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Confessions of a neophyte distance learner and full-time procrastinator

By Clare Gill / July 2006

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Why do distance-learning students procrastinate? It's obvious that doing so makes a class harder for both student and instructor. It is also widely reported that poor time-management skills, most notably the tendency to procrastinate, are major contributors to high online course attrition rates. From the instructor's point of view, a clearer understanding of the source of this peculiar behavior, and of how to minimize it, would be very valuable. Unfortunately, such understanding is hard to come by. Procrastinators are, by their very nature, elusive characters. By the time the identity of the worst offenders has been confirmed, they've probably dropped the course. Even if they haven't, have you ever tried to get a survey back from a procrastinator?

In this article, my intention is to present a case study of procrastination in a distance-learning environment from the perspective of a student who lacks even the most rudimentary time-management skills, and is, possibly, the worst procrastinator ever documented—that would be me. Specifically, I describe my experiences over the course of my first year taking a mixture of distance learning and face-to-face courses as part of a graduate program in the College of Education at the University of South Florida (USF), a Research I university located in Tampa, Florida. I begin by using introspection to examine how my experiences as a full-time homemaker over the past decade may have contributed to the challenges I faced. I then compare my vastly different experiences in face-to-face and distance learning courses throughout this period, with the goal of identifying instructional strategies that might succeed with "hard cases" like me. My hope is that these observations will prove relevant and useful to educators, particularly given the large number of individuals in situations similar to mine.


To set the stage for my examination of procrastination, I'll briefly summarize my current situation. I am a housewife in my late 40s, planning to make the transition back into the workforce. Because my two children, ages ten and 12, have become quite independent, about a year ago the time seemed right to go back to work full-time, probably as an elementary school teacher. To prepare for this transition, I felt a need to retrain myself. Specifically, since it has been 25 years since I got my Masters in Elementary Education, I thought it would give me a competitive edge in the job market to obtain more recent educational credentials.

The program I decided to pursue was the Educational Specialist program in Instructional Technology at USF. I felt there were three main advantages to this program. The first was that it would build upon my decade-old experience as a computer trainer, my occupation for the five years preceding my second child. Second, it was one of the few advanced degree programs in education for which I met the prerequisites. Third and most importantly, it was a program that could be done partially or completely online.

I perceived two main advantages of distance learning over face-to-face courses. First, they would allow me to begin retraining in the home, without the expense and logistical challenge of managing multiple babysitters. Second, they would provide me with the opportunity to update computer skills that had become obsolete after a decade of non-use. Thus, it seemed perfectly natural to me that I should choose distance-learning versions of courses whenever they were available. What I had not anticipated, in making such a choice, was how a decade as a full-time homemaker might have impacted the manner in which I approached such courses.

My Educational Re-entry

Beginning last August, I became one of those adventurous moms who wanted to take advantage of the convenience, flexibility, and lower cost of distance-learning options. As I began taking online courses, however, I found myself running into difficulties that I had never experienced in my previous academic career. The worst of these was my tendency to procrastinate. Somehow, the "any time, any place, any path, any pace" mantra used to describe distance learning generally led, in my case, to an excruciating ten-day session of sleepless nights alarmingly close to the end of the semester—when I made it that far.

At first, I blamed myself entirely. As the program progressed, however, I began to realize that what I was experiencing wasn't entirely a result of my innate character flaws. What I came to recognize, instead, was that the very skills I had developed to become an effective homemaker were working against my educational progress. Some examples of these gleaned from my own experiences, and those of my homemaker neighbors, include:

  • Being reactive instead of proactive. As a mother, my normal mode of activity generally requires reactive responses to problems—I am constantly responding or reacting to the immediate needs and desires of my children. The rhythm of child-rearing tends to have a day-to-day flavor. Even my most long-term planning activity, grocery shopping, tends to involve time spans of less than a week. Having developed this mindset over the course of a decade, the concept of a four-month long plan in the form of a syllabus seemed completely foreign to me.
  • Postponing deadlines. Along the same lines, as full-time homemaker, I have to deal with very few hard and fast deadlines. If I want to reschedule some volunteer activity that I am doing in the classroom, the teachers are usually very obliging. Cleaning chores and errands can be postponed, often for a surprisingly long time. So how am I to interpret those items marked "due date" on the syllabus calendar?
  • Scanning instead of focusing. One of the things I had to learn as a homemaker, particularly when my number of children doubled from one to two, was to keep my mind in a constant state of scanning the environment. This, I believe, is a fundamental survival behavior. For example, if my children are swimming in the pool perhaps with a group of neighborhood friends, and I am so deeply engrossed in some activity that I forget to check on them continuously, it would easily be possible for a drowning to occur. Such tragic events occur regularly in Florida, where I live. Unfortunately, such scanning bears a close resemblance to distractibility (to the untrained eye), and does me no favors when the time comes for an activity requiring high levels of sustained concentration.
  • Atrophying computer skills. I didn't even completely realize how badly I needed an "intellectual tune-up" until I was several weeks into the first semester of my courses and I noticed, in the computer lab portion of a face-to-face course, that I had forgotten how to navigate and manage directories, files, and windows. This realization was somewhat upsetting to me, given that I had previously (i.e., ten years ago) been a successful computer trainer—although, in fairness, almost all my work had been done in DOS. A decade is a huge amount of time in information-age years. While this does not appear to relate directly to my time management problems, it did contribute dramatically to the "intimidation factor" associated with the courses—which increased my motivation to procrastinate.

Another factor that led me to believe that it was something about distance learning—and not just courses in general—that was giving me problems was the fact that the comparison between my face-to-face and online performance could not have been more dramatic. In my face-to-face courses, I completed every assignment, handed every activity in on time, received praise from all my instructors, participated in every group session and, of course, did not miss a class. In my online courses, on the other hand, I remained completely oblivious of all due dates, I never handed in an assignment on time, received foreboding emails from my instructors, and lived with a sense of impending disaster the entire semester. I actually decided to withdraw from a doctoral-level course in project management because the situation had become so hopeless.

Having confessed many of my weaknesses as a distance-learning student, I must also add that even in the online courses I sometimes found myself doing what I was supposed to do. As I neared the end of my second semester, it occurred to me that there might be some value to my cataloging those techniques that worked with me—the hardest procrastination case you're ever likely to encounter!—and those that did not.

In preparing this article, my particular interest was in examining instructor-initiated techniques that might be useful for reducing procrastination. At first, this focus might seem peculiar—since I've never taught a distance-learning course. Furthermore, my particular choice of focus could easily be interpreted as an attempt to deflect responsibility for my own shortcomings from me to my instructors. Nothing could be further from my intent, however. Instead, my focus on the instructor side stems from three practical issues. First, I'm still very much a novice in the area of time management, so any recommendations I gave for self-improvement based upon introspection would be highly suspect. Second, even if I were to make beneficial recommendations to procrastinators, it is unclear to me why publishing them in an online magazine targeted towards researchers and instructors would be an effective way to reach out to them. Third, student procrastination, whatever its source, would seem to be a problem that impacts both students and instructors.

Just as my grades suffer from these self-inflicted wounds, instructors must justify high attrition rates, suffer below-par evaluations (although, to be fair, one can usually count on true procrastinators not to fill in the evaluation form) and, ultimately, experience self-doubt about their own efficacy as educators. With respect to this last comment, I'm giving voice to my husband (a long-time distance-learning instructor and frequent eLearn contributor), who spends far more time agonizing over attrition in his self-paced courses than over any other outcome measure.

The Basics

As I searched the literature for good techniques for forestalling procrastination, I found many examples of techniques that are already known. These seem to generally fall under the heading of basic hygiene, and include recommendations such as:

  • Make sure the syllabus is well organized and easy to read.
  • Make sure due dates are clearly specified and included with the assignments.
  • Well organized course materials and clear instructions are better than the alternative, etc.

All of these recommendations are mainly common sense, and are well-documented in the literature. They are also, of course, important. For example, in the project-management course, the draconian late penalties were so well hidden in the lengthy syllabus that I did not realize that it had become mathematically impossible for me to pass the course until halfway through the semester, by which time enrollment in the course had dropped to three students. In this context, I do not want to minimize my own responsibility for failing to be properly prepared by studying the syllabus. What I will note in passing, however, is that the nature of the course syllabus has changed dramatically since I was last in school in the 1980s. What used to be a simple schedule and list of assignments, two pages at most, has become an intimidating document, often a dozen pages long, filled with mandatory administrative policies, honor codes, disability and religious accommodations, complex tables with Web links and even the occasional contractual agreement between instructors and students. Although I'm starting to learn about these things, I still have a strong flight reflex that leads me to avoid that which I cannot immediately understand and prevents me from actively seeking that which I do not want to know. As an example of the latter, in another course—one that I did not drop!—I did not realize that there were due dates until well into the semester when I accidentally clicked the calendar button in Blackboard. I will not dwell on these types of issues further, since I have nothing to add that has not already been addressed in the ample literature on the subject and have no desire to add to the growing catalog of my own weaknesses. I will therefore leave the topic with one further comment. When dealing with a procrastinator, simple design is usually better—since I am just as capable of procrastinating in reading the instructions as I am at putting off anything else.

I will now turn to five techniques that instructors might consider using when faced with procrastinators like me. In each case, I'll explain why I believe that they proved to be effective in my case.

Monitor Student Progress

One of the big differences between my face-to-face classes and distance-learning classes was that in the former, I had the strong sense that my professors were always aware of my progress right from the very beginning of the semester. All my classes were small graduate classes, none of which had more than about a dozen students. As a result, it would have been very visible and very embarrassing if I fell behind. Contrast that with the way I felt in my online classes, where the other students and the instructors were just names on Blackboard to me. Towards the middle of the semester, I did have some interaction with the professors, but this was mainly in the form of scolding—fully justified—mixed with concerns that I had dropped off the face of the earth. The effectiveness of this type of progress monitoring was, at best, mixed. What they mainly did was to alarm me to the degree that I couldn't bear to think about the course for at least another week.

My husband introduced me to a technique that he uses in a self-paced course that has no due dates—the procrastinator's worst nightmare. He developed a program which automatically generates progress reports in the form of Web page attachments to emails that get sent out to students weekly. After implementing this system, he saw dramatic improvements in the time-management behaviors of the students. It's hard to pretend that your online class doesn't exist when you are getting regular emails and phone calls about it!

Create Routine Events

In the two face-to-face classes that I took, weekly classroom events—lectures, activities, and discussions—were all an essential part of the fabric of the course. I believe that this organization helped me to thrive in both classes. There seems to be two elements in play here: the fact that these became a routine and the fact that each class was an event. Interestingly, the only online course where I never fell perilously far behind was organized in the same way: weekly modules all involving the same basic type of activity with completion being signaled by passing an online test.

In the online classes where my time-management performance was most dismal, activities were much less routine, and much more varied in nature. From a learning standpoint, such variety of activities probably deserves to be applauded. For a procrastinator like me, however, it provides numerous psychological incentives to delay. The odd thing is, I would never even dream of missing a face-to-face class. I know that if I did so, there would be no chance to repeat it.

In most of the distance classes I have taken, there are two activities that I would normally describe as events. The first is synchronous sessions. These I have generally been good at attending, once I overcame some initial technical challenges. The more common type of session, however, is the asynchronous discussion. In these, my participation has been nothing short of appalling. Even though these were supposed to take place over a specified period of time—usually a week—they did not seem like real events.

In a typical scenario, we'd be asked to start a thread on a discussion board and reply to at least one other thread. There was no way, however, that these discussions could have been considered conversational. If I didn't start my thread on time, then my classmates could always reply to somebody else's. Similarly, if I did not reply to a thread, somebody else might, but even if they didn't, it did not really matter to the original poster. Presented with this situation, the only thing that would get me to post on time is substantial punishments for not doing so. What I might also observe in this context is that asynchronous discussion, under the proper circumstances, can actually be quite entertaining. Go to a hobby site, such as RV.Net's Open Road Forums where you will find over three-million postings made by recreational vehicle enthusiasts, and it is clear that many people find the interchange of back-and-forth online discussions to be highly engaging.

Given the time flexibility advantages of asynchronous discussions, I'm certainly not recommending abandoning them. It does seem to me, however, that they might be structured so as to require genuine discussions. The "each student must start a thread and then reply to another student's thread" format that was utilized by many of my instructors does not really require interaction. A topic presented for discussion, with a skilled instructor moderating it, could lead to much more give and take. There are examples of this approach being used for business cases. In these protocols, discussions are routine (e.g., occur on a periodic basis) and are structured much more like events: lasting for a specified period of time, such as a week, after which they are closed. What is interesting to note is that such closure is achieved not by some form of electronic lockdown, but rather by the posting of concluding remarks. As a procrastinator, I can recognize the need to post before the instructor's conclusions appear. My husband, who teaches such courses, also reports that the amount of attrition he has experienced in such courses is negligible, although he attributes that mainly to the makeup of the student population.

Implement Group Dependencies

Just because I'm a bad time-manager, doesn't mean I'm a bad person. Exploiting this fact was the basis of my greatest area of success in online courses. While I may be willing to do things that damage my own grades, I am very reluctant to see my actions have a negative effect on others. For this reason, I have always been very responsible when it comes to group projects.

This is not to say that procrastinators like me will welcome group projects. To the contrary, the very fact that they limit our flexibility and force us to adapt to someone else's schedule will make us resist them. Every group I joined seemed to choose inconvenient times to meet online and met far more often than I thought was necessary. But you cannot argue with success. I was far more engaged by these group activities than by anything else I did in these online courses. One thing I would recommend, also from my own experiences, is not to be too haphazard in assigning students to groups. Usually within about three weeks of the start of an online class, it has become pretty obvious (to everyone in the class) who the non-procrastinators are—they're the only ones whose names have appeared in any online activities. Their talents need to be spread around. For example, there was a group project assigned in my distance-learning class and I was placed in a group where one of the students was very diligent and relentlessly organized. She worked as a full-time elementary school teacher and she had taken more than ten distance-learning courses. She also proved to be a real pro at producing high quality work in a timely manner. Her conscientious and professional attitude towards her school work really inspired me. It also exhausted me.

It may be that dependencies similar to working in a group on a project can be accomplished in other ways. Some of the wiki and Web site creation activities in my classes seem to be tending that way. Although not formal group activities, I recognized that each student's page (or piece of a page) was part of an overall design. The site as a whole would therefore suffer from my missing content.

What is clear to me about groups is that I found that the combination of my own sense of responsibility and the pressure from one or more group members could be a powerful motivator. It almost reached the point where I was behaving responsibly.

Don't Make the Student Lose Hope!

As a procrastinating student, I was fortunate that most of the professors and teaching assistants in my online courses encouraged me to keep trying to complete the assignments in spite of my less-than-perfect student behavior. Specifically, when I started to realize the depth of the hole that I had dug myself into, they managed to provide me with enough flexibility so that I felt that it was possible to complete their courses. Most commonly this took the form of not penalizing me too heavily for my lateness.

There was one exception to this pattern. As mentioned earlier, I did have one distance instructor for a course in project management that was unwilling to work with my lateness problem. He said that he would not reduce any of the high penalties associated with turning in late work—after I asked for his forbearance about halfway through the semester. Since that made it impossible for me to pass the course, I naturally withdrew. I'm willing to confess to being irresponsible, not to being stupid.

In analyzing this instructor's decision, it is easy to see that there are two opposing perspectives. On the one hand, by strictly enforcing his policies, he was the only professor who could not be accused of enabling further procrastination on my part, by letting me "get away with it." On the other hand, inflexibility such as this can be one of the reasons that the dropout rate for distance-learning courses is so high. I am not in a position to make a judgment regarding whether flexibility or inflexibility is the proper policy. What I can say with complete certainty, however, is that if I had not been granted extraordinary leniency with respect to deadlines in my first semester, there would not have been a second semester for me.

Providing hope to students does not necessarily have to be in the form of abandoning course policies. For example, one professor kept in regular contact by email with the class as a whole and also with me individually. She also asked me to email her my plan of action to catch up with all the work. This helped me to continue working on the course assignments even though I had gotten behind as a result of procrastination. In my experience, I have found that regular communication with procrastinating students is vital.

Don't Give Up Hope on the Student!

There is no doubt that dealing with procrastinating students like me can be very frustrating. Chances are, however, that we have other qualities that we use to compensate for our time-management deficits, thereby allowing us to function in our other day-to-day lives. Unfortunately, a distance-learning course is probably the worst lens through which to view these qualities—at least until the last two weeks of the semester. I have proposed, however, that procrastination behavior is (to some extent) a behavior that is amplified by recent experience, e.g., a decade of being a homemaker. If this is truly the case, then it follows that the behavior can be unlearned with time and considerable patience.

As a procrastinating student, I was fortunate that most of my professors and teaching assistants were not inclined to give up hope on their students. They were willing to recognize and encourage my efforts and improvements despite my procrastination. For these instructors the reward has been seeing dramatic improvements in my performance. Within nine months, I have become comfortable with a range of technologies that were previously foreign to me, including email, course-management systems, presentation software, multimedia software, and Web-page design (not to mention MS-Windows, that was just becoming popular when I left the workforce).

I believe that chronic procrastinating students, particularly homemakers retraining for the 21st century workforce, have a lot to offer. I believe, equally strongly that we can be very frustrating to deal with. I think it is important for instructors to recognize, however, that the behaviors we exhibit are in no way intended to be disrespectful. We are going to be an increasingly important part of the workforce in the coming decades and, as already noted, we stand to gain particularly great benefits from being able to participate in distance learning.


By choosing to limit myself to suggestions that could be acted upon by instructors, for the previously mentioned reasons, I am implicitly making the assumption that it is to their advantage to minimize attrition. I already mentioned some possible benefits of doing so: better evaluations, fewer awkward meetings with department chairs, etc. I am therefore assuming that avoiding these consequences might motivate their interest in my experiences. Of course there is an entirely different approach that could be used to address attrition: employ better diagnostic tools to identify procrastinators and then strongly discourage them from enrolling, or remaining enrolled, in the course. In this way, individuals lacking the skills or maturity to complete the course could be dropped before any costs, on either side, are incurred.

Although I have no personal experience with such tests—one of my classes offered one but I delayed so long in taking it that the link was disabled by the instructor before I got around to looking at it—I can see how instructors might find their results informative. They might, for example, use the results as a basis for counseling students early on in the course and take preventive measures to help deter the procrastinating behavior. The obvious danger here is that the instructor might also be tempted to use the results to encourage all difficult students—by which, of course, I mean students like me—to seek another educational venue. Unfortunately, this outcome could be even worse than attrition, since it means that many students would be discouraged before they were even given the chance to try. If access is denied to all procrastinators based upon the likelihood that they will not succeed, these individuals may never have the chance to develop the skills necessary to overcome their weaknesses in time management. In this context, I should point out that my career path is not unique. In the US alone, there are roughly 5.4 million stay-at-home mothers and 98,000 dads in the same role, about half of whom are likely to return to the workforce by the time their children turn eighteen. It would be unfortunate if we were disqualified from distance learning before we had the chance to learn its peculiar rhythms. On the other hand, a distance-learning course with too many procrastinators seems likely to spiral so far out of control that it would not benefit any of the students, including the procrastinators themselves. Thus, some steps probably need to be taken to ensure a balanced class.


In presenting my experiences as a neophyte distance-learner, it has not been my intention to come across as if I were any kind of expert. While I believe that these reflections apply to me, I cannot say with any certainty that they will generalize to others. Where I do feel on solid ground, is in putting forth three basic ideas. The first is that homemakers returning to the workforce represent an important part of today's and tomorrow's workforce, and that we stand to benefit greatly from access to distance learning as we attempt to reclaim our pre-homemaker skills. The second is that there are many traits that we acquire during our homemaker period that are the antithesis of the skills for effective distance learning. The final point is that there are techniques that instructors may employ that could help the procrastinator adapt to the unfamiliar distance-learning environment. While we may not be the easiest students to teach, we nonetheless offer the potential for great payback.


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