Procrastination, Personality and Performance

NADE SELECTED CONFERENCE PAPERS, VOLUME 7, 2001 Procrastination, Personality and Performance Cathrine Wambach · Gretche

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Procrastination, Personality and Performance Cathrine Wambach · Gretchen Hansen · Thomas Brothen Abstract This paper briefly reviews some theoretical perspectives on procrastination and presents the results of research on both self-report and observed procrastination in a General Psychology course. We taught the course using a modified PSI structure with computer mediated feedback and testing exercises that provided the opportunity for students to delay tasks, yet still complete the course with a desirable grade. The results found a moderate relationship between self-report and observed procrastination, a negative relationship between course grade and procrastination, and mixed findings for the relationship between procrastination and personality. Procrastination is putting off a task beyond the time when you should be starting it if you expect to do a good job without experiencing considerable stress. We all procrastinate at times, but for some students procrastination becomes a serious obstacle to success in school. We have had many opportunities to observe procrastination in our Introductory Psychology course, which enrolls about 240 students each semester and includes students with diverse academic preparation. In order to accommodate the broad range of learners we enroll, we use a method of instruction called PSI (Personalized System of Instruction) (Keller, 1968) which we have augmented with written and computer based activities. Students read the text, complete the study guide and then use a variety of computer quizzes to get feedback on their mastery of the material. When they are ready they take chapter quizzes. Students can complete the feedback exercises in our computer classroom, or over the Internet from anywhere they have access to a computer. The students must complete the chapter quizzes in the classroom, which gives us an

opportunity to work with students individually as they learn psychology. There are no lectures in the course and only the study guide assignments have due dates. There are many advantages to this pedagogy (Brothen & Wambach, 2000), especially for underprepared students. Students get a great deal of feedback and personal attention and the flexibility of the structure accommodates a wide variety of personal situations. However, it does create opportunities for some students to postpone starting their work, and others postpone the most anxiety producing work, namely the quizzes. Doing the work of reading and completing the study guide is a significant hurdle for some students. Delaying tasks is a problem associated with this pedagogy, so we decided to study it more systematically. In 1999 we began reviewing the literature on procrastination and, with the help of a graduate student in personality, Piers Steel, we collected data on the work patterns of students in our class. We analyzed records of how much work students completed and when it was completed. We surveyed




students about procrastination, anxiety and a variety of other personality traits. We interviewed students about their work habits, created writing assignments, and observed procrastinators when they came to class. Students who fall significantly behind tend to fall into three categories: those who never start, those who work sporadically, and those who do the preparatory work and avoid quizzes. These types correspond roughly to the types of procrastinators described in the research literature: arousal, avoidance, fear-of-failure and rebellious. Arousal procrastinators enjoy working under pressure. They believe that arousal facilitates their performance. They claim they work more effectively and efficiently under time pressure. Avoidance procrastinators avoid unpleasant tasks. If they don’t find an activity inherently interesting they do not do it unless forced. These students may also have short attention spans and be easily distracted by opportunities to do something more enjoyable than the task at hand. Fear-offailure procrastinators want very much to succeed but they lack confidence in their abilities. They are afraid that if they try they will fail anyway. When they do attempt the task their anxiety may be so high that it interferes with their performance, creating a situation best described as learned helplessness. These students may describe themselves as test anxious, or as having trouble taking tests. Rebellious students like doing things their own, less effective way. They do not listen to advice from others, especially those in authority. These students become easily frustrated and display frustration visibly. When they are frustrated they focus on external explanations for their failure and do not respond to feedback. The literature and our experience suggested that postponing coursework is more complex than suggested by the concept

of procrastination. We began our investigation with these questions: 1. Do procrastinators tend to have better, worse, or about the same outcomes as non procrastinators? 2. Do procrastinators experience more anxiety than non procrastinators in relation to deadlines? 3. Do procrastinators tend to have other distinct personality traits, such as low conscientiousness? 4. Can we identify different types of procrastinators based on their behavior in the classroom? 5. How do deadlines affect how students pace their work in a class? The methods we used to conduct this research, and the instruments we used to measure variables, are described in Steel, Brothen & Wambach (2000) and Wambach & Brothen (2001). The computer software used to deliver the course activities kept track of when computer based work was completed. We also recorded when study guide chapters were completed. Personality related traits such as extraversion, conscientiousness, dominance, defensiveness and self-monitoring were measured and students used this information as the basis for several writing assignments. At several intervals, students were asked to report their level of anxiety and intentions to do work in the following week. We interviewed a sample of students about their work habits. Our results suggested self-reported procrastination (hereafter described as procrastination) and postponing tasks are related, but not the same thing. Both procrastination and postponing tasks were related to lower achievement in the course. The correlation between procrastination and number of tests completed suggested that procrastinators did not do as well in the course as non procrastinators. However,




there was no relationship between procrastination and final exam score, suggesting that in the end there was not much difference in overall mastery of the course information. Postponing tasks was strongly correlated with tests completed. This is because students who postponed tasks often did not get them all done, which dramatically affected their grade. Postponing tasks was also negatively correlated with final exam score suggesting that postponers achieved less mastery of the course material. There were also differences in the ways procrastination and postponing tasks related to personality traits. Procrastination was moderately correlated with conscientiousness and defensiveness, suggesting that describing oneself as a procrastinator may indicate a general willingness to say negative things about oneself. Postponing tasks was weakly correlated with extraversion and dominance suggesting that postponers tend to describe themselves as somewhat more outgoing and forceful than other students. Surprisingly, there was little relationship between anxiety and either procrastination or postponing tasks. Also, students who were behind in their work expressed about the same intentions to do work in the following week as students who were caught up. This suggests that the postponers intend to work, but somehow get sidetracked. Having studied the way that students go about completing work in our class, we have come to some conclusions about ways in which we can work, or not work, with students who postpone tasks. We vary our strategies somewhat depending on the type of procrastinator. 1. Arousal procrastinators: Arousal seekers with talent and strong skills can accomplish a lot in a short time. Regular deadlines

may motivate arousal procrastinators enough to keep them from falling too far behind. 2. Avoidance procrastinators: We never actually meet some of the worst avoiders. Once they find out that they cannot come to class and just sit there, they don’t come. When they do work, they do the minimum to pass. Some students who appear to be avoiders have serious problems that interfere with their student role. Others allow themselves to be distracted by problems that would not create an obstacle for other students. 3. Fear-of-failure procrastinators: These procrastinators often complete the easier tasks in the course but put off taking quizzes. By delaying the quizzes they take a situation that creates mild anxiety and turn it into one that is very anxiety producing. We identify which students are avoiding quizzes and coax them to take the first step. Tutors are very effective in working with this group. 4. Rebellious procrastinators: This group is difficult to work with because they do not like to be pushed, display negative affect when the demands of the course are high and blame others for their difficulty in completing the work. Unlike the fear-of-failure procrastinators, they are annoyed by the easy tasks and want to move as quickly and with as little effort as possible. Our tutors dislike working with them. We try to deal with their negative affect by acknowledging their




frustration and explaining the logic of the course tasks.

Brothen, T., & Wambach, C. (2000). A research based approach to developing a computer-assisted course for developmental students. In, J.L. Higbee & P.L. Dwinell. NADE Monograph: The Many Faces of Developmental Education. p. 59-72. Warrensburg, MO: National Association for Developmental Education.

When students become frustrated by high expectations for mastery instructors are strongly tempted to reduce their expectations for mastery to avoid unpleasantness. Richardson, Fiske and Okun (1983) described this thoroughly in their book Literacy in the Open Access College. However, it is only in demanding situations, what Vygotsky called the Zone of Proximal Development, that students have the opportunity to become more competent (Wambach, Brothen & Dikel, 2000). Students who are motivated to achieve mastery can do so in environments that are responsive. Responsive environments provide an explicit process for achieving mastery, feedback on progress toward goals, and encouragement and guidance from the teacher. Students who are not goal directed, or are so impulsive that they cannot complete schoolwork, are beyond the help of most instructors. Developmental education is engaged in triage (Wambach & Brothen, 1990). We take in a large and diverse group of students. Some easily meet the demands we set for them. Some will not meet the demands we create no matter how we attempt to support them because they will not engage the process. W can help some of them achieve by providing the appropriate supports. These students, the ones who are willing to work but lack the skills and confidence necessary for success, can be greatly helped by what developmental education has to offer.

Keller, F. (1968). "Goodbye teacher..." Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 79-89. Richardson, R., Fisk, E., & Okun, M. (1983). Literacy in the open-access college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Steel, P., Brothen, T., & Wambach, C. (2000). Procrastination, personality, performance and mood. Personality and Individual Differences 30, 95-106. Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological Processes. (M. Cole, V. JohnSetiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman, Eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Wambach, C., & Brothen, T. (In Press). A case study of procrastination in a computer assisted introductory psychology course. Research and Teaching in Developmental Education. Wambach, C., Brothen, T., & Dikel, T. (2000). Toward a developmental theory for developmental educators. Journal of Developmental Education 24, 1, 2-4, 6, 8, 10, 29.


For further information please contact Cathrine Wambach · University of Minnesota, General College · 128 Pleasant St. S.E. · Minneapolis, MN 55455 · Phone (612) 615-2547 · [email protected]