Recently, Jerry Nelms posted a very interesting comment on procrastination to the WPA listserv. In it, he reviewed some research on procrastination and recommended Eric Jaffe's "Why Wait? The Science Behind Procrastination," published in Observer 26.4 (April 2013).
I expect as many teachers procrastinate as do students. I am certainly not a procrastinator (described in the literature as people who chronically put things off even though they know doing so is harmful). But I have had my moments: I vividly remember having an assignment to review Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations shortly after it came out. I was still in graduate school and awed at the opportunity to review a work I greatly admired. In fact, I felt intimidated, and these feelings led me to put off and put off and put off. Eventually, I recall giving myself a stern talking-to and deciding that I would not allow myself to do a single thing until I had written five pages of the review. It took me more than eight hours and I was sweating it all the way through, but I sat at the typewriter until I had those pages.
In his WPA listserv post, Jerry points out that he sees students procrastinate out of such intimidation, or out of fear that they won’t do a good enough job. These students may not be “official” procrastinators—the twenty-some percent of us who are chronic procrastinators—but even occasional procrastination in high-stakes circumstances can be a serious challenge. In J. R. Ferrari’s Still Procrastinating? The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done (2010), he recommends several ways to combat procrastination, including offering rewards for those who get things done early rather than punishments for those who are late. He uses the tax deadline as an example, saying that even procrastinators might get their taxes in early if they had a financial incentive. This strikes me as a sensible idea that could easily be adapted to the classroom: for major assignments, students could get a bonus of some kind for early submission. Better yet, individuals could offer themselves an incentive: a special treat if they get the assignment done ahead of time.
In his post, Jerry Nelms recommends putting the topic of procrastination front and center in the classroom, talking through some of the research on it, pointing out that chronic procrastinators often don’t do nearly as well on assignments as their non-procrastinating peers, and asking students to join in conversation about their own putting-it-off habits, and how to overcome them. When my students are working on a major project, we almost always break it into smaller parts or tasks, so that the deadlines are less intimidating and hence easier to meet. In addition, I ask students to make a term calendar, working backwards from the due dates of all their assignments (we try for all classes) and then figuring out when the assignment needs to be started in order to get it in on time (or earlier). Many students keep electronic calendars, though I still see a good number who like to hold onto a paper copy—or who keep both an electronic and a paper calendar. I first started keeping such a calendar in my first year of college: my week-at-a-glance book was always with me, and it served me very well. The transition from high school to college, where students must take charge of their own time, is a difficult one for many, as it was for me. An assignment calendar can help!
Research shows that for chronic procrastinators counseling can be valuable, and such help is usually available on college campuses. But most conclude that in the long run, dealing with procrastination is a matter of failing to self-regulate. That’s something most people can do a little work on, and it’s worth discussing with our students.