However, the lower grades received by the worst procrastinators show that these rationalizations are nothing more than wishful thinking, said Bruce Tuckman, author of the study and a professor of education at Ohio State University.
"The results show that procrastinators don't work better under pressure, but it may be the only way they work," Tuckman said. "They don't have any idea how well they might do if they didn't procrastinate."
The most severe procrastinators earned an average grade in the class of 2.9 on a 4.0 scale. Moderate procrastinators had average grades of 3.4, while low procrastinators scored an average of 3.6. Tuckman presented results of the study August 22 in Chicago at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.
The subjects in the study were 116 students who took a study skills class taught by Tuckman at Ohio State. The class is designed to teach learning and motivation strategies to help students learn from lecture and text, prepare for exams, research and write papers, build self-confidence and responsibility, and manage time.
A third of the students were minority, slightly more than half were women and about 60 percent were freshmen or sophomores. The average overall GPA in the class was 2.40, compared to a campuswide average of 2.87.
At the beginning of the course, students completed a questionnaire developed by Tuckman that measured their level of procrastination. They were then classified as high, moderate or low procrastinators.
Tuckman said the 10-week course was designed to make it tough for students to procrastinate. They met 4.5 hours a week in a computer lab, and they had 216 activities and assignments that had to be completed over the course of the quarter. About 90 percent of the assignments were done online and submitted electronically. If the assignments were not done within the specified time, the students received a grade of zero. Many of the assignments could be done during class, but students could use the computer lab outside of class time to finish assignments up to the time of the deadline.
During the course of the class, the students also completed a questionnaire that listed 15 common rationalizations for procrastination and their responses to how much each applied to them.
Results showed that low procrastinators were much less likely than moderate or high procrastinators to use rationalizations. The rationalizations that were most used by the moderate and high procrastinators tended to be of the "wishful thinking" variety, Tuckman said.
For example, high procrastinators were more likely to say they put off assignments because "I'm just waiting for the best time to do it" and "I know I can pull this out at the last minute."
"Procrastinators are somewhat selective in the way they rationalize," Tuckman said. "They tend to choose rationalizations that make it seem that waiting to do an assignment is a good thing for them.
"Procrastinators say they are waiting for the best time to do an assignment, but what they are really waiting for is such a high level of anxiety that it forces them to do something."
The study also found that high procrastinators scored lower in a measure of self-regulation - the ability to control their own actions to meet a goal. This suggests that procrastinators find it difficult to discipline themselves to work hard to meet deadlines and succeed in a class, Tuckman said.
Tuckman said that it was interesting that high procrastinators - while they did more poorly than others in this course - did not have overall GPAs that were lower than low or moderate procrastinators.
"High levels of procrastination were definitely a liability in this kind of course with its many deadlines," he said. "But apparently high procrastination is not a liability in all college courses."
However, Tuckman said other studies suggest high procrastinators suffer more stress than do other students. They may also be holding back their own level of achievement, even if they are not below the average GPA of other students.
The key to overcoming procrastination may be to recognize the inaccuracies of the common "wishful thinking" rationalizations, Tuckman said.
"There's no way to know if you do your best work under pressure if you never try another way," he said. "If students tried to do their assignments in a more timely way they may be surprised at the results."
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