9 Procrastination Traps For College

One of the most common complaints I hear from students is about their own procrastination. Deciding to put off work, have fun time first, or otherwise just not see getting to their work is a constant challenge in college. But this seemingly harmless waiting can lead to many problems, and in my work I’ve identified it as a precursory event to worse things. Procrastinating can lead a student to fall behind in the work, stop attending classes, or even become so worried about being behind that they even give up on trying to finish the work or on the class altogether. Being in college requires a high level of self-direction and self-motivation, which can be fragile for some students even on the best of days, so the urge to procrastinate is constantly looming. There are some known topics or tasks that I’ve discovered where students either tell me they are more likely to procrastinate, or I directly see them do it during our work together. Hopefully being aware of these ahead of time will help students to stay out of the “procrastination traps” that I see in higher education.

End Of Semester Papers

Papers that are due at the end of the semester, often called “term papers,” are very susceptible to procrastination. Students typically don’t worry about them early because the deadline seems so far off and they feel there is plenty of time to get to them. There are two problems with this: First, the size and point value of the papers can be large, making them a high stakes endeavor. Term papers can be 10-15 or more pages long and may require multiple sources, an annotated bibliography, and can be up to 40% or more of the class grade. In order to do well on these kinds of papers they need to be carefully planned and the professor consulted at different critical junctures. If a student puts off getting started, they may discover that they can’t finding the right kind of research or may even get stuck on the writing part. A classic mistake students make is they pick a topic that sounds good to them, only to later find out there’s no available research on that subject, making it impossible to use, so they have to start over with a new last minute topic. The second problem that comes from not worrying early about end of term papers is the competing demands posed by other classes from mid-term and after. In college, the workload tends to get harder during the second half of the term, so starting any kind of project early is a smart move. If not, students can find themselves overwhelmed by work for multiple classes and not have the time to dedicate to working on term papers, coordinating with professors, then they wind up with poor quality work that leads to low grades.

How to deal with this procrastination trap:

  • The key to dealing with this trap is to start end of term papers as early as possible. Very often these papers can be 80% drafted far ahead of the due date. Ask the professor early in the term about papers to get started on gathering sources and planning out the sections. Large papers (10-12 pages) can be very time consuming to tackle, and often they must be completed between the competing demands of other classes. They also may require a great deal of library research to find required sources, which may not be as easy as it sounds. If a student begins to work on the paper early in the term, they can ask the professor to give feedback on a draft of the paper, which can ultimately improve the student’s grade.
  • The critical pieces of information that need to be defined for papers are their length, tone, required sections, number of references, and purpose. A student needs to know whether the paper is simply a report that summarizes a topic in depth, performs an analysis, a scientific paper or other format, and especially the due date of the paper. By defining these areas a student can then see how much time and effort the paper will take.
  • A beginner’s mistake for students when writing a paper is that they will pick a topic that they are deeply interested in, but when they try to find sources of research for the topic they discover there is too little available to write a good paper. This is a classic problem for students who fall victim to the procrastination trap of waiting to start end of semester papers. They put it off, try to get the paper done in a hurry, only to discover that they cannot find enough academic literature on the topic so they have to start all over with a new topic at the last minute.

Online Classes

Many students say they have a very difficult time with online classes and find themselves procrastinating on both doing the work or even attending the online sessions. Online classes require a high ability to work with intangible information, rather than directly with people, and some students even say that the online class ended up being much more work than they thought it would be. Students who take online classes need to be very self-directed and self-motivated to complete the assigned work, exams, and the high levels of reading or homework that must be done. A reason students may put off work for these kinds of classes is because of the need to self-structure their time and efforts. The impersonal nature of online classes tend to challenge students’ self-reliance because of their low structure format. Students I’ve worked with said they felt less engaged in their own learning process when they have a low level of interaction with professors and classmates, and online classes do not allow for any type of in person contact. To do well in online classes, students must create their own structure and task schedule, work with little or no help from the professor or classmates, and otherwise must teach themselves all the information required for the class. Without the positive influence of being around classmates or talking directly with the professor, many students have trouble with them, so online classes should be taken only by the most highly motivated students. Because of these self-directed, impersonal nature of these kinds of classes, students say they find themselves forgetting about the work or lectures, setting it as a low priority, or simply putting other things ahead of the work they need to do.

How to deal with this procrastination trap:

  • Unless a student is highly motivated and can work independently with little or no professor contact, they should simply avoid online classes and choose a traditional format. Some schools may require pre-requisite or remedial classes that are available only online, but for these needed lower level classes students have the option of taking them at another college or even at a community college during the summer. Be sure to check course equivalency and other issues before choosing this route.
  • The real problem with online classes that students complain about is that they do not feel like they are really in a class because they may never meet the professor or any of their classmates, and this can be very de-motivating for them. Some online classes are taught by professors who are on campus, so the student can visit the professor during office hours to have face-to-face contact with them as a balance to these impersonal kinds of classes. Many classmates may also be local, so trying to meet with other students might help to offset the distant feeling of online classes.
  • Online classes require students to work in a very low-structure, independent setting: They must do it all themselves without any prompting or monitoring by others. Students who do best with this kind of structure say that setting a schedule for themselves of when they will read for that particular class, study, and prepare for exams can help. But a common complaint is that, despite their best intentions, students can find this kind of self-structuring to be difficult, and they can fall away from established schedules very easily.

Once Per Week Classes

In the regular college semester system classes typically meet two or three days per week for roughly 1 to 1.5 hours. Some classes, however, meet only once per week for about three hours to meet the course lecture requirement, and essentially squeeze two or three lectures in to one long one. This once-weekly format can be a magnet for student procrastination, and many students say they have a tough time with this once-weekly format. Once per week classes are susceptible to the “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon, and many students say it’s easy to forget about or to put off the work for these kinds classes. Because they meet so infrequently many students say they feel they have a lot of time to get to the work. Weekly classes, like online classes, have the lower-engagement factor to be concerned with, in terms of a low level of student and professor contact, but may actually be worse than online classes in some ways since some will meet multiple times per week. For once-weekly classes, students may also be prone to simple forgetting. Some students have even told me that they sometimes forgot they’re were even enrolled in class because it doesn’t meet often enough to feel like a “real class.” Students tend to feel they have a lot of time to get the assigned work done for once-weekly classes, which invites procrastination, or opens the door to simply forgetting to do it.

How to deal with this procrastination trap:

  • Once-weekly classes share some of the same characteristics, and complaints by students, that online classes have. The low level of professor and classmate contact, as well as the infrequent class times, can require a lot of independent work from students. If a student has a hard time with independent work, they should avoid weekly classes and stick to the traditional M-W-F or T-R class formats that allow them to see their professor and classmates more often. Many student say they “feel more like a student” with a higher level of class meetings, which can help them to not procrastinate on doing the required work.
  • Like for online classes, scheduling office hour talks with the professor or study groups with classmates can be a powerful counterbalance to infrequent class meetings. This can help keep the importance of the class fresh in the student’s mind and define the course as a “real class” to help work against procrastination. Asking the professor for guidance about what should be covered during the week or by study groups is another way to extend the presence of once-weekly classes in to non-class days.
  • Also similar to online classes is that students can plan out work times for once-weekly classes, such as going to the library to complete the assigned readings or to study course materials. With weekly on-site classes, students are guaranteed to be local, so meeting with them to work on homework, share notes, or to answer reading questions can be more realistic when generating independent work schedules. For once-weekly classes, other local students are in the same situation, and may also be looking for classmates to keep them going forward as well.

Ungraded Homework For Computation-Based Classes

Classes like Algebra, Calculus, Physics, Chemistry, and Economics typically have a strong mathematical or computational component that comes with them. Accurately completing the homework problems is usually is the best way to prepare for exams in these kinds of classes, but what happens if students are left to the “honor system” to do the homework? Many students I’ve worked with admit that if they are not held accountable for doing Math, Chemistry, or other computational homework there is little chance that they will volunteer to do it on their own. Yet some college professors will assign homework that they make clear that they will never see let alone grade, while in other classes the homework is graded but is due at the end of the semester. It takes a great deal of self-reliance to do homework problems without being monitored, and this can become a trap for students since not doing the homework means they are most likely not ready for exams that will have similar problems. Graded homework forces students to focus and learn the computational procedures and having their work graded by the professor is a critical piece of feedback for students about what they’re doing right or wrong. Ungraded homework may allow a student to drift far off track for a very long time, being left without guidance to understand how to do the problems correctly.

How to deal with this procrastination trap:

  • Computational-based homework can be “ungraded” in a variety of ways. It can be simply never graded at all by the professor, leaving the student to figure out their own mistakes. Or it can be due at a later date, such as at the time of the test. In some cases all the homework, while having a point value, is due a the end of the semester. In all of these scenarios, students lack the critical feedback of being graded on their efforts which can show up as poor exam scores. The counterbalance to these kinds of ungraded homework is simple: Students must find someone to grade their work, whether required or not. Resigning one’s self to no feedback for computational homework can let the student stray far off in to incorrect work.
  • Professors are the best persons to grade the student’s homework. They are usually the ones designing the exams and will have varying levels of requirements in which they want the students to “show their work.” Getting feedback from the professor directly on homework is the best route, but for some classes a Teaching Assistant (TA) might be the person who grades the homework. Either way, someone who is “in the know” about methodology that will be related to upcoming exams for that class is the best person to grade computational homework.
  • Second to the professor or the TA, tutors can be used for ongoing feedback about homework. Private tutors, the school’s tutoring center (or both) can be used for monitoring the student’s understanding of the methodology and principles for the class, with homework demonstrating their level of understanding. In some cases, professors may actually recommend a specific person at the school’s tutoring center for their class, so there can be some level of coordination between the professor and other school resources.

Classes With Only Two Exams

Every college professor gets to set the framework for the classes they teach. They determine what information will be covered, papers to be completed, and whether students must complete online journals or present information to the class. The latitude that professors have to design their class can manifest in many assignments and responsibilities for students, or hold very few. Some professors want to keep things simple and only have a couple of exams with no other ways to score points. This is a valid course format as well, but it can invite problems for some students. A classic freshman mistake I’ve seen is to be delighted that a class “only has a couple of exams.” College classes with only two tests as the entire student assessment process can pose a huge danger to them. Yes, there may be only two exams, but considering that professors usually cover 12-15 chapters in a course and also give lecture notes, there will be a enormous amount of information on each of these exams. In order to do well in the two-exam format, and to deal with the high volume of information that accumulates for them, students need to be extremely motivated to stay on top of the assigned readings, class notes, and begin preparing far in advance for the exams. Since they know there isn’t a test for quite a while, many students will put off doing the reading or other efforts to learn the information. When they begin studying only a few days before, they quickly realize that the volume is just too much to cover in a short amount of time and the exam becomes impossible for them to pass. Even for easy subjects it’s the volume of information that is the challenge, but for classes with inherently high volumes of information, like Biology or Art History, it’s almost insurmountable for students who have put off the work. For many college students, having only two exams as the only ways to earn points in a class is an invitation for procrastination.

How to deal with this procrastination trap:

  • Every class “format” brings a certain level of risk for poor grades to students. Some classes have many ongoing tasks like exams, papers, homework, labs, or other activities that each comprise a small amount of the overall grade. This kind of format reduces the risk of a bad grade to students by spreading out the points that can be scored, and can often give a student a chance to play to their strengths like writing. But the two-exam format creates a higher level of risk: Only two chances to score points for the whole class, with two huge exams that have half a semester’s worth of information on each. That’s a lot of information and a much lost if even one does not go well.
  • The only effective way to deal with a two-exam format class is to start early and to never fall behind in the reading. Reading ahead for required chapters, talking with the professor to make sure that efforts are focused and optimal, as well as beginning weeks early to study for a huge exam will all be part of what it takes to deal with this format. With only two exams, each worth 50% of the grade, there is no room for mistakes in the two-exam only format.
  • Of course, avoiding this kind of class format would be best, but some students discover what the class entails only after they enroll and receive the syllabus. Although, at some schools their syllabi are posted online, so at some level the class format actually can be known prior to enrollment. Some colleges require their professors to post their syllabi to the website prior to the class start, while others have extensively archived their syllabi. A student might be able to get at least a reasonable idea of what to expect from a class by looking at past syllabi for the same class taught by the same professor during prior semesters. Being able to see how the professor structured the class in the recent past may give at least some level of insight in to what to expect, which is better than none at all.

Online Assignments

Many modern college classes take advantage of available technology to augment classroom learning, and professors can devise a number of required activities that students must do online. These can include online journals, reading responses, group discussion postings, quizzes, homework, and many others. But like once-weekly classes, this work can suffer from “out of sight, out of mind” thinking and end up taking a low priority to other things. Some students have great difficulty keeping up with these online assignments and will often procrastinate rather than complete them. This is especially problematic due to the independent, self-paced nature of these assignments, where falling behind in their completion can immediately affect their grades. Many students put off writing in their journals, completing homework questions, or may not like the open-ended type of writing that reading responses or online discussions require. A student may get stuck, find difficulty articulating their thoughts for some assignments, and then just put it off “until later” which may never come. Before they know it, it’s the end of the term, and they have procrastinated or avoided doing so many of the online assignments that they cannot dig themselves out of the hole they’ve made for themselves. This is also true of “hybrid” classes, where the class meets periodically and the balance of the requirements are done online. These kinds of classes usually have a great deal of online journals, discussions, or other virtual work that students say tends to lead to procrastination.

How to deal with this procrastination trap:

  • In order to effectively deal with this kind of procrastination trap, students need to define exactly what they must do for the online assignments. Some can be very easy, like keeping a journal where only a paragraph must be written and they get all possible points simply because they wrote something. Other kinds of online assignments might be graded on their quality, or a student may have to read other student’s postings and respond, making it a time consuming endeavor. A common complaint from students is that they are not sure what to do for assignments when the instructions are vague or unclear, and this increases the odds of their procrastinating to do them or finishing them at all.
  • After defining exactly what must be done, starting on online assignments early in the week allows the student to simply get them out of the way. To see if this can be done, students should check the course syllabus for the requirements of the online assignment portion of the class. In some instances they may get stuck waiting for other students to post their comments, but for other kinds of assignments they can easily be done ahead of time. In fact, some professors may give assignments that can be done far in advance, and it’s even possible for a student to finish all assignments for a class even before midterm. Checking the details of the online assignments can help a student learn whether they can start on them quickly, and working in advance can be a good offset to procrastination when the difficult midterm and finals weeks arrive.
  • Many students complain that, instead of procrastination, ordinary forgetfulness comes in to play with some online assignments especially when they are due at odd times. Journal postings or assignments due on Friday afternoons or Sunday nights seem to be most susceptible to a student simply forgetting to do them. Entering a reminder in their planner or even setting up an electronic email or phone reminder can help students to remember to get to these weekly assignments. Also, the buddy system of having a group of classmates do them at the same time seems to be mutually motivating and reduces the odds of forgetting to do online assignments.

Comprehensive Finals

Finals week in college can be a challenge for even the best students, and having multiple exams in the same week requires dealing with competing demands in advance in order to be ready. Some classes will have a final that is simply the last test for the class, which can be a blessing for students since it will cover only a limited amount of information. Comprehensive (cumulative) finals, on the other hand, can be extremely difficult to be prepared for since the professor will be drawing upon information that goes back to the first day of class, which seems like eons in the past by the time students reach the end of the semester. Professors can design finals in any way they wish, as well as assign any point value to them, and it’s not unusual for a final exam to be worth 25% of the total class grade or even much more. In order to do well on comprehensive finals, students may need to start weeks in advance to get ready, yet many students procrastinate in their preparation efforts for comprehensive finals. For classes like Biology, a cumulative final can cover an enormous amount of information, but it’s common for students to underestimate just how much effort it takes to do well on such exams. To make matters worse, too many students are simply unaware of whether a final in a given class is cumulative or not, so they wait to act, often discovering it’s comprehensive nature the week before the exam. They didn’t talk with the professor about the final in advance, didn’t ask for study guides or practice questions, or otherwise just put off efforts to be ready for the exam. Then when the student mistakenly treats the final as just another exam they wind up with the classic “I bombed the final” surprise that drops them a full letter grade or more in the class.

How to deal with this procrastination trap:

  • Comprehensive finals can not only pose a problem because of the broad scope of this kind of exam, but they are a natural procrastination trap: They are at the end of the semester, so why worry now? The inherent difficulty with comprehensive finals is that information from the beginning portion of the class is often forgotten by the end, and it can seem like eons since the student has encountered it. This naturally happens because the new information taught since then can create something called memory interference, where the new information essentially pushes the old information out of the way to make room. Starting to prepare early for comprehensive finals is the only effective way to address them, since it will take time for the students to go back and “re-learn” the earlier information. It’s not that they’ve actually forgotten the information, it has just become buried by the new course content and has to be renewed.
  • A key move for any student at the beginning of the term is to check the syllabus to see if any of their finals are comprehensive. If they are, this should tell them that they need to keep good notes and be very organized with the course materials since they will later be used to prepare for a comprehensive final. It can take a lot of time to go back and study for a comprehensive final, and a good way to begin this is to find other students in the class to form a study group for that final. Finding students from the same class, comparing notes, and starting early helps to work against procrastination and will keep the whole group focused on the end task.
  • A common question is “how long should I spend studying for a comprehensive final?” The answer is that it depends on the class, how much information is to be covered, and how well a student wants to do on the exam. For truly comprehensive finals that cover information from the beginning of the class, the answer isn’t two hours or five hours, or even 10 hours in most cases. For classes with a lot of terminology or procedures, like biology, chemistry, and physics, beginning to prepare for a comprehensive final for these classes just after midterm is when to start. Keep in mind that repeated encounters with the information is what creates strong memories of the information, so covering the same information multiple times translates in to points scored on the final, and this takes a lot of time. The greater the volume of information or complex detail, the greater the effort that needs to be made. I clearly recall spending 30 hours over the course of six weeks for a comprehensive final in a tough upper-level class, covering the information three or more times, because I wanted an “A” on that test. The bottom line is this: It works.

Group Projects

Some professors will assign group projects to a class in which students must work together, and common themes are to research a subject, do a presentation on the topic, or even submit a written report. Group projects pose unique problems to students because of their cooperative nature, and some professors will even assign a grade to the group as a whole rather than evaluate individual student efforts. Since most group projects are due at the end of the term, students may find themselves putting off working on the project more than they should. Group projects bring the additional burdens of having to work as a team, such as bringing all the members together, conceptualizing the project, and dividing up the work which can be a slow or even chaotic process. Too often students complain that one or more of their group partners “did nothing” so they got stuck with additional work that made everything take longer to do. To be successful at these kinds of tasks, students need to anticipate that group projects may not go as smoothly as they might imagine and starting early on them will bring the best outcome. But many students procrastinate on obtaining the group assignment from the professor, meeting as a team as early as possible, or making the consistent effort needed to keep the whole thing moving forward. If students put off getting started on group projects, there may be no coordination between members which can leave gaps in the work which can lead to a bad grade or the project may never be completed at all.
How to deal with this procrastination trap:

  • The risk for procrastination on group projects is that they typically come in the second half of the term, so no one worries about them too much, including some professors. But group projects can take much longer to finish compared to individual projects because different persons must cooperate to accomplish the goal. Starting as early as possible is key for group projects, since there may be student schedule conflicts to work around and an inherent level of inertia in some members of the group. Not all students are equally motivated, and it may take some prodding to get everyone to pull their weight.
  • One of the things that cause students to put off projects, including group ones, is when they do not have clear instructions about what they must do. Meeting with the professor early about the parameters and details of the project can help give clarity to what must be done and that can help the group members to act. These details can also help with the “division of labor” for the group, and show them how to break up the work and assign it to each member, as well as help to envision the end state product. For example, knowing the details can help the group to assign written portions, planning of slides for a presentation, speaking parts, and other functions that allow them to get working sooner and more easily than if they had waited until the last minute.
  • Very often in a group project, someone steps up in to a leadership role, and it is an effective anti-procrastination measure to assume that role. The reality for group projects is that unless the group has focus and direction, they can get sidetracked with unproductive, disorganized efforts or they may not get started at all. When a person steps up to take on the role of getting everyone started and motivated, this is called an “emergent leader,” and sometimes it does not matter who it is. Groups can be susceptible to inertia, the tendency not to act or move forward, and breaking through this inertia can be all it takes to get them working.

Class Registration For The Next Semester

Course registration never comes at a good time, and students often forget that they must register for classes for the next term during their current one. This can become a big problem especially during spring semester when students are looking forward to summer break and the last thing on their mind is signing up for classes for the coming fall. But many students say it’s easy to put this off, to procrastinate, since they’re busy with exams and projects in the second half of their current semester. This waiting can result in students not getting the classes that they need or simply getting stuck with classes that they won’t like. No student wants to get stuck taking difficult classes at 8am simply because they put off signing up and there was nothing left. But students do put it off, sometimes each term, and students waiting to sign up for classes is a constant challenge I face in my work. Another downside to waiting is that there may be unforeseen problems. For example, I’ve worked with students who just assumed they could sign up for classes online via their student account, only to find out there was a “hold” of some sort on their account. Colleges will freeze a student’s ability to enroll in classes for many reasons, even seemingly petty ones. Needing to meet with their advisor, unpaid parking tickets or library fees, or even forgetting to turn in their immunization records are all reasons why a college might put a hold on a student’s account. Student’s shouldn’t just assume that they can sign up for classes easily and quickly at the last minute, since this may not be the case, and by the time they can all the good classes may be full.

How to deal with this procrastination trap:

  • Procrastinating to register for classes is a classic student trap. This can be one that students are especially susceptible to because class registration comes at the worst possible time: During the prior semester. Students can get busy with their classes, and very often the next semester is the last thing on their mind. They put off registering, then they suddenly realize that the only open sections left for classes that they need are at 8am in the morning or at 7pm at night. The antidote for this is, of course, to register early. Calendar reminders, email or phone reminders, or scheduling appointments with their advisor are good ways to remember.
  • To make registering for classes even more complicated, some students may have to schedule through their advisors and cannot do it on their own. This adds a second step to choosing their classes and coming up with a tentative schedule, since their advisor’s schedule may be full especially around traditional registration time. Students who are upperclassmen in a declared major, those who are on academic probation, those planning study abroad, and other kinds of students may all suddenly realize that they cannot schedule classes on their own and must meet with their advisor to have a schedule for fall. Procrastinating to register only compounds this problem, since when they finally get around to it they may not be able to do so easily.
  • An unwelcome surprise for students who procrastinate to register for classes is that, unknown to them, there may be a hold on placed on their account. Colleges can place a hold on a student’s account for a variety of reasons, ranging from unpaid parking tickets or library fines to things that are much harder to clear up. In one instance I worked with a student who was required to do community service as a “penalty” from his freshman year. He had been allowed to register, but it finally caught up with him and he had no idea. He procrastinated on registering for classes until the last minute and discovered that there was a hold on his account because he never completed the penalty. Two weeks before the semester started, and he had frantically search for then squeeze in 30 hours of community service even before he could register for classes in his junior year. Putting off registering for classes not only leaves fewer class choices for the student, but can further delay the discovery of more substantial blocks to getting classes for the next term.