By Queena N. Lee-Chua
Philippine Daily Inquirer
6:05 pm, Sunday June 12, 2011
MANILA, Philippines – AS A TEACHER for more than 20 years now, I believe that the most common problem of students is not bullying, cheating or drug abuse. Those three are insidious, but procrastination may be the most prevalent. Procrastination has been in the Oxford English Dictionary since the mid-1500s.
Procrastination is so widespread in schools that the novelist Eliyahu Goldratt dubbed it “student syndrome” in his book “Critical Chain.” Students who suffer from this syndrome delay doing a task until right before deadline. They work on a paper just before it is due and, for lack of time, often resort to cutting and pasting passages from other sources, without proper attribution. They cut classes to print out their papers and, when something goes awry, blame the printer, the ink cartridge, even the dog.
Cramming is classic procrastination. A student we will call Ana failed a major test. She cried, “But I studied, I really did!” Yes, she did but this is how Ana and her friends tackled four chapters of more than a hundred pages. They listened to the lectures but did not take notes.
Thinking they understood the lessons, they did not open the textbook for a month. At 7 p.m. before the exam, they held a group study at Ana’s house.
“We did not sleep at all,” Ana wailed. “We studied for 12 hours straight, up to 7 a.m. the next morning.” They were shocked that they failed. I was shocked that they expected to ace the test given their poor study habits.
During the test, Ana said she remembered reading the terms the night before, but forgot the links between ideas. Human short-term memory can easily recall seven items, more or less. Tests cover more than seven things. Ana and her friends tried to force hundreds of ideas into their minds in a short time. They did not succeed. Nobody could.
For long tests, cramming does not work. Unless humans become robots with infinite memory and speedy processing, cramming never will.
What did Ana do to redeem herself? Under my strict guidance, she read her textbook every single day, a few pages at a time. She took notes and asked questions in class. A couple of days before the next exam, she reviewed the main ideas.
She did not have a group study session this time, because “we wasted time chatting about other things.” Instead of being panicky and stressed out, she was calm during the test. Not surprisingly, she got a well-deserved A.
What makes students procrastinate? Causes vary from anxiety, low self-esteem and depression to poor impulse control, self-defeating mentality, and even a defective prefrontal cortex.
But the most likely reason is most students overestimate their abilities to meet deadlines, and underestimate the time needed for reflection and understanding.
Ideally, students should be able to pace themselves, and not cram. But when I tell my students not to procrastinate, they only smile guiltily. Thus, I have decided to save my students from themselves, as much as possible.
I usually give them a timeline, asking them to submit smaller tasks at regular intervals, instead of one big chunk at once. For a term paper due at the end of a semester, I ask them to submit an outline by the end of June, a review of literature by July, a first draft by August, a second draft by September, and the final copy by October. I make suggestions and revisions, and expect each succeeding submission to be better than the last.
Some students are perfectionists. They will not continue a task unless they feel that everything is going fine (an impossibility in the academe and, I daresay, in the real world).
I once had a student who could not write beyond the first paragraph. He agonized over every single word and punctuation mark, so much so he could not write anything at all because “nothing was good enough.” I counseled him to relax, “just do it!” and to revise his work later.
As a new school year begins, the best resolution students can make is to beat procrastination, once and for all.
Here are some tips:
Make a deal with yourself to work on a task for 15-20 minutes. Once you get started, momentum kicks in and you will usually continue the work.
Minimize distractions. Surveys by Tim Pychyl, director of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Canada, show that the worst procrastinators are those distracted by e-mail, social networking, computer games. Shut them all off, he says. You can check them after you have finished your work.
Break down huge tasks into smaller pieces. Ana did well on the test by reading the book slowly, in chunks, steadily, every day, instead of trying to finish everything in one night.
Prioritize. Most students concentrate on subjects they like, and put off doing the homework they hate. This is the exact opposite of what achievers do. Good students focus their energies and time on difficult assignments first and, afterwards, devote their remaining resources to easier tasks. Since the latter is naturally pleasurable, students will not delay doing them.
Seek advice from teachers on difficult tasks. A student we will call Pedro did not submit any requirement. He asked me later on for “extra work” to raise his final grade. He said he “did not know how to do the homework.”
Unfortunately, he never consulted at all during the semester, so I had to tell him that, if he could not do regular assignments, there was no way he could understand the extra work, as it would be a lot more complex.
Contrast Pedro’s behavior with his classmate Pepe’s. Although Pepe also found the requirements challenging, he consulted me several times. He submitted an excellent project.
To students, teachers, parents and other readers, e-mail me how you overcame procrastination, or helped others do so. I will feature the most helpful suggestions in a future column.
Have a great school year!
E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.