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The key to making online students focus on their course work may be making procrastination as unenjoyable as possible, according to a study out of Cornell University.

It’s a familiar problem to anyone with a deadline and a computer: the assignment is open on the screen, half-finished, but is quickly lost in a stack of web browser tabs. Upon rediscovery (with an accompanying pang of guilt), the procrastinator resolves to buckle down and type out the last few paragraphs -- right after clearing the notification that just popped up and checking just one more website.

Richard W. Patterson, a Ph.D. student in policy analysis and management at Cornell, wanted to see if software could reduce procrastination and, as a result, improve students' grades.

“People frequently fail to follow through on the plans they make: they fail to meet deadlines at work, finish assignments for school, go to the gym and deposit money in their savings accounts,” Patterson writes in the report titled “Can Behavioral Tools Improve Online Student Outcomes? Experimental Evidence From a Massive Open Online Course,” published by the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute.

In higher education, Patterson writes, that failure to follow through can be seen in the number of students who enroll in a degree program but never graduate. His study looked specifically at online education, where completion rates are lower than in face-to-face programs. MOOCs, in particular, have been sharply criticized for completion rates that sometimes register in the single digits.

Patterson’s report, written last November but released this month, examines the effects of different types of antidistraction software. His study looked at 657 students enrolled in a statistics MOOC offered by Stanford University. The students, all of whom agreed to download software that would track their activity online, were then separated into three groups, plus a control group.

Students in the group that tested a commitment tool set their own daily allotments for time they could spend on distracting websites such as BuzzFeed, ESPN and Facebook. If the students hit the cap during the course of a day, the software blocked them from the distracting sites, forcing students to give a new reason every time they wanted to unblock one.

On average, students allotted 2.7 hours per day to spend on distracting websites and went over that limit four times during the nine-week MOOC. Even though the software sent them a daily email at 6:45 a.m. reminding them of that limit and asking if they wanted to reset it, the average student only did so once.

Students in the reminder group received a notification with a link back to the course after every 30 minutes they spent on distracting websites. The notification triggered an average of 48 times for each student in that group.

Finally, students in the focus group were given the option to block access to distractions for 15, 30 or 60 minutes when they accessed the course. Students in that group activated that feature only 1.7 times on average during the MOOC, blocking distractions for 38 minutes.

Only students testing the commitment tool showed statistically distinguishable performance improvements. Compared to those in the control group, the students spent 24 percent more time on course work (or 5.5 hours), submitted 27 percent more homework assignments and were 40 percent more likely to finish the MOOC. Their grades were also 0.29 standard deviations higher than for students in the control group, which is “roughly the same difference in course performance observed between students with Ph.D.s or M.D.s and students with bachelor’s degrees,” according to the report.

Patterson said he approached the study expecting the results from the first group to produce the most promising results, as that software in some ways included features tested in the other two groups.

“With the commitment device, you’d get an email asking if you would like to reset your limit -- so it kind of acted like a reminder,” Patterson said. “It also had the incapacitating effect once you reached your limit that the focus study session included, but it also included this goal aspect of setting your own limit. I have a feeling that might be the most effective -- adding something important on top.”

The results suggest a second reason for why the commitment tool was the most effective of those tested: students in that group were 81 percent more likely than those in the control group to say the tool made procrastination less enjoyable. In other words, the software made wasting time a hassle, causing some students to go back to studying instead.

Yet the results also present some limitations to antidistraction software. Those most likely to benefit from software were those who in a precourse survey said completing the MOOC was “very” or “extremely” important to them, leaving the question of how to help students who lack self-motivation largely unresolved, Patterson said.

Patterson, who will this fall join the economics faculty at the United States Military Academy, said researching student behavior allowed him to face his own tendency to procrastinate.

“Certainly one of the fun things about doing a project like this is I got to work with, test the software and use it myself to see how I interacted with it and how it impacted my productivity,” Patterson said. “One of the things I noticed with this software is that there were things I thought I was spending a lot of time on that I wasn’t, and other things I thought I was spending a couple of minutes on that was sucking up a lot of time.”

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