poor decisions about learning.  They don’t come to class, or come unprepared. They miss deadlines and make excuses. Teachers may try to discourage these behaviors with policies that punish the offenses: deducting points or not accepting late work. Are these our only options? Are they optimal? Policies outlining the consequences may seem proactive, but aren’t they really reactive? We believe students will behave a certain way, our policies are responses to those beliefs.  Instead of policies that react, I’d like to focus on practices that prevent or limit unproductive behaviors.  What can faculty do to be more proactive in helping students become more productive learners? Today we’ll focus on what faculty can do to help students manage their time better and minimize the temptation to procrastinate.

Fortunately, a lot has been written on the subject. I’ve selected two pieces to structure this discussion. These papers helped me think more carefully about the causes of procrastination and implement preventive measures in my courses.

Gobbo & Shmulsky (1999) discuss the role perfectionism plays in submitting written work. They provide practical strategies that can be applied in a variety of settings and contexts:

  1. Emphasize process over product
  2. Help students set realistic goals for themselves
  3. Have students begin an assignment as an extension of classroom work
  4. Identify learning objectives that stress development and give students time to reflect on their progress in meeting those objectives

I am particularly fond of #1 & #3.  It’s easy for students to get so focused on the deliverable that they forget the process of creating it is where the learning takes place.  Learning is hard and messy.  Developing projects, writing papers, and working through analyses are bumpy and uneven processes.  Students need reminders and encouragement about the challenges of learning. This way, when the going gets rough they are not as surprised and this should minimize procrastination related to “This shouldn’t be this difficult.  I won’t be able to complete this…” To help students get started on a major project, I schedule some class time for them to begin the work.  I weave through the room answering questions, asking about their ideas, encouraging them and giving advice.  By the end of the session, most have a good idea of what needs to be done and how to accomplish it. This reduces procrastination related to “I don’t know where to begin!” or “I don’t really understand this assignment so I’ll start it later…”

Paden & Stell (1997) consider the task characteristics that promote or discourage procrastination. They find:

  1. Assignments that are perceived as interesting are associated with less procrastination (authentic assessments, practical/applied work).
  2. Assignments that require a greater variety of skills motivate students to start earlier.
  3. Unambiguous instructions reduce fear about starting an assignment.
  4. Rewards/incentives for an early start reduce procrastination.
  5. Building interdependence (breaking assignments down into smaller, interdependent parts) reduces procrastination.
  6. Social norms (students or teacher driven) were found to have a major impact on procrastination.
  7. Difficulty and time consumption were NOT associated with procrastination.
  8. Surprisingly, other deadlines didn’t help, suggesting teachers should help students plan their work for the term.
  9. Reminders were seen as helpful, not as nagging.

I strive to incorporate several of Paden & Stell’s suggestions.  In economics, I ask students to analyze a market that interests them. Students have remarked that analyzing a market related to a hobby, skill or interest made the assignment more interesting and revealed aspects of their interest they had not considered before.  The advantage for me is that instead of dozens of papers on smart phones, I’ve read interesting analyses on wine, guns, equine and bovine medicines, cheese, and sports equipment.

In accounting, building interdependence is a natural fit with the discipline.  In order to complete the accounting cycle, students must first understand the accounting equation’s components.  Then the rules of DR & CR.  Then how to record entries, adjustments, postings and trial balances, etc.  Each step builds on the prior work which facilitates learning in chunks.  But ultimately, all the pieces are put together into a package a “real” accountant would produce.  When the students realize the chunks are actually blocks that have built a small structure, they have a good idea of how accounting hangs together.  By chunking the content, students are able to diagnose the early snags and clear them up which reduces procrastination related to “I’m so confused, I’ll just wait with this assignment and hope I’ll understand it better soon.”

In addition to employing ideas from the literature, I’m a big supporter of having conversations with students about learning. The first few minutes of each class are generally devoted to pleasantries, current events and questions like: How do you manage your time?

Do you have these kinds of conversations with students? Have you shared your time management strategies with them? Could students share their experiences with successful and not-so-successful time management strategies? Do you provide a course calendar or outline that indicates start dates in addition to deadlines? Have you asked your students what would help them get their work done on time and with less procrastination?

Procrastination is a problem for students and faculty. While it can’t be eliminated, there are practices that students and teachers can implement to minimize it. Please share your strategies for helping students manage time and minimize procrastination. The next post in this series will consider a by-product of procrastination: missed deadlines and lame excuses.


Gobbo, K. & Shmulsky, S. 1999. Helping Students Manage Perfectionism and Procrastination. College Teaching, 47(4): 148.

Paden, Nita, and Roxanne Stell. 1997. Reducing procrastination through assignment and course design. Marketing Education Review 7 (Sum- mer): 17-25.



About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on April 27, 2015, in Learning, Students, Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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