Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

Why Teachers Shouldn't Reward Bullsh*t

How we reward procrastination and undermine effort

Failing grade on book report
A listener of my iProcrastinate podcasts sent me this email yesterday. She has an important message for teachers, I think. Here's what she had to say,

Today I was listening to the episode about "Threat of Evaluation". You described a study of how "low" or "high" procrastinators responded to low or high threat of evaluation.

I just want to tell you about a college experience of mine.

It was my freshman year. I was a music major. One of my required general ed courses was History of Western Civilization. Sometime during the semester we were required to read some literature from a thousand years ago and write a lengthy paper, having chosen from a list of provided topics. I crumbled inwardly and resolved to ignore the assignment until the pain went away. I did NOTHING. I staunchly decided to simply not write this paper.

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The evening before the paper was due, I suddenly saw my inaction as unjust and cowardly. My thought was, "The other students have put in their time and effort. Why do you deserve the privilege of doing nothing?" I now decided to pull an all-nighter, read all the stuff, and write a damn paper. Ten pages? Can't remember now. Lots, anyway.

Bought and sucked on coffee candy.

I found myself reading Plutarch at 2 am, and really enjoying his writing. I felt so sad. I really wanted more time with it. I felt disrespectful.

In the vein of "Just Get Started", I opened up a John Grisham novel to a random page, chose a sentence, and modified it to become the opening sentence of the history paper.

EKED out a paper.

Got to the computer lab at 7am to type and print it. (This was 1995...sigh)

Shamefacedly turned it in. I truly felt ashamed of myself for doing it the night before.

The result was shocking. I received an "A" grade, and the professor wrote that she enjoyed my writing style so much she could just keep reading more and more of it.


My first reaction was happy surprise. Next I felt as if the ground had dropped out from under me. The problem was that now I had absolutely no idea what kind of preparation and effort was necessary for her class. If last minute BS crap got such a positive response from her--then what would be my motivation to behave more responsibly next time??? Would you say that she effectively removed ALL threat of evaluation???

I just really wanted to tell you about that.

I felt better a couple of years later when I received a midterm paper back, graded, from a political science professor. This man told me that my writing style was attractive, but my content lacked substance.

I could have fallen in love with him, for accurately critiquing my work. He was RIGHT! I'm good at churning out frothy bullshit, and I'm happy to be told that it's bullshit, and receive a C grade or whatever he gave me! It felt better to get a bad grade for bad work, than a good grade for irresponsible work.

Blogger's closing thoughts

I think you might agree with the first professor. This student does write well. Even her email is a compelling read. Her writing style is attractive. The thing is, she knew that her first essay, the "all-nighter," lacked content, as did the political science essay (but only the political science professor called her on it, grading it for both style and content).

The sad truth is that many students get grades throughout their junior undergraduate years that mirror this listener's experience, at least that's been my experience over the past two decades. I end up telling most of my honours and graduate thesis students that they have been lied to about their writing. No one has taken the time to give them meaningful feedback, and their last-minute "bullsh*t" writing gets rewarded unrealistically. It stops at my door with the thesis.

Unfortunately, for some students, the procrastination habit is so well established that they can't handle the new expectations and commitment to regular work and revisions. Habits die hard. Perhaps this is why the completion rate for doctoral students is only about 50%. The procrastination habit may account for at least some of this disappointing statistic.

The message here is let's not reward procrastination. When we do, as this personal story attests, there is no motivation for work, and students don't learn from their mistakes. No "mistakes" are even identified.  When this happens, I also think that students become even more cynical about the nature of education and learning. This is very sad indeed.

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he specializes in the study of procrastination.

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