Telling students not to procrastinate solves the wrong problem.

In seeing my students working to prepare for semester exams over the last week, I have spent some time thinking about the advice I give students about how to manage the stress associated with this time of year. The reality for them (and for me, for that matter) is that there is a lot going on right now. A quick rundown of my obligations: exams have to be written, assessments marked, comments graded, recommendations written, assignments double-checked for accuracy in the grade-book…this doesn’t even mention the non-school related tasks on my plate. Some tasks I spread out over a few days usually in order to avoid the non-linear way that unpleasantness increases as a deadline approaches. Some tasks have to be done last minute, and there’s no way around them.

When I see students cramming and working feverishly to get things done, part of me wants to channel the oft repeated (and nonsense) advice that ‘if you had started earlier, you wouldn’t have this problem.’ And then I stop. Grand scheme of things, this is not really helpful. You don’t tell someone that just cut off his finger that doing so was a dumb idea. The important part is managing the situation in a way that balances all of the relevant costs and benefits to maximize the overall outcome. The biggest problems my students have is not (only) that they put things off. It’s that they think they can effectively manage the stress that comes with it by following some common, but misdirected principles. Here are my categories of guiding principles:

Ways students foolhardily trick themselves into doing what they do:

  • Principle of Work-Equivalence: As long as I am working on something I need to be working on, I am using my time effectively. After all, it all needs to get done, so why not just pick something and work on it?
  • Principle of Longevity: I’ve been doing this school thing for long enough – I know this has worked for me in the past, so I’m going to keep doing it. This comes from a major trend that I see with my students at the moment. Even more frightening is that the older they are, the better they think they are at managing things during stressful times. The way I see it, the opposite is true.
  • Principle of Education through Suffering: If I am not suffering as I get things done, I am not working hard enough. Carrying around stacks of papers, losing sleep, having unproductive (but fun) study parties seems to be par for the course. It certainly isn’t something that disappears after high school graduation.
  • Principle of Poor Prioritization: I know what I really should be spending my time doing, but this other mindless task seems like a much better use of my time. This is not about online distractions, though that is a big factor for all of us. This is when a student decides to white out all of the mistakes in his/her notebook from throughout the semester because he or she thinks this will make studying easier. Rewriting notes can be a useful exercise if it involves some sort of processing/summarizing/grouping of ideas. Simply copying them over is a passive activity that feels like it should help, but probably is less productive than other tasks.
  • Principle of Confidence: I’m going to work on the things I am already good at doing to boost my confidence. This will better make me able to tackle the things I don’t understand. I’ve had conversations with students that do know what they need to work on, but avoid those things like the plague because learning new things is difficult. Revisiting strengths is occasionally a good idea, but again, it is not truly productive.

Figuring out how to shake students of following these guidelines is really what we need to work on. We need to not just just lecture them about getting organized, planning out stressful times, taking effective breaks, and being deliberate about all of these processes, but model how to do these things. My question is one of practicality though – what are the best ways to do this? Is the best way integrated as part of existing courses? (My gut says yes.) Is it about going back to pencil and paper planners? Is it about using technology to help with reminders, calendars, etc?

The thing that I find most difficult about discussing this is that it always turns into a conversation about avoiding procrastination. I agree that this would help…if our students weren’t already told this hundreds of times per year. The design problem that needs to be solved is: given that our students are stressed, how do we help them work through it? Furthermore, how do we make the most of our own experience as adults working through stress, but deliver that experience in a way that doesn’t start by telling students what they believe is wrong?