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Procrastination: A Top Problem for Students

Psychologist Piers Steel estimates that “80-90% of college (university) students engage in procrastination, approximately 75% consider themselves procrastinators, and almost 50% procrastinate consistently and problematically”. College students are that way because they’ve had plenty of time to develop habits of procrastination. You can make a big difference in students’ lives by tackling their tendencies to procrastinate early on. The most fundamental reason, for procrastination, is that when people think about something to don’t like/don’t want to do, it activates feelings of pain in the insular cortex – a part of the brain that processes pain signals. This feelings make people want to think about something – anything – else. Avoidance works like a charm in taking away the pain of the moment. But the problem is, he’s just procrastinating. There’ll be long-term pain to pay – like stressing out at midnight only to perform poorly on a test or produce an assignment below your potential.

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Neuroscience reveals that the “common-sense” (and thus suspect!) motivational approach of just making learning more fun can backfire. Great teachers help students work through the more challenging aspects of what they are learning by providing intermediate incentives making the rewards seem more immediate and the day-by-day outcomes worthwhile. Ultimately, students can catch sight of the promised land – a sense of what it’s like to have mastered the material. The inspiration and motivation excellent teaching can unleash is not, at least as yet something we can put into a bottle.


Often students do not understand what is required of them by reading rubrics alone.
It’s helpful to discuss and show examples of the specific criteria you are assessing before students get to work.

  • Give each student a copy of a mediocre sample essay or project like the assignment they’ll be competing in your class.
  • Pair students with a classmate to reconcile their rubrics. Conduct a whole-class discussion of students’ general impressions
  • Show students the ratings you would give that same assignment and discuss

Things to avoid. Too often, teachers assign writing by reading the prompt aloud to students and asking if they have any questions. Students in their confusion results in no thought of raising a hand to ask a question.

With no question to answer, teachers falsely assume students know what to do and move on to the next unit.

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Italian Francesco Cirillo developed this approach during the 1980s. The Pomodoro Technique is straightforward. When a task is important but tempting to put off, all that students (and you) need to do is:
1. Put away or turn off all distractions – especially smartphone notifications.
2. Set a time for 25 minutes and focus as intently as possible on the task during those 25 minutes.
3. Relax mentally for five minutes.
4. Repeat as needed. Take a half-hour break after the third or fourth Pomodoro.
How students handle a relaxation break is particularly important. If they use the break to grab their cell phone and catch up on messages and social media, this focused intrusion can overwrite what they’ve just gotten into their hippocampus instead of allowing their hippocampi to offload.
Staying on a challenging task is another common struggle for many students. Return to those students as the work gets more challenging to check on their progress. Then assist as needed.
Teachers can help students set daily goals to be accomplished at home or during study halls leading up to the project’s due date. Working one-on-one or in small groups at the very beginning can get those students on the right track.


I procrastinate. You procrastinate. We all procrastinate – especially students. Knowing how to get started can be a stumbling block for some students.
Although good learning always consists of creating links in long-term memory, it’s generally not as simple as memorizing terms. Deep learning often also involves figuring out difficult concepts. This type of learning takes time.
Why does deep learning take time? Because it involves making creative new neural connections. There’s a lot of subconscious sorting going on under the neural hood when students are learning something new and challenging.
It’s important to tell students that it’s perfectly normal not to understand something difficult on their first attempt. When students start to get stuck in their learning, some tend at first to try even harder. Unfortunately, some students eventually give up.
When a student starts to fall into frustration, they should back away and take their mind off the concept. It is only when they get their focus off the concept that they can go into diffuse mode.
Learning often involves going back and forth between focused and diffuse modes. As you can imagine, toggling between modes in learning takes time. And time is exactly what students don’t have when they procrastinate, waiting until the last minute to do an assignment.
Knowing when frustration has just reached a peak, so it’s time to switch to something else or take a break, is a valuable learning meta-skill.


Procrastination is one of students’ top challenges. Giving your student concrete tools to tackle procrastination can be one of the most importance gifts teachers can give. When you think about something you don’t like/want to do, it can cause feelings of pain that encourages you to think about something different; the result is procrastination. The older a student is, the more ingrained a procrastination habit can become, and the harder it can be to change. The brain alternates between focused (intense concentration) and diffuse modes (mental relaxation) when learning. Alternating between modes as necessary has shown to improve progress and reduce anxiety when learning tough subjects. It’s essential to nudge students away from procrastination. Teachers can do this by creating to-do lists, cleaning up chaotic environments and increasing accountability.