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Monday, June 6, 2016

The Waiting Game: Why Students Procrastinate and What To Do About It

From Learning & The Brain

By Kevin Kent
May 6, 2016



Ah, April, what a beautiful time of year! We have all heard the jingle: April showers bring May…test preparation?!

Yes, that’s right, it’s that time of year again for students and teachers in high schools and colleges across the country. To help students prepare for the end of year and semester exams, instructors assign review packets, create practice tests, and recap many of the key concepts from the year.


For students, it’s one of the last academic commitments before their two-month long summer vacation. Many are anxious to perform well and validate their hard work from the academic year.

Enter procrastination (cue ominous orchestral music): students begin to engage in habitual avoidance behaviors, to the disapproval of their teachers. As a result, some students have trouble budgeting their study time, attending after-school extra help or office hours, and spending far less time than they originally intended to spend on their studying.


This behavior is often bound up in a surfeit of emotions and confusion, leaving students wondering what to tackle first. Although procrastination is often seen as a negative phenomenon, some students report that it helps their academic performance.

We are all familiar with this phenomenon but what do we do about it? Why do students procrastinate in the first place? What can teachers, students, and parents do to help curb this and get students back on track?

The Basics

Procrastination, delaying the completion of an intended task, is a widespread phenomenon, with 80-95% of college students reporting that they engage in the behavior. (1) It has been found to be associated with a variety of cognitive, behavioral, and emotional characteristics (2) including fear of failure (3), anxiety (2), and task aversiveness, or the avoidance of a particular type of activity. (3)


In order to manage these uncomfortable feelings and task demands, students employ a range of coping strategies. Much of the recent research on procrastination underscores the importance of thinking about procrastination as being related to more than just a lack of time management skills.

In one study, procrastination was correlated with both short-term benefits such as reduced stress and long-term drawbacks such as higher levels of stress later in the semester and lower quality academic work (4). Even when considering the short-term positive effects of procrastination early in the semester, the total effect of procrastination across the semester was negative.


Interestingly, some research suggests that procrastination may increase the further students advance in college! (5)

Benefits of Procrastination?

As alluded to above, procrastination is often perceived as a negative and unitary phenomenon: all students who delay starting tasks hurt their academic performance, whether it be tests, homework assignments or other school-related responsibilities. However, some research suggests that this story many be more nuanced.

In their model of academic procrastination, Gregory Schraw and colleagues (6) identified various adaptive aspects of procrastination, in addition to the maladaptive characteristics that many are familiar with. In their interviews some students reported that they needed the time pressure associated with procrastination in order to reach what researchers call a state of “flow” (7),or the engaged experience commonly referred to as being “in the zone”.


As opposed to more passive procrastinators, these “active” procrastinators may deliberately delay beginning an assignment because they work more efficiently under pressure.8 Some evidence suggests that active procrastination is associated with less stress and higher grades, as compared to passive procrastination. (8)

However, other research has failed to find replicate this type of result, muddling our understanding of this relationship. (9)

Should teachers let students who claim to benefit from delaying assignments continue to procrastinate?

The answer to this question isn’t completely clear and other researchers have argued against the notion that procrastination is beneficial for learning. In a 2015 meta-analysis (10), researchers Kyung Ryung Kim and Eun Hee Seo found an overall negative association between procrastination and learning across 33 studies. While it’s safe to say that some students believe that there are positive benefits of procrastination, the important question is whether they would be better off not procrastinating.


This research does highlight the importance of thinking about the reasons why students are procrastinating, how they cope with stress, and if they usually succeed under conditions of procrastination. As with many issues in the classroom, understanding individual students is key. In order to begin addressing the complexities of procrastination in the classroom, consider the following strategies:

Cultivate student interest. In a qualitative study of college students’ procrastination behaviors, Schraw, Wadkins, and Olafson (6) found that many students attributed their procrastination to being bored. The researchers speculated that these students may have procrastinated to make the assignment more exciting or thrilling, under the pressure of a near deadline. For students who seem to fit this profile, try to think of ways to make the assignment more relevant and authentic.

Break down a task into more frequent deadlines. The theory of temporal discounting (as mentioned in a previous post on rewards) says that people are more influenced by immediately available incentives and may not act if the costs or benefits are too far in the future (11), a theory that researchers have tied to procrastination.

In order to make the incentives more immediate try to break down the task into smaller chunks and communicate and enforce clear expectations for the completion of those sub-tasks. (6) It may also be helpful to talk about the interdependence of the tasks, or how each tasks fits into the larger assignment. (12)

Encourage students to choose productive environments. It may be useful for students to reflect on the contexts where they are most productive and least distracted and commit in advance to a certain plan. (11) Anticipating conflicts before they arise and avoiding certain environments could make it easier to exercise the self-control they need to maintain a consistent study schedule. (1, 12)

Address the cognitive distortions. One of the leading experts in procrastination research, Joseph Ferrari and colleagues, developed an intervention (13) that attempts to reduce procrastination by having students in a group setting reflect on their behavior and coping styles, identify unhealthy or unrealistic thinking patterns, and discuss reasons why it is important to alter their behavior and consider other ways of dealing with procrastination.

Coming up with similar activities for your classroom may be useful in addressing some of the underlying reasons why your students are procrastinating.

Other Helpful Resources

The Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canda has a website that lists recent research on procrastination, useful strategies, and other articles on the topic. Dr. Joseph Ferrari, the expert mentioned above, has also written a book on procrastination, for those who want to learn more!


References and Further Reading
  1. Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological bulletin, 133(1), 65. [Paper]
  2. Solomon, L. J., & Rothblum, E. D. (1984). Academic procrastination: Frequency and cognitive-behavioral correlates. Journal of counseling psychology, 31(4), 503. [Paper]
  3. Ferrari, J. R., & Tice, D. M. (2000). Procrastination as a self-handicap for men and women: A task-avoidance strategy in a laboratory setting. Journal of Research in personality, 34(1), 73-83. [Paper]
  4. Tice, D. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (1997). Longitudinal study of procrastination, performance, stress, and health: The costs and benefits of dawdling. Psychological science, 454-458. [Paper]
  5. Ferrari, J. R. (1991). Self-handicapping by procrastinators: Protecting self-esteem, social-esteem, or both?. Journal of Research in Personality, 25(3), 245-261. [Paper]
  6. Schraw, G., Wadkins, T., & Olafson, L. (2007). Doing the things we do: A grounded theory of academic procrastination. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(1), 12. [Paper]
  7. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Collins. [Book]
  8. Chun Chu, A. H., & Choi, J. N. (2005). Rethinking procrastination: Positive effects of” active” procrastination behavior on attitudes and performance.The Journal of Social Psychology, 145(3), 245-264. [Paper]
  9. Lee, E. (2005). The relationship of motivation and flow experience to academic procrastination in university students. The Journal of Genetic Psychology, 166(1), 5-15. [Paper]
  10. Kim, K. R., & Seo, E. H. (2015). The relationship between procrastination and academic performance: A meta-analysis. Personality and Individual Differences, 82, 26-33. [Paper]
  11. Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control by precommitment. Psychological Science, 13(3), 219-224. [Paper]
  12. Tuckman, B. W., & Schouwenburg, H. C. (2004). Behavioral Interventions for Reducing Procrastination Among University Students. In Schouwenburg, H. C., Lay, C. H., Pychyl, T. A., & Ferrari, J. R. Counseling the procrastinator in academic settings (91-103). American Psychological Associtation. [Chapter]
  13. Ozer, B. U., Demir, A., & Ferrari, J. R. (2013). Reducing academic procrastination through a group treatment program: A pilot study. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 31(3), 127-135. [Paper]

Urban, Tim. Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator. [Ted Talk]
The Procrastination Research Group, Carleton University. [Link]
Ferrari, J. R. (2010). Still procrastinating: The no regrets guide to getting it done. John Wiley & Sons. [Book]


About Kevin Kent
Research Specialist at Arizona State University

Kent is a researcher in the Science of Learning and Educational Technology lab at Arizona State University’s Institute for the Science of Teaching and Learning. In 2015, he earned his Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Mind, Brain, and Education. Diagnosed with a reading disability in the 8th grade, he is particularly interested in research at the intersection of cognitive science, reading, and technology. As a former high school mathematics teacher he is passionate about conducting research that is relevant for K-12 and college classrooms.

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