Do you spend time learning online? This new study on procrastination, learner participation in online discussions and course performance may interest you. There are certainly good suggestions for educators.

Not withstanding the many, perhaps unfounded, assumptions about cost savings and accessibility, we can't escape the fact that more and more educational institutions and companies are using computers and web-based technologies to deliver education. Given the growing prominence and use of online learning to make education accessible, there is good reason to research how best to design learning activities to maximize engagement and learning.

In this recently published study by Nicolas Michinov, Sophie Brunot, Oliver Le Bohec, Jacques Juhel and Marine Delaval (Universite de Rennes 2, France), we learn that procrastination is related to poorer academic performance in an online course both directly and indirectly. The direct relation has been demonstrated in many previous studies. Students who report procrastinating on their work generally do more poorly in their courses (although the effect size is relatively small). What these researchers demonstrated was that low participation in online discussions associated with the course partially mediated the relation between procrastination and performance. In other words, procrastination is seen to result in fewer discussion board postings (indicating lower engagement) which results in lower course grades.

As the authors note, ". . . it appears that if high procrastinators are less successful than low procrastinators, it is partly because they participate less (and later) in discussion forums during the learning process" (p. 248). They add later, "Due to their tendency to procrastinate, high procrastinators look at the discussion forums later, deliberately keeping themselves apart. By connecting up later they lose the thread of the discussion and then fear to appear as 'newcomers'. Consequently, they remain isolated until the end of the course." (p. 249).

This isn't surprising, of course. I would think that any learning activity that we might measure might show that procrastinators engage later and do less. Inevitably, this means they spend less time on-task learning. And, in the case of this study, the online discussions were designed to support the learners' solution to the assigned case studies. When students delayed active engagement in these groups, they didn't benefit from learning from others, and they spent less time learning overall.

Moreover, I would take issue with the notion that high procrastinators are "deliberately keeping themselves apart." In fact, they may intend to engage, even want to engage given their goals for the course, but their lack of self-regulatory skills sabotage their intentions. The authors' speculation here as well as my own requires further research.

What the authors do offer in the discussion of their results are a number of practical implications for tutoring online students. In particular, in the context of online learning, where social participation through discussion groups is important to learning, they suggest:

"One strategy is to provide learners with feedback to enable them to compare their level of participation with that of others and particularly with higher achieving learners. This is known to improve performance in online asynchronous environments such as forums . . . Another strategy would be for the tutor to encourage the learners to respond to each others' postings . . . This strategy is known to stimulate the learner's participation, but the tutor/instructor needs to avoid becoming too involved in the discussions, studies having shown that this can inhibit the participation of learners" (p. 249).

Another strategy they suggest was to establish collaboration among learners who have a tendency to procrastinate early in the course (perhaps through electronic brainstorming sessions).

In sum, although I agree with the authors who note that their study is "the first to provide empirical evidence for the relationship between procrastination, participation in asynchronous discussion forums and performance in an online learning environment" (p. 250), I think the results are as expected. As my students and I have demonstrated in previous research, procrastinators study later and study less. This contributes to their poorer performance.

There is certainly much more we need to investigate in terms of self-regulation, self-directed learning and motivation in a world where online learning is becoming more and more common. The unfortunate truth in education is that some learners have always "fallen through the cracks" of our educational systems. I fear online learning may be creating some new and very large "cracks" in a number of ways that we don't fully understand or even appreciate. The study reviewed here underscores the roles of self-motivation and self-regulation and points to how social strategies need to be encouraged and modeled using computer-mediated social networking technologies.

Based on my own experience, I am confident that, appropriately used, many of these new online learning environments will be much more useful and learners will be much more successful than with traditional classroom methods.

Michinov, N., Brunot, S., Le Bohec, O., Juhel, J., & Delaval, M. (2011). Procrastination, participation, and performance in online learning environments. Computers & Education, 56, 243-252.

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