Tasks of tomorrow…

Ms Maggi Gunn, Director of Mathematics

Each term, students return to my classes with renewed enthusiasm and the intention to improve on previous results. They plan to study daily, review past topics frequently and commence assignments when distributed. They carefully enter dates from assessment schedules into their diaries. However, while the intent to implement a conscientious approach to their study does not wane, the evidence of consistently appropriate academic behaviours is not always apparent.

While Migram, Batin and Mower (1993) acknowledge that a common form of academic procrastination is to delay until the last minute the submission of assignments or commencement of study for an exam, Kotler (2009, p99) recognises that procrastination can account for the ‘gap between intention and action’. Unsurprisingly, procrastination is not a new behaviour. The origin of the term procrastination derives from the Latin procrastinat meaning deferred until tomorrow — derived from pro meaning forward, and crastinus, belonging to tomorrow (Apple, 2005).

Of concern is the prevalence of academic procrastination. Research indicates that while 95 per cent of students are found to procrastinate occasionally (Ellis & Knaus, 1977), at least 50 per cent procrastinate with some regularity (Soloman & Rothblum, 1984). As an educator, I frequently observe the impacts of academic procrastination. Student stress escalates as deadlines approach. Attendance at Maths Help sessions increases as the term progresses and peaks just prior to exams. Students panic on mornings when assignments are due and printers fail. Students request permission to study in class when an exam is scheduled in the following period. It would seem intuitive that, in the majority of cases, procrastination acts contrary to the best interests of those involved.

In a 2009 study involving 200 students (Zarick & Stonebraker, 2009), only one student claimed to have never been negatively affected by procrastination, and one-third of the students reported that the quality of their submissions always or usually suffered. While students believe that procrastination predominantly affects the quality of assignments, academic staff believe the effects are also evident in exam results (Rothblum, Soloman & Murakami, 1986). Certainly, at the end of each term there are always a couple of students in my classes who seem to wish they had spent less time procrastinating and more time completing problems.

Of course, academic procrastination does not necessarily equate to doing nothing. The diversity of activities available at Brisbane Girls Grammar School provide ample opportunities for students to be productively engaged. Students who may delay commencing assignments or defer preparing for exams are often extremely busy in service endeavours or active in co-curricular spheres. Research has indicated that when faced with tasks that are difficult, challenging or stressful, procrastinators engage in activities that are less daunting and more pleasant, enjoyable or rewarding in the short term (Soloman & Rothblum, 1984; Pychyl, Lee, Thibodeau & Blunt, 2000).


In general, intrinsic reasons are negatively correlated with procrastination and extrinsic reasons are positively correlated with procrastination. Thus even students who consider classes and subject matter important for life goals will still procrastinate if they are not intrinsically interested in the learning material (Senecal, Koestner & Vallerand, 1995). With this in mind, identifying which subject’s homework is done first (and last) is an interesting exercise.

Unfortunately, identifying those who procrastinate is not simple. Tucker-Ladd (2006) identifies two types of procrastinators — those who are relaxed but may have negative feelings toward the task, and those who are anxious about pressure, ability or failure. While Soloman and Rothblum (1984) similarly identified ‘aversiveness of task’ and ‘fear of failure’ as the two predominant types of procrastinators, procrastination has also been linked to personality traits (Steel, 2007) and biological influences (Burka & Yuen, 2008). According to Wolters (2003), students who view tasks as difficult or time-consuming or who are unsure of their abilities to complete them with success, tend to procrastinate more. Further, DeWitte and Schouwenberg (2002, p471) believe that ‘procrastinators may have trouble appreciating the consequences that present choices have for the viability of remote goals. That is, they may underestimate the relevance of the present efforts for their final success’. Essentially, the further away the deadline, the more likelihood and opportunity there is for procrastination.

While the negative connotations of procrastination may be commonly accepted, Chu and Choi (2005) classify procrastinators as ‘passive procrastinators’ (as in the traditional sense described above) or ‘active procrastinators’ referring to those who are strategic in their time management and deferment of tasks. They suggest that procrastination can occur as a deliberate action with intended and desired outcomes. Although I encourage students to begin assignments immediately upon distribution and to initiate a comprehensive revision program early each term, for the most part I observe students delay these tasks and manage a variety of activities and achievements. For the majority of these students, reports and assignments are completed, deadlines are met and exams are passed, supporting research that suggests that some students are able to use procrastination as a tool to help them juggle multiple responsibilities (Sokolowska & Zusho, 2006).


Ferrari, O’Callaghan and Newbegin (2005) also subscribe to a deliberate approach to procrastination in referring to ‘arousal procrastinators’ who procrastinate for the thrill experience. Interestingly though, in a study using pagers to check on student behaviour, it was found that while students who procrastinate may defend this behaviour as a result of lack of creativity or the requirement of pressure to work, they do not later profess to be pleased about the decision to defer when working under deadline pressure (Pychyl et al., 2000). Certainly, the thrill component of ‘cramming’ is somewhat difficult to comprehend.

I would suggest that students who believe they strategically employ delaying tactics (procrastination) in strategic and beneficial ways for their academic pursuits should objectively analyse their procrastination habits and the effects of these habits on completion and results. In electing to maintain an ‘active procrastination’ approach they should continue to be observant of effects and outcomes. While there may be occasion whereby procrastination does not result in negative influence, and in fact aids completion and quality, it would be expected that for the majority of students and situations, procrastination is not beneficial and mitigation of the possible negative impacts are desirable.

As secondary school is the precursor to university and work-life, assisting students to limit or prevent procrastination is a measure of helping them to develop the skills required for career success (Ferrari & Scher, 2000). Unsurprisingly, self-regulation has been found to have a strong negative correlation to procrastination (Steel, 2007) and thus ‘self-regulated learning strategies such as planning and organising academic activities, using cognitive strategies to understand and remember materials taught, resisting distractions, participating in class, and structuring their environment so as to make it conducive to study’ preclude procrastination and are conducive to strong academic results (Tan, Ang, Klassen, Yeo, Wong & Huan, 2008). Further, Tuckman (2003) found that predisposition to avoidance strategies can be modified through learning and motivational strategies and knowledge of study skills. With the knowledge that internal deadlines are less effective than external deadlines (Ariely & Wertenbroch, 2002), it becomes important for students to abide by due dates and manage the pressures of a fast paced and full school life.

Unfortunately, as a self-confessed and serial ‘active procrastinator’ myself, I fully understand both the allure and effects of procrastination — the appeal of deferring tasks dependent on the proximity of deadlines, the satisfaction of juggling and achieving more and, at times, the frustration of wishing I’d started earlier.


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Published Thursday 6 March, 2014