Published on 2012/03/02

Why Students Procrastinate: Inducing Continuous Learning In A Task-Oriented Society

Why Students Procrastinate: Inducing Continuous Learning In A Task-Oriented Society
Unless educators can change the way their students understand their work, procrastination will be endemic. Photo illustration by

Everyone knows that students procrastinate. They do not study regularly during the semester, opting to cram for exams instead. But we know that Instructors procrastinate as well. Those pesky forms, reports, and, most of all, those grades are due at the most inconvenient times! Why do people procrastinate? First, we need to acknowledge that procrastination is normal, even beneficial. From a biological standpoint, any immediately unnecessary task that is not directly related to survival is something that can (and should be) relegated to a lower priority. The key concept here is here is task. When we perceive something as a mere task, a bothersome necessity, we put it off.

Hence, the trick to inducing the desired learning behavior is to switch students’ modality from task orientation to opportunity/learning orientation. This is actually more difficult than Instructors are likely to think. One of the main reasons for this difficulty stems from the ethos developed by higher education itself. Gone are the days when higher education was considered a privilege and therefore a challenge that one needed to live up to. Just look at any ads on TV or the Internet. Higher education is now a right, not a privilege, and a consists simply of a series of tasks that you can easily complete in your spare time. You’ll be on that graduation stage before you know it! Just walk through our program.

How can Instructors try to correct this situation? First, reorient students’ thinking toward work. In my on-ground teaching days, I simply gave them notice: “This course is for those of you who really want to learn the material. It is not a walk-through course. It will demand a lot of your time. The grading will not be harsh, but it will not be easy. It will be just and fair.” Typically, I would get a 20% drop rate the next day. I don’t think this is counterproductive; it just helps put students back in contact with the reality that the higher education advertising establishment has distorted. Second, describe the course as an opportunity for “deep learning.”  Deep learning, according to educational theory, is learning at multiple levels and includes the ability to apply course knowledge to previous courses, future courses, and the student’s individual life goals. Third, make it clear that you will provide the tools for students to succeed. These tools include might daily quizzes, guided reading worksheets, lectures, and review sessions — tools that induce continuous learning. Admittedly, some students may still regard the course as a task (necessary evil) rather than a learning opportunity (career and life preparation). In any case, I think it wise to emphasize that continuous learning makes mastering the material easier.

These days, hybrid and online learning tools make it much easier to provide systems for continuous learning. One such tool is the Mastery Learning Model (MLM). For example, in a course I recently designed, we had 30 questions per week, of which students were given 10 at random in a timed, online quiz. Students could take the quiz as often as they wished, having the highest grade count. A further enhancement is to allow students to receive full credit (100%) when they get above a certain score (say, 85%). Most Learning Management Systems allow Instructors to set up a MLM environment. The MLM model takes the pressure off quiz-taking and also encourages multiple, continuously repeated attempts at learning the objective components of the course material. It therefore makes procrastination less likely.

Many students think that there is a trick or secret code for passing courses. They also fear failure and resent having to do the work when so much has been promised for so little effort. In fact, in most courses, it’s simply a matter of doing the work day by day. By taking some of the fear away, being honest with students about work, replacing “task” with “opportunity,” and laying out an action plan for their success, we can help reduce procrastination.

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Readers Comments

Phil Maurice 2012/03/02 at 1:25 pm

Coming from a higher education teaching background, let me say this: Students procrastinate because they couldn’t care less about their education.


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