Study Ties Procrastination to Lower Scores

Data mining finds lessons about procrastination

Highest grades achieved by college students who start their homework at least three days in advance

The Hechinger Report

Photo of Jill Barshay

Education by the Numbers

Students scored 3 percent points worse than the class average when they waited until the last day to start their college chemistry homework. Source: “The Early Bird Gets the Grade: How Procrastination Affects Student Scores,” by Hillary Green-Lerman at Knewton.

Many college students say they procrastinate because they do their best work under pressure. And there’s usually no way to prove that they’re wrong. But now that more college students are logging onto a computer to do their assignments, data scientists can sometimes measure what the actual cost of procrastination is.

In one recent data-mining analysis, researchers from an education technology company found that almost one third of the students they studied waited until the day before the due date to start their chemistry homework  (typically weekly problem sets). And these students scored 3 percentage points lower, on average, than their classmates. In other words, if the class average was 88, the procrastinators scored 85.

Of course, there were individual bright students who waited until the last moment and still scored well. But the average procrastinator did worse.

The sweet spot to start weekly assignments was at least three days before they were due. But fewer than half the students had the discipline to start their work that early in the week. Interestingly, students who began even sooner —  four, five or six days before the due date — scored about the same as the students who gave themselves only three days.

“You’d expect the earlier you start, the better you do. But we don’t see that,” said Hillary Green-Lerman, a data scientist at New York-based Knewton, who analyzed homework grades for 5,000 students who were using its educational software across 27 introductory chemistry classes at different colleges.

“You don’t do any better for starting six days before it’s due. We don’t know what’s causing that,” Green-Lerman added.

(One theory is that if you start too early, the professor hasn’t covered that material in class yet. So you might as well wait for the next lecture first.)

The cost to last-minute procrastination echoes what psychologists have previously found in traditional experiments. Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University, said that students who waited until the last minute thought they did better than they actually did, in his 1993 study.

“A lot of students think, ‘I work best under pressure,’ ” he said. “There’s a real misperception.” Commenting on the Knewton analysis, he added, “Even with computers, people are still waiting, and they do worse.”

Procrastination is an important issue for companies like Knewton, which develop algorithms to tailor computer instruction to each student’s needs. The company believes that many student behaviors, from boredom to confusion, can play an important role in student achievement, and that they should be factored in to what the computer recommends to a student.

In the chemistry-course data analysis, Knewton was able to see when students first opened up a homework assignment, and how that timing correlated with the grade they received on it. Not counted were how many hours a student worked on the assignment each day. A student who simply opened up the homework on the first day, but didn’t do much work on it until the night before, would still be credited with starting the homework six days ahead of time. However, the company said the assignments in this particular analysis were generally completed on the same day on which they were started. (More details on the analysis on the company’s websitehere.)

Right now, Knewton is still collecting data on procrastination behavior. It hasn’t reprogrammed its algorithms to remind students to start their homework three days before it’s due, for example. This analysis was only for college chemistry, and most of the 325 homework assignments the company looked at were only one week long. It’s likely that procrastination’s consequences are different in different subjects, or with longer, more complicated projects.

But this first glimpse shows that it’s often a modest cost to wait until the last moment, and you don’t need to start on homework too early. Go ahead and play some ultimate frisbee first.

Are We Helping Our Kids or Nagging Them?

The New York Times Motherlode Blog

It’s a parent’s job to teach our children: to do the right thing, use the right words, learn and practice the skills they’ll need to handle life at school and out in the world. But some mornings — after a seemingly endless stream of corrections intended to help my daughter — I end up feeling as if I am sending my unlucky child off to school with the extra burden of never getting anything right.

For parents of a child with any kind of “special need,” reminders and corrections are especially complicated. Prodding a child to pronounce the “s” at the end of the word or to look into someone’s face when they’re speaking or to finish a task or use a developing physical skill — can dominate the relationship between parent and child and become the focus of every interaction.

Striking a balance between the help that seems necessary and the loving, nonjudgmental relationship you want to have is harder than it sounds. Parents of children in various therapies are often coached by professionals on how to support their work — to encourage a correct pronunciation or redirect an interaction with a friend. But parents rarely receive guidance on when to step back and be parents, not teachers.

I live this dilemma daily, which is why a friend sent me “Being Mindful Of Our Nice To Nag Ratio” by Andrea Nair. My ratio I thought, surveying the headline, was singularly unimpressive.

I was clearly in a pattern where the “bulk of communication” to my child was corrective. “It can be hard to be nice to a child who, in your mind, is always blowing it,” Ms. Nair wrote.

“Blowing it?” That’s not the language I would ever use, but I suspect that is effectively what my child hears when the drumbeat of correction becomes louder than anything else.

I emailed Ms. Nair to ask for some ideas for parents on how to balance “corrective communication” with support. “How often do you correct,” I asked her, “and how often do you let it go?”

“I like to reframe ‘nagging’ as ‘redirection,’” she wrote. “We can still guide our children, even often if necessary, without making the child feel like we’re being hard on them.” Try wording directions neutrally, she suggested, like catching a child’s gaze and using a single word “eyes” to encourage eye contact.

Children, she said, do need a break from being redirected. “They need opportunities to feel they are doing something well.” With special needs, redirection can be tricky. Too much can start to be interpreted by the child as an inherent fault in who they are. Ms. Nair suggests using words focused on growth, and watching carefully for any language that may suggest that a child is incapable of getting it right.

“Parents can use the child’s behavior as an indicator when there have been too many redirections. Children might start snapping at parents, friends or siblings if they feel too hounded. Some kids even get absorbed in video games because that’s a world their parents can’t correct them in. ”

I still wish I knew precisely how often I need to help my child read social cues in order to help her grow. And I struggle with how often I can let things slide to make sure she knows that I love her even when she walks up to her third-grade teacher in the middle of the onstage presentation to the classroom parent and demands to be given a drink. (I let the teacher handle that one.) For now, I’ll mind my “nice to nag ratio” with all of my children.

How do you find the balance between correcting and lovingly allowing, for children with special needs and without?

The Small, Happy Life

A few weeks ago, I asked readers to send in essays describing their purpose in life and how they found it. A few thousand submitted contributions, andmany essays are online. I’ll write more about the lessons they shared in the weeks ahead, but one common theme surprised me.

I expected most contributors would follow the commencement-speech clichés of our high-achieving culture: dream big; set ambitious goals; try to change the world. In fact, a surprising number of people found their purpose by going the other way, by pursuing the small, happy life.

Young continues, “I have always wanted to be effortlessly kind. I wanted to raise children who were kind.” She notes that among those who survived the Nazi death camps, a predominant quality she noticed was generosity.

“Perhaps,” she concludes, “the mission is not a mission at all. … Everywhere there are tiny, seemingly inconsequential circumstances that, if explored, provide meaning” and chances to be generous and kind. Spiritual and emotional growth happens in microscopic increments.

Kim Spencer writes, “I used to be one of the solid ones — one of the people whose purpose was clearly defined and understood. My purpose was seeing patients and ‘saving lives.’ I have melted into the in-between spaces, though. Now my purpose is simply to be the person … who can pick up the phone and give you 30 minutes in your time of crisis. I can give it to you today and again in a few days. … I can edit your letter. … I can listen to you complain about your co-worker. … I can look you in the eye and give you a few dollars in the parking lot. I am not upset if you cry. I am no longer drowning, so I can help keep you afloat with a little boost. Not all of the time, but every once in a while, until you find other people to help or a different way to swim. It is no skin off my back; it is easy for me.”

Terence J. Tollaksen wrote that his purpose became clearer once he began to recognize the “decision trap”: “This trap is an amazingly consistent phenomena whereby ‘big’ decisions turn out to have much less impact on a life as a whole than the myriad of small seemingly insignificant ones.”

Tollaksen continues, “I have always admired those goal-oriented, stubborn, successful, determined individuals; they make things happen, and the world would be lost without them.” But, he explains, he has always had a “small font purpose.”

“I can say it worked for me. I know it sounds so Midwest, but it’s been wonderful. I have a terrific wife, 5 kids, friends from grade school and high school, college, army, friends locally, and sometimes, best of all, horses, dogs, and cats. Finally, I have a small industrial business that I started and have run for 40 years based on what I now identify as principles of ‘Pope Francis capitalism.’ ”

Hans Pitsch wrote: “At age 85, the question of meaning in my life is urgent. The question of the purpose of my life is another matter. World War II and life in general have taught me that outcomes from our actions or inactions are often totally unpredictable and random.”

He adds, “I am thankful to be alive. I have a responsibility to myself and those around me to give meaning to my life from day to day. I enjoy my family (not all of them) and the shrinking number of old friends. You use the term ‘organizing frame’ in one’s life. I am not sure if I want to be framed by an organizing principle, but if there is one thing that keeps me focused, it’s the garden. Lots of plants died during the harsh winter, but, amazingly, the clematises and the roses are back, and lettuce, spinach and tomatoes are thriving in the new greenhouse. The weeping cherry tree in front of the house succumbed to old age. I still have to plant a new tree this year.”

This scale of purpose is not for everyone, but there is something beautiful and concrete and well-proportioned about tending that size of a garden.☐