On procrastination, and our broken undergraduate education system

I believe that the main reason that we procrastinate is that we don’t feel competent. We fear that our results will not be up to some expectation, and the fear paralyzes us. Or rather, in this era with abundant opportunities for diversion, we distract ourselves in wasteful activities so that we don’t have to face our fear.

Now look at this from the perspective of a university student. Most university students are ill-prepared for their studies. Then we throw them into the deep end and say, “Swim!” A few do well, the majority have constant anxiety, quickly get behind, and are constantly struggling to catch up. Part of the reason they get behind is procrastination. But it’s wrong to blame them for it, just as it is wrong to blame someone for having a mental illness. Rather, we teachers have to make students aware of a process for overcoming their procrastination and then guide them through it.

But we don’t, at least not typically. We expect that they come to university fully prepared from high school, and we expect them to be good at learning. We certainly don’t train them, because we’re too busy cramming information down their throats in courses that are filled to bursting with content. But don’t blame individual professors, because they are under enormous pressure to do research; for most of them, only 40% of their time is mandated for teaching.

What can you do to help yourself if you are a student, or to help your child if you are a parent, or to help your student if you are a teacher?

  • Understand the main reasons behind procrastination: incompetence and fear of incompetence.
  • Exert effort at becoming competent; this requires mastering your subject a little at a time. An essential component of this process is to identify areas of poor preparation and make sure that you strengthen them before each course begins. This is where a good teacher can be of enormous service.
  • Take the time needed to master the subject in a step-by-step fashion. Rushing is not helpful.
  • Work consistently on a daily basis to maximize your understanding and retention.
  • Remove distractions when you are working on your studies.
  • Recognize the “lizard brain” where fear resides; use your cortex to cajole your lizard brain into cooperating. Silly things like rewarding yourself for a certain amount of time concentrating on your work are surprisingly effective. Once you get into it, it’s easier to stick with it.

Institutionally, schools can help students by taking the following steps:

  • Expect and require mastery.
  • Make the time allowed to complete a course flexible, so that students have time to master each part of the course.
  • Give students as many chances as needed to demonstrate mastery. One-time, high-stakes assessments are counterproductive to learning.
  • Provide students with proper training in how to learn their subject, and provide them with the assistance that they need to learn effectively. (Lecturing in its current form is typically woefully ineffective, even when the lecturers are stellar, because the majority of students soon fall behind and therefore cannot benefit from the lectures.)

Undergraduate education is broken, at least in mathematics and sciences. Sure, there are some small universities that have exemplary programs, with a warm, community feel, but they are few and far between. The typical university, with its large classes that meet for just a few hours per week, and its few high-stakes, no second-chance assessments, with a fixed time for everyone to cram in as much “learning” as they can, is broken. But don’t expect them to be fixed any time soon; it’s very difficult to change large, bureaucratic organizations such as universities.

(This post first appeared at my other (now deleted) blog, and was transferred to this blog on 25 January 2021.)