Some students struggle to understand algebra. Others have trouble remembering history. Others excel when tasked with group projects but find it a challenge to study consistently. While each student’s skill sets and strengths are unique, there’s one obstacle nearly all of them face: the tendency to procrastinate. In fact, you might be surprised (and dismayed) to learn how widespread this phenomenon really is.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), anywhere from “80 percent to 95 percent of college students procrastinate, particularly when it comes to doing their coursework.” Even at its conservative end, this estimate range is shocking, representing at absolute minimum four out of every five students in college.
At the opposite end of the APA’s range, that number rises to nine out of ten, affecting virtually all college students. Younger learners are also susceptible, with education company Magoosh reporting that 86 percent of high school students “procrastinate on assignments.” With so many students now learning remotely — and coping with more isolation and stress — these already alarming figures are likely to surge even higher.
Fortunately, procrastination doesn’t have to become a habit. Though the challenges facing young learners are great — especially during COVID-19 — there are numerous strategies students can use to manage their time more effectively. With guidance and support from their teachers, as well as their families and loved ones, overcoming procrastination is possible for any student. Read on to learn more about the causes — and consequences — of student procrastination, along with eight strategies online teachers can use to help prevent it.
Why Do Students Procrastinate?
As the data presented above makes clear, procrastination in school is common, impacting the vast majority of the college and K-12 student populations. What factors are driving these startling trends, and why are so many students affected? It’s a complex issue, with research suggesting that the causes of procrastination among students are as varied and diverse as the students themselves.
For instance, educators in the field of social psychology theorize that both “fear of failure” and “confusion about the first steps of an assignment” are two major drivers, suggesting that procrastination could be rooted in perfectionism, poor communication, or both. Contrary to the stereotypical image of procrastinators as lazy and unengaged, students procrastinate when putting off a meaningful task because they want to be in the right frame of mind to perform it well.
Another popular theory is that procrastination is fueled by indecision, where the fear of making errors creates a stifling sense of paralysis. This may explain the link between academic procrastination and anxiety among students, which we’ll explore further in the next section.
While perfectionism and fear of failure likely play major roles, other factors can also lead students to manage their time ineffectively. Depending on the student, other factors that may cause or contribute to procrastination include:
- Disengagement from the course or assignment
- Distractions and disruptions in the student’s learning environment, such as noise, clutter, video games, TV shows, or social media
- Fatigue or overwork
- Fear or anxiety around disappointing others or being judged negatively (also known as “evaluation anxiety”)
- Inadequate tools and resources, such as unclear instructions from teachers or having a spotty Wi-Fi connection at home
- Poor mental health or untreated mood disorders, which the CDC reports are becoming more prevalent in children and teens due to COVID-19
- Underdeveloped time management or organizational skills
What Are the Effects of Procrastination on Students’ Academic Performance?
Procrastination can take many forms, depending on situational context. However, at its core, it is the act of delaying one’s tasks. For students, that usually means putting off homework, studying, essays, or projects, often until the last possible moment. This typically translates to late, rushed, missing, or incomplete work — in turn, translating to lower grades.
Unfortunately, the effects of procrastination in school aren’t just limited to a student’s academic performance. When procrastination causes a student to receive poor grades or fail a course, he or she may become self-critical, demotivated, and disengaged. This can set the stage for poorer academic performance in the future, creating a vicious cycle from which it can seem difficult or impossible to escape.
And it isn’t only future academic performance that may suffer: long after graduation day, job performance can also be negatively impacted. If procrastination has become an ingrained habit by the time the student enters the workforce, he or she is likely to bring the same time management struggles into the workplace, potentially leading to demotions, disciplinary actions, or even termination — not to mention burnt professional bridges.
In addition to negative academic and professional impacts, procrastination can also have unwanted emotional consequences. As Psychology Today explains, procrastinating “creates stress by increasing [the] time pressure to get work done,” in turn, potentially leading to “fatigue, discomfort, burnout, [and] even breakdown.” It’s well-known that stress can trigger dozens of emotional, mental, and physical ailments, with negative effects ranging from anxiety and depression to insomnia and headaches.
For children and adolescents, whose coping skills are likely to be less developed than adults’, this can be particularly debilitating. Lacking other positive coping skills, adolescents may turn to cigarettes, alcohol or drug abuse for comfort, or withdraw from their friends and loved ones.
One German study from 2016, which analyzed more than 2,500 participants, even demonstrated that “procrastination was consistently associated with higher stress, more depression, anxiety, fatigue and reduced satisfaction across life domains, especially regarding work and income,” in addition to unemployment and lack of romantic partnerships. An Iranian study from 2011, which focused specifically on students, arrived at similar conclusions, with researchers noting, “Procrastination may produce important negative consequences such as anxiety and depression.”
8 Ways Teachers Can Help Online Students Stop Procrastinating
Even under normal conditions, procrastination poses a serious challenge for students. Under the added stress of COVID-19, which has pushed many classes online, the pressures on distance learners have grown even greater. Socially isolated, free from teacher supervision, and surrounded by distractions, online students are at high risk for procrastination — and all the negative effects that come with it.
The good news is that there are steps online educators can take to mitigate these risks and keep online students motivated. To help your remote students avoid the temptation to procrastinate, consider exploring the following tips and strategies:
- Be sure to provide clear instructions when assigning work, since confusion and ambiguity are major factors in causing procrastination.
- Clearly communicate your expectations to students’ parents or family members, who can help hold their children accountable at home.
- Encourage distance learners to practice these time management strategies for students, which are useful for adult and K-12 students alike.
- Emphasize to your students that you are available for video meetings or online chat sessions if they need help or have questions.
- Implement an online reward system so that students are disincentivized to put off their work until the last moment.
- Make a conscious effort to help motivate your online students by offering swift, supportive, and detailed feedback.
- Set reasonable deadlines for projects and assignments, so that students have sufficient time to master the skills they’ll need for success.
- Take steps to improve student engagement.
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