Procrastination: The Ultimate Inhibitor to Student Success

This essay, written in the spring of 2013, examines some factors related to student motivation. Its author approaches the subject in a somewhat distant, academic tone, and uses psychological research to argue for what might be done to address the problem. ~ Ayers

The students sat down side by side at the table, facing the man in a full suit. To a bystander, it may have looked like an important business meeting. While it wasn’t business related, this event was certainly important; it was a potential Kennedy principal candidate sitting down and answering questions asked by current Kennedy students. They went one by one down the table asking questions whose answers would help them learn more about the man, whether it be his personality, his ideas towards education, or his values.

“What would your top three priorities be if you were named principal of Kennedy?” a student asked. Without hesitation, the man answered, “Safety, a positive learning environment, and most importantly, student improvement.” This may have sounded strange considering that Kennedy High School was just named the top high school in the state. He continued, “Kennedy is a great school with great programs and great academic success, but no matter what there’s always room for improvement, and that’s the mindset that I feel is necessary from a principal.”

He spoke passionately and with certainty when he detailed his feelings toward the concept of “improvement.” He understood that some students operate at a very high level, while others might require more help to reach their full potential. He was well aware of Kennedy’s prestige academically, but also knew that in any circumstance there are ways to get the most out of students. After finishing the questions, the students on the panel went into another room and filled out a form that gave them the opportunity to give their impressions of the candidate.

There were many aspects of the interview that could have stood out most, and for me, it was without question his response regarding improvement. In the end, my experience with the principal only reaffirmed beliefs that I had previously held: that not only low student achievement is an important issue in today’s academic climate, but that we can reverse the effects of this climate with a change in some of our traditional practices. While multiple factors can play a role in students performing below their best, the most important factor is procrastination.

Over the course of my research, I’ve found quite a few experiments that offer evidence to identify important factors that might play a role in students underachieving, whether it’s in middle school, high school, or all the way until college. In the book Predictably Irrational, the author, renowned psychologist Dan Ariely, talks about a number of experiments he performed that helped explain the rationale behind our decisions. I thought that one experiment fit extremely well with the topic of student performance, and Ariely tested for a particular phenomenon: procrastination. In his own classroom at MIT, Ariely wanted to see just how self-motivated his students would be if they had the freedom to choose when they turned in assignments. What he found was that generally, students’ lack of self-control leads to putting off, or procrastinating, on school work, and not only turning in work later than intended, but also turning in work that is of lower quality than of those working on strict deadlines (Ariely and Wertenbrach 145).

Certainly, anyone finds themself in the school setting can see just how prevalent this behavior is. This behavior is commonplace at Kennedy, as well as high schools around the nation, with students delaying their work until right before deadlines, and a lower quality product coming as a result. If you spent a day at Kennedy for instance, you would find students that have mindsets that revolve around putting in the minimal effort with the max reward. One aspect of the minimal effort is how long they can go without doing the work necessary to gain the reward. Students put off long term assignments until the day before it’s due, or even short terms assignments until late at night, only hours before it should be turned in.

It’s no wonder that high school students procrastinate; they’ve been given no reason not to. One point that Ariely made at a TED convention in 2008 is that in circumstances where people have limited self-control, like with students battling low levels of motivation, behavior can become predictable. The lack of discipline, without any consequences, only reinforces the notion that students can “get by” with much less work and time spent, and a moderately acceptable grade in the end. As this process repeats itself, the low grades become more and more acceptable, and Ariely’s findings hold true. When students procrastinate and don’t balance their time, the quality of their work suffers.

It’s easy to define procrastination and say that psychologically, its effects could be particularly impactful. A skeptic must still ask the question, what exactly comes as a result of a student putting off an assignment or cramming for a test? Well experiments at the University of Alberta in Canada as well as at the Singapore Institute of Education brought results that provided strong answers to those questions. After developing two separate experiments that were duplicated at each location, a clear conclusion could be taken from the results of each. In study one, there seemed to be a clear correlation to between motivation and procrastination. After completing a series of tests that categorized motivation levels, students that tested lower were found to be more likely to procrastinate. In study two, the hypothesis was proven correct that procrastination led to a lower quality relative to students’ potential, specifically when it came to written works (Klassen et al 366).

If the prevalence of procrastination is accepted, the next step would be to decide whether there are ways to fix this problem, which I believe there are. The first step, however, would be to identify why this type of problem could become so commonplace.

Once more, Ariely provides valuable insight as to why procrastination might be so common in schools today. Psychologically, he says, our constant desire is for instant gratification; it’s all about the now (Ariely 147). We don’t want to concern ourselves with what might benefit us down the road. Instead, we do what makes us feel good at this moment. This works as clear justification for procrastination. It’s much more difficult to sit down and do an assignment that isn’t do for a couple more days. In the short term, it might be easier to come home and play video games instead of doing homework. What students fail to realize is the reward what may come from getting work done early or on time, particularly a general higher quality of work.

Rustu Yesil, a professor at the University of Ahi Evran in Turkey, also designed an experiment that focused on the main reasons why students chose to procrastinate. What he found was just as meaningful, if not more so, than Ariely’s findings, but in a different way. He gave students a survey that asked them to rate on a scale of 0 to 5 how much they would put off an assignment based on various situations. Yesil had each of his scenarios divided into numerous different categories, and found three that were most prevalent in inducing the highest levels of procrastination. First, was educational approach and practice, second was externally-focused control, and third was internally-focused control (Yesil 264). This information can be extremely valuable when the potential solution to procrastination are considered. Educational practice and approach essentially means that students aren’t getting what they need to from what they’re being taught. The second and third most prevalent factors deal with self-control, which clearly can be seen as an issue among high school students.

Let’s take a look at what we know. We know that procrastination, as an inhibitor to student achievement, is prevalent. We know that it has a number of negative effects. And we know a few reasons why it may be as prevalent as it is. With this knowledge, the last item to talk about is this: all hope isn’t lost. The ship hasn’t sailed on students who aren’t reaching their full potential because they like to put off assignments. There are many ways that changes can be made to benefit students, and they really aren’t all that far reaching.

John Guthrie and Susan Klauda are both professors at the University of Maryland, and they worked together to write an article in Education Leadership Magazine. In the article they identified five different practices geared toward the root cause that I identified previously, educational practice and approach. As professors, they used their knowledge and understanding of student behavior to explain how a serious problem is that students aren’t finding textbooks meaningful. This makes assignments more difficult, and procrastination a very real possibility. But they, too, don’t think hope is lost. Any of the following can help reduce the effects of procrastination among students: dedication to schoolwork, building on students’ self-efficacy, explain why information is meaningful, more social interactions between students, and students’ freedom of choice (Guthrie and Klauda 65).

Any of these options are not only plausible, but have the clear potential to be effective. In school today, too often we’re faced with a textbook, and assignment, and an empty classroom. We don’t interact with other students on important information, which makes it difficult to find that information meaningful. When it’s time to go home and do an assignment, procrastination would occur less and less if students understand its importance. In the end, that’s what a majority of the potential solutions are geared towards: making education meaningful for students.

Another potential solution is goal-setting. As Ariely said, often times it’s difficult to find the value in the long term as opposed to the right now. Goal setting in school forces students to look beyond immediate benefits, and make sure that they maintain a path of high academic success, which comes as a result of a high, timely work rate. A number of factors, like pressure to succeed, can lead to students underachieving in school.  What allows goal setting to be effective is its strong effect on metacognition, or a student’s ability to learn and gain knowledge by providing meaning to those that may struggle to find it in their schoolwork, making them susceptible to procrastination (Morisano and Shore 253).

Lastly, Dan Ariely offers a solution that is much easier than you might think, and it’s surprising that more people don’t apply this method to rid themselves of bad habits. In an interview with ThinkBig.com, Ariely begins by again talking about our narrow-minded focus on the now; our lack of looking forward to potential long-term benefits that come as a result of not procrastinating. His solution is simple: find ways to reward yourself for not letting yourself fall victim to the non-desirable behavior. If an association can be made between something positive, like a reward, and constructive behavior, like getting work done early, procrastination can be greatly diminished. This solution is by far the easiest to incorporate into students’ study habits, because it doesn’t require any drastic changes to be made.

A combination of powerful research and personal experience leads me to be completely certain on the prevalence of procrastination, and just how harmful it can be to student achievement. While its prevalence is clear, there are also a number of ways that we can make efforts to reverse the increasing amount of students that fall short as a result of this procrastination. If any of these methods of change can be implemented, then student potential will have a much higher chance of being met, and student achievement will begin to increase drastically.

Works Cited

Ariely, Dan, and Klaus Wertenbroch. Procrastination, Deadlines and PerformanceMIT. N.p., n.d. Web.

Ariely, Dan. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2008. Print.

Ariely, Dan. TEDxWoodsHole – Dan Ariely – Temptations and Self-Control. 2008. Video. YouTube.comWeb. 20 May 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xX-iXR_0uEU&gt;.

The Secret to Kicking Procrastination: Reward Yourself. Perf. Dan Ariely. Big Think. N.p., 29 June 2009. Web. 20 May 2013.

Guthrie, John, and Susan Klauda. “Making Textbook Reading Meaningful.” Educational Leadership 69.6 (2012): 64-68.

Klassen, Robert, Rebecca Ang, Wan Har Chong, and Lindsey Krawchuk. “Academic Procrastination in Two Settings: Motivation Correlates, Behavioral Patterns, and Negative Impact of Procrastination in Canada and Singapore.” Academic Procrastination in Two S… Preview & Related Info. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2013.

Morisano, Dominique, and Bruce Shore. “Can Personal Goal Setting Tap the Potential of the Gifted Underachiever?” Roeper Review 32.4 (2010): 249-58.

Yesil, Rustu. “VALIDITY AND RELIABILITY STUDIES ON THE SCALE OF THE REASONS FOR ACADEMIC PROCRASTINATION.” Education 133.2 (n.d.): 259-74. Web.

 

 

 

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