How to help students avoid procrastination (essay)

For many of our students, procrastination is a monster hiding in the closet.

At least once a semester, one of us will receive a last-minute email from a student with a question that, had that student been working on a project in advance, he or she would have asked days before bumping up against the deadline. Or, similarly, we will sometimes receive questions from students an hour before class claiming that the link that we sent for the day’s reading did not work.

These are the telltale signs of students suffering from procrastination syndrome. And it would be easy to say, “Start earlier next time,” and then move on. But as we note the level of anxiety, panic and supercharged emotion that our students express when they come clean about a botched timeline or poor planning, we realize that working through a habit of procrastination is too important a quality-of-life issue for our students to dismiss so easily. As we’ve asked them: Isn’t it better to know what sort of monster is hiding in the closet than to wait for it to come lurching out unexpectedly -- and at the worst possible moment?

It seems to us that the more we understand procrastination and think it through with our students, the more we can help them build lifelong habits that allow them to be successful in our writing classes. Indeed, antiprocrastination habits can also help students manage the many competing priorities in their busy schedules as well as help us all remember what’s really important in life.

The Many Faces of Procrastination

When you get right down to it, procrastination really involves the what-ifs of Murphy’s Law that whatever can go wrong will go wrong. This should be the main motivator behind procrastination awareness. It’s always a good idea to have a backup plan. Don’t put off getting started on a project because it feels like it will be easy to put together. Start assembling resources, outlining, thinking forward and scheduling activities to avoid the unexpected. When a project is due, leave yourself plenty of wiggle room for issues with printing, traffic, parking, finding the drop-off place for paperwork, etc.

A health sciences team that one of us once worked with famously told and retold the story of a National Institutes of Health grant application that was five minutes too late for the FedEx truck. An important project was delayed funding for a whole year because a copy machine ran out of paper and the team had not allotted enough time to the final stages of the job. The more we can help our students realize that these sorts of habits -- being prepared, starting early, problem solving in advance -- can make or break a project, the sooner they can start taking action.

But what about students who have writing or performance anxiety? Such students stand to gain the most from developing antiprocrastination tactics. If they experience the gains that can occur if they start on projects earlier, they will begin to feel their anxiety lessen. If the paper is due in two weeks, they can start right away by analyzing and note taking on the assignment sheet, breaking the assignment down into discrete stages or tasks. That simple act will activate the composing process, launching the task in their minds. Starting earlier on the assignment or task might lead to better time management, including catching any unforeseen time sensitivities well in advance.

Complicating the picture slightly, procrastination does offer some positive possibilities. Sometimes writers need to put a project aside for a later time to let it stew or to allow thinking to mature. And if we teach our students that this approach can be a productive conscious part of their own processes, we can again help them to build more conscientious tactics. People who work hard not to procrastinate develop a good working sense of when to put something off strategically and when to dive into something more forcefully. Sometimes procrastinating on a project might be a sign that we aren’t quite ready to grapple with something about it -- perhaps for good reasons.

Helping Students Develop Procrastination Awareness

Procrastination syndrome is a tough phenomenon to deal with. It can take many subtle and not-so-subtle forms: the student who always seems to have a rough draft, no matter how much time he’s been given to write a paper; the student who always goes missing on the day a draft of a paper is due; the student who just always seems anxious about something.

In line with the context that we’ve offered above, we can take further steps to help students develop strategies to manage and work toward overcoming procrastination:

  • We can discuss with them valid reasons why people procrastinate. If you ask students whether they consider themselves procrastinators, most will say that they are. But then if you ask why they tend to procrastinate, they have to think about it a bit. The beginning of any procrastination-awareness intervention starts with the question of why we procrastinate: because we’re feeling overwhelmed, because we are uncertain about where to start, because we are fearful of failure, because we really would rather not do what we know we have to do.
  • We can start nudging students to think about the different reasons for procrastination and to start to make distinctions between wise waiting and unhelpful delaying.
  • We can share with students our own experiences with procrastination. If we are anxious about writing or performing, we can confess that to students -- many of whom share this anxiety and would appreciate hearing it from an instructor. If we’ve ever lost a significant amount of work due to not saving it in more than once place, students will see that it can happen to anyone. And if we tell students the story of how we arrived late (and embarrassed) to that important interview or conference presentation because we simply did not leave enough time to find what turned out to be a labyrinthine locale, we will be reiterating a lesson applicable to many other circumstances.
  • As teachers of writing and other creative performances, we can try to build antiprocrastination fail-safes into our curriculum. Portfolio assessment systems, for example, offer students the opportunity to experience their writing tasks as works in progress. We can give students opportunities to see just how good a piece of writing can become if they have enough time, space and opportunity to revise multiple drafts of their work throughout the course of a term. The peer pressure involved in working together closely and extensively with a peer writing group can also nudge them to meet deadlines more responsibly.
  • Finally, students can internalize this (almost) procrastination-proof process more deeply if we ask them to write reflectively and critically about what they learned from the process. Most of our students come to realize the benefits of starting early and staying persistent.

Life, Work, Time

So what if students procrastinate? The cream will always rise to the top. The good students will always be more proactive and thoughtful. It’s not really that big of a deal, is it?

Well, it might actually be about as big as a deal can get. In her memoir The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware details her experiences working as a palliative nurse with people in their last three to 12 weeks of life. She discusses the top five regrets, or things they would have done differently, that repeatedly surfaced in all their stories. All of those regrets seem to revolve around important things people kept putting off: not living a life true to themselves and their dreams, not taking time away from work, not sharing their feelings with the people they loved the most, not keeping in touch with friends, and not letting themselves be happy. We always seem to think we will have enough time to get to, start or restart the big deals in life … later.

These quality-of-life questions remind us of Thomas Carlyle’s antiprocrastination exhortation in Sartor Resartus (“The Tailor Retailored”). Carlyle proclaims the importance of what he learned from Professor Teufelsdrӧckh about not waiting too long on the most important life choices and actions:

I too could now say to myself: Be no longer a Chaos, but a World, or even a Worldkin. Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it in God’s name! ’Tis the utmost thou hast in thee; out with it then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called To-day, for the Night cometh wherein no man can work.

(And we might well replace the words “work” in the last sentence with “start.”) If we try, we can perhaps also help our students retailor some of their most pernicious procrastination habits of mind.

But, of course, we must not wait too long in starting to offer our students some of this potentially lifelong good advice.

Steven J. Corbett is a visiting assistant professor of English at George Mason University, and Michelle LaFrance is an assistant professor of English and director of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program at the university. They are co-editors (with Teagan Decker) of the collection Peer Pressure, Peer Power: Theory and Practice in Peer Review and Response for the Writing Classroom (Fountainhead Press, 2014).

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Students need a physical space on campus to debate controversial issues (essay)

Many people have argued that the recent student protests at colleges and universities across the country primarily involve free speech issues. For their part, the protesters disagree, arguing that the issues they seek to address are racism, exclusivity and bigotry in all its forms -- from fecal swastikas smeared on bathroom walls to racial slurs and microaggressions.

Whatever your position is on this dispute, the one thing that has become clear is that this is an opportunity to improve the way college students debate complicated issues. The conflicts highlight that something is missing on college campuses: a designated physical space for planned discussions, led by students, about controversial topics -- those that spark heated disagreement and possibly even revulsion.

I am a minority student at Williams College, and I recently had to deal with such a controversial issue, when Uncomfortable Learning, a student group of which I am co-president, tried to bring Suzanne Venker, an antifeminist social critic, to the college. Consequently, I received a torrent of ad hominem attacks. Among other things, peers called me a misogynist and men’s rights activist who was endorsing hate speech. In the end, we had to cancel the event for fear that it might get out of control and perhaps even endanger the speaker.

Yet confronting ideas that we oppose -- whether from a speaker who is brought to the campus, a senior administrator or a classmate -- is what higher education should be all about. There is a difference between Suzanne Venker and, to take an extreme example, Adolf Hitler, and to pretend otherwise undermines the principles this country was founded on. It is vitally important to create a separate area for free debate so that students who are interested can respectfully and constructively work through their understanding of sensitive issues and how to deal with them -- without being called aimless hate mongers.

Such a space is rarely available now on American campuses. Most classes in the humanities and social sciences are either lectures, seminars or a combination of the two. In each case, teachers create the course syllabi and generally set the agenda. Outside of the classroom, in dining halls, dorms and other places on a campus, students talk about various subjects. But the dining hall is a place for eating, just as a dorm is a place for living. Neither location is intended for planned discussions, for students to explore and discuss the ideas they hold.

This space I envision would serve several important purposes:

  • It would give students a forum in which to clarify the issues that challenge them the most and why.
  • Students could discuss the content of competing arguments on heated issues like gun rights, abortion, immigration and affirmative action.
  • Students could discuss how best to respond to unwelcome ideas and offensive speech, even hate speech. After all, one person’s offensive idea is another person’s viewpoint.

In those respects, creating a separate space for planned discussion of controversial issues is both a way for students to engage with each other about uncomfortable ideas and to prepare each other to have conversations about any number of sensitive issues outside of that designated space.

Openly discussing controversial topics and unpleasant ideas is important because doing so can help students gain a deeper understanding of views with which they vehemently disagree. Take for example, the use of the n-word. Many African-Americans consider it decided beyond any reasonable doubt that the n-word should never be used by white people. From that perspective, white people debating the 1991 Central Michigan University case presented in Randall L. Kennedy’s article “Who Can Say ‘Nigger’? … And Other Considerations” would be seen as abusive and denigrating and thus of no intellectual value.

While I am sympathetic to that point of view, I disagree with it. While some people interpret controversial comments to be attacking or devaluing of them personally, in fact many of those instances, like the use of the n-word, merit hearing opinions from all sides. Too often, certain unpleasant ideas are understood as having already been debated and conclusively decided upon. The space that I’ve described would give students who are interested an opportunity to have these kinds of discussions.

In particular, this space would be created by students who are enthusiastic about the idea of critically engaging with each other about the urgent issues of our time, even if they hold conflicting opinions. While they would be encouraged to defend any position they support, the discussion would ideally be driven by the participants’ shared desire to gain a deeper understanding of complicated issues.

Ground Rules

To create this space, students should work with their administration to designate a place on campus where such planned discussions can occur. Once a group of students takes it upon themselves to lead this effort, they should establish important ground rules for the discussions, perhaps with the guidance of a professor or other neutral party. Ground rules are necessary to prevent ad hominem attacks and baseless claims from detracting from constructive dialogue. For example, it should be stipulated that, in the designated space, no student is allowed to attack the character of another for putting forth a controversial or even noxious argument. While there is no way of ensuring that these discussions do not engender fear of threats of physical violence, a ground rule must be established that explicitly prohibits such threats. In the extreme event that a student threatens or exercises physical violence, the administration should be notified immediately.

If some students become uncomfortable or offended by other people’s opinions, they should disagree respectfully. And if they feel motivated to do so, they should try to dismantle the argument they find problematic by challenging its fundamental assumptions and exposing its flaws. “Disagreeing respectfully” does not preclude raising one’s voice. Rather, disagreeing respectfully means that, in contention, students must refrain from making ad hominem attacks.

Colleges should encourage this kind of critical engagement because defending one’s position, identifying flaws in arguments we disagree with and effectively communicating differences of opinion are critical life skills. Many careers in business, politics, education and public service involve discussion of complicated issues that often result in heated disagreement. To contribute to such discussions and potentially shape climates of opinion, it is important for students to learn how to have productive conversations about sensitive topics.

Part of the reason for creating this separate area for free debate is so that it is easier for students to have uncomfortable discussions and contentious disagreements respectfully -- without causing emotional harm to others or incurring harassment or intimidation. By making this kind of forum available to students, we provide an opportunity for them to gain experience with sustained argumentation, in which students face the challenge of defending their most sacrosanct ideas against unpleasant, even deeply troubling, opposition and dealing with meaningful yet intense disagreement. While some students may leave these discussions feeling some resentment, sustained, unequivocal dissent and harsh sentiments surround the most pressing issues of our time. To debate these issues, students have to learn how to deal with the feelings that may accompany them.

These discussions are not meant to be formal debates in which opposing sides compete to win. The structure I envision is one that allows conversation to flow freely. Discussion groups, ideally, should be small enough so that students don’t have to raise their hands and wait to be called on to speak. If it happens that 30 people want to be a part of the same discussion, then they can break up into small groups so that everyone has an opportunity to be fully engaged. If a situation occurs in which nine people end up disagreeing with one person, that one person should defend their ideas and debate energetically.

To ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute equally to the conversation, it might be helpful for each group to select a discussion leader. But the conversations could be most productive if those involved determined the structure for them. In that way, students would have the opportunity to play a role in shaping, framing and changing the kinds of conversations they have about controversial topics that interest them. And while all colleges should consider the idea of creating and promoting a space devoted to free debate, how that space looks in practice on individual campuses should be open to development and revision based on the experiences and suggestions of the students who are engaged in it.

Administrators and faculty members at every institution of higher learning should encourage students to see the value of free and open debate, even on issues that some people may think are already settled. Identifying an area for such debate on college campuses will help students learn how to have meaningful and productive conversations about sensitive issues, articulate and defend their opinions effectively, and learn from those with whom they vehemently disagree.

Zachary R. Wood is a sophomore at Williams College majoring in political science and philosophy.

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