Understanding Academic Procrastination
It's common, but not well understood.
Posted July 8, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
Procrastination is not an unfamiliar concept to students. Be it studying for a tough statistics mid-term, doing a boring and monotonous 2-hour transcription, or planning a daunting group project, students can often find solace in putting off doing tasks like these and find ways to disengage and browse cat videos on TikTok for hours. This type of procrastination is referred to as academic procrastination, as it’s related to putting off doing important things related to one’s coursework and schooling. I’ve invited my colleague and friend, Reza Feyzi Behnagh of the School of Education at SUNY, Albany, to write this post with me.
In the past two years and with the funding support from the National Science Foundation, Behnagh (a learning scientist) and Shaghayegh Sahebi, a computer scientist, together with their research team of graduate students, studied academic procrastination. (I have been a recent consultant.) They are looking at how students make plans, set goals, and break large projects into smaller chunks, how they go about studying and checking their progress, and whether and under what conditions they procrastinate.
To gain this understanding, they developed a mobile app (Proccoli) to help students plan and study for their coursework. Why Proccoli? Just like broccoli that kids avoid eating (or procrastinate eating until the end of their meal) while it is good for them, getting things done toward one’s goal might be unpleasant and daunting at first, but learning a cool concept, a nice grade, praise, or a degree or course to complete, make all the effort worth it. Their app is designed to help students set goals, break their goals into smaller chunks, keep track of their studies in a Pomodoro-style timer, and check out their progress in continuously updating charts.
The goal of the SUNY Albany team has been to model and understand academic procrastination in college-age students, how it happens and individual differences that affect it, and to be able to identify the ‘behavioral signature’ of academic procrastination, predict it, and ultimately to help students manage their emotions (e.g., anxiety, boredom) and get things done!
How do we understand academic procrastination? Unless students tell us what they are doing, how long, how often, and when they are studying (are they pulling an all-nighter the night of their exam? Are they preparing well in advance?), there is no way for us to know for sure. The app and data we are gathering through the app give us a unique perspective to understand under what circumstances and how students procrastinate.
In the past two years, a large group of graduate and undergraduate students have used the app (80-120 a semester), creating hundreds of goals and subgoals (1100 goals and 400 in the past semester), logging and reporting hundreds of hours of study time. Part of our analyses point to two distinct clusters of students showing different learning dynamics (Yao et al., 2021): One group that studied more frequently and consistently since early on after setting their goal and another cluster of students who studied infrequently twice or three times before their deadline. We plan to align these study patterns with students’ grades and see if either group is more successful and which could be characterized as procrastination, considering other factors. Another interesting finding was that students who reported that they usually study to get a good grade or avoid getting a bad grade (i.e., performance goal-orientation) studied less regularly and less consistently, and their study pace dropped much faster than those with the goal of learning as much as they can from their schoolwork.
Research showed that one of the main reasons for academic procrastination is all the aversive emotions one feels about a task, like a tough exam, a boring homework, a standardized exam that will determine one’s future entry to the university, etc. (see Ferrari, 2010 for a good understanding). Much research (e.g., Berking & Whitley, 2014; Eckert et al., 2016) looked at ways of managing these emotions so that the student can get started, stick to doing the task they have been avoiding, and as a result improve their self-efficacy – the belief and confidence that one is in control and is able to accomplish what they intend to do. In their study, the SUNY Albany team (and I) hope to implement several of the emotion regulation strategies shown to help acknowledge, tolerate, and manage negative emotions, so that we can see whether these strategies help students procrastinate less in their academic tasks and whether they help students start working on the tasks they’ve been avoiding.
Stay tune for our published results.
Declaration: This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1917949. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
Berking, M., & Whitley, B. (2014). Affect regulation training (ART). New York: Springer.
Eckert, M., Ebert, D. D., Lehr, D., Sieland, B., & Berking, M. (2016). Overcoming procrastination: Enhancing emotion regulation skills reduce procrastination. Learning and individual differences, 52, 10-18.
Ferrari, J.R. (2010). Still procrastinating? The no regrets guide to getting it done. New York: J Wiley & Sons.
Yao, M., Sahebi, S., Feyzi Behnagh, R., Bursali, S., & *Zhao, S. (2021). Temporal processes associating with procrastination dynamics. In I. Roll, D. McNamara, S. Sosnovsky, R. Luckin, & V. Dimitrova (Eds.), Artificial Intelligence in Education, AIED2021. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 12748 (pp. 459-471). Springer, Cham.
Proccoli Application: http://www.albany.edu/proccoli/