Ask the grumpies: Do procrastinators sink or swim come college time?

First Gen American asks:

How many of your chronic procrastinator students sink vs swim come college time? Asking for a friend.

If you’re talking about my students here at the R1 where I work… most of them do just fine.  They’re smart and they’re good at pulling things off last minute.  Sure, they might get Bs instead of As, and maybe the occasional C, but they’re fine.  It’s not that hard for procrastinators who were good enough to get into the school to do fine in my major.  Because generally they’re smart or they couldn’t have procrastinated and gotten in.

If you’re talking about student at say, MIT or Caltech… not so much.  There is a lot of sinking.  The people who do well aren’t necessarily the smartest (smart, definitely, but necessarily super-geniuses) but they’re the ones who can handle failure and know how to work hard and start early.

Which reminds me also:  DH taught in an engineering major at my R1, and his students were definitely sinking.  They’d sunk out of one major and into his and many of them were on their way to Political Science (where they would likely be fine) or just dropping out.

In the above two engineering situations, people were smart enough to get in and had enough flex in their high schools to be able to deal with procrastination, but they couldn’t cut it once they got to college.

Academic Grumpeteers, what’s been your experience with procrastinators?


9 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Do procrastinators sink or swim come college time?”

  1. First Gen American Says:

    I had to work many hours everyday to keep up with engineering and there was a lot of weeding out for sure in year 1. I would often wonder how professors thought it was humanly possible to do the assignments presented in the time allotted. My alma mater also has a high suicide rate at present that they are trying to address. My kid is applying there. But then I remember the kid in my class who was like “I didn’t study at all but learned a lot of new stuff during the test” and he would ace them.

    Interested in hearing the other comments. My only hope is that my kid truly loves engineering in college as much as he did in HS. When he likes something, he tends to go all in on it. The other hope is his HS is a lot better than mine was so he shouldn’t be playing as much catch up as I was.

  2. SP Says:

    If students attend & listen to lecture and work through the weekly problem sets (by actually struggling, not coasting and copying), the structure of some classes gets you a lot of the way there (of course you still have to review/study). What my DH is seeing coming out of the pandemic is students are expecting all lectures be video recorded, then students can fall behind very easily if they don’t keep up. There are homework “groups” where they can get help w/homework. So, you can kind of coast until there is a test, which is bad.

    I have a friend who teaches at a community college, and it sounds like that system is SO broken right with most classes asynch online (due to enrollment prefs) and many students who don’t have the study skills to be successful in this environment.

    I guess my point is that if a student follows the basics of the weekly class prep, procrastination can be worked around, to a degree.

  3. Steph Says:

    It really depends on the student. I’ve noticed that chronic procrastinators stuggle on my exams because they don’t have time to work through practice problems, which is necessary for being able to address the new problems on an exam. In classes where I give writing projects, chronic procrastination either leads to unintentional plagiarism (insufficient paraphrasing and/or lack of citations), or to turning things in late. I have a fairly generous late policy, which helps as long as students eventually turn things in. In classes with strict late policies, it’s going to have a serious impact on a student’s grade.

    I was a chronic procrastinator through high school, and worked to get better in college. I think I was pretty successful, though it’s becoming an issue again even though I’m now getting treatment for my ADHD.

  4. Cloud Says:

    I am not a professor and it has been so many years since I was in college that I wouldn’t take my memories seriously… but I want to encourage anyone who struggles with procrastination to consider using college as a time to find techniques and strategies to deal with that. I.e., don’t focus on whether you can succeed in college while still procrastinating. Instead, focus on what resources the college has that you can use to figure out how to learn to work with your tendency to procrastinate. Success post-college for most career paths still involves deadlines and in many careers you will have a ceiling on your potential if you can’t be counted on to deliver on time. More than that – deadlines get less clearly demarcated but are still real, and your colleagues who have to manage around your tendency to deliver late will not appreciate that. This can have consequences for your career.

    We all procrastinate sometimes – I’m doing it right now! – but to succeed in most careers you have to be able to manage this on your own. It seems to me that college is the perfect time to figure out how you’re going to manage it.

  5. CG Says:

    I always tell my students that the trick is to find out your optimal amount of procrastination, which is a trial-and-error process and specific to each individual. You don’t want to start something so early that you feel no sense of urgency and it takes you a lot longer than it otherwise would have, nor do you want to wait til the last second so you are very stressed and don’t do a good job. My college career was characterized more by fewer, larger assignments with longer time horizons, so it was possible to experiment with starting at different amounts of time before the deadline. For disciplines with weekly problem sets, this would of course look different.

    However, too many of my students have not yet gotten this balance right and wait until the last minute, where snafus like IT issues or apartment maintenance issues or car breakdowns stymie them. I think these issues are real, but the students could deal with them and still get work in ontime if they hadn’t waited until the last second.

  6. Alice Says:

    I think that what we call procrastination is often either a time management technique or an expression of discomfort with the task.

    Time management: I sometimes don’t start on something straightaway because it’s not the right moment– I may know that something is still in flux, I may be waiting for inputs, I may be mulling over what needs to be be done. Or I may have something else that’s a bigger priority in the moment. Time management is a process and a skill. If it’s truly time management, then what looks like “procrastination” only becomes problematic if I’m wrong about what’s happening or how much time something is actually going to take for me to do well. With my life as it is right now, I rarely put things off unless I very strongly think that it would be too early– I don’t have a lot of unclaimed time in which to make up the difference if I’m wrong.

    Discomfort with the task: This one is just that if I’m not comfortable with what I’m doing– if it’s a big stretch from my usual knowledge/skill set, sometimes I’m inclined to put something off because I’m uncomfortable with engaging with whatever it is. I may not feel confident in where to begin or how to approach whatever it is. I’ve gotten better about making myself get things done despite discomfort, mostly because I know that avoiding the task just amps up the pressure and doesn’t help the product. Plus I have to experience the emotional side of the discomfort for longer than if I’d just gotten it done sooner, and who needs that?

    I’m not an academic, but I think the problem comes when students (or anyone, really) lose control of the situation and it hits the results in a meaningful way. And even then, a few incidences aren’t usually impossible to navigate through. The real problem comes if the person doesn’t know how to change their time management/deal with their discomfort after the first few times when they’ve bashed into the consequence of a bad result. You have to have the self-analysis to recognize that putting things off was the problem, plus the knowledge and ability to do things differently when you need to.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The way we (economists) model procrastination is with discount rates causing time bias. We put things off because we care more about us at time T than we do us at time T+N. There’s a lot in life that is fun, especially at college. Work usually isn’t as fun. Is that time management? Maybe, but not really in the way that is described.

  7. Jenny F. Scientist Says:

    Procrastinators in Chem classes don’t do the homework or practice and then they fail, usually quite briskly. Nobody is brilliant enough to get it all without any work, and I’ve taught some very, very bright children.

    They all go into the business school here (paging a certain muskrat….)

  8. Omdg Says:

    I learned not to procrastinate 5th grade when we got a mountain of homework every night, and again in high school, when I discovered that if I did a little every day I got As, but if I procrastinated I got Bs because I am not a last-minute kind of person. College was a pretty seamless transition because I had gotten into the habit of *not* putting off my problem sets to the last minute. I knew several people – mostly men – who did things last minute and they got mostly Bs and Cs in college (and the occasional D or F). One guy had a reputation for being “so smart” because he was a math major who rarely studied, but he got mostly Bs and As, and couldn’t write a sentence to save his life. He’s pretty successful now though. It often feels like these rules about getting things done on time and getting good grades don’t really apply to men. :-P

    We didn’t have engineering at my college, but we’re on the quarter system. There really wasn’t anywhere to hide since midterms started at around week 3. I remember in my reading/writing intensive classes often having trouble getting through 300 pages or more per week, fortunately if you paid attention in class you were usually ok even if you didn’t read every word.

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