Procrastination has never been something I’ve understood; I am always the person that gets an assignment and dives in immediately, aiming to finish well before the deadline. I work best this way because writing or studying in the last moments/hours before a due date is something I find immensely stressful, and therefore try to avoid.
However, the students I teach don’t necessarily work the same way. This is for a variety of reasons: differences in learning style, study methods, and lack of time management are the main factors, but this actually goes a lot deeper than what we think…
Some students procrastinate not because they don’t see the value, importance, or urgency of an assignment, but because they are overwhelmed. This sense of overwhelm is usually due to fear of failure or confusion about how to proceed.
This is why getting frustrated with students who are chronic procrastinators is fruitless. By calling them out on their seeming lack of interest, you are only perpetuating their fear of failure, and further ingraining their avoidance of stressful experiences.
Paradoxically, some students engage in procrastination as a form of self-sabotage. This is due to their fear of criticism. It’s easier for students to blame their low grades and missing of deadlines to their “bad habit of waiting to the last minute,” rather than recognizing that their low grade is actually a result of their lack of ability. So, saying “I didn’t give myself enough time” protects the students’ self-esteem from the probable truth of “this assignment is above my understanding/skill level/knowledge/ability.”
Simply put: procrastination can be a coping mechanism. Students probably know their indecisiveness and waiting are counterproductive, but they don’t know how to stop.
So how we help students stop procrastinating?
First, spread deadlines out.
Instead of assigning students an enormous project with a single due date, have them present their progress at predetermined checkpoints. For my students, this is usually in the form of having a goal tempo 1 month, 2 months, and 3 months into a piece of music in preparation for a competition or audition. By making each part more manageable (and not saying “this needs to be triple speed and you’re running out of time”), you are reducing the anxiety that can be associated with a singular deadline.
Second, provide specific directions.
There’s a reason why beginners are given extremely specific details on what, how, and when to practice as they first lean an instrument. Why? Because specific and orderly directions take the overwhelm out of “where do I start!?” and make it clear exactly how
to get the desired result.
I write out exact practice plans, talk the students through it, demonstrate each step to help clarify any points of confusion, and have them repeat the assignment(s) back to me.
Third, give supportive feedback.
Students who are afraid of failing or being criticized can feel self-conscious about putting forth their best work. This is best given 1:1, as students can feel exposed about hearing feedback in front of their peers. I use the sandwich technique: 1 thing that has improved, 1 thing that needs improvement, 1 thing that they can do to make it better next time.
Fourth, teach students how to use their time wisely.
Time management is a skill incredibly important to both students and adults. I find that students who don’t plan out their practice time in advance are 1. much less likely to do it, and 2. are much more likely to be underprepared. Students may lose track of time if they don’t plan ahead (and therefore the quality and quantity of their practice suffers), and/or they may not realize how their lack of time management is causing them to fall behind. Put simply: students may think that their habits or study practices are working well when they’re really not.
Fifth, be mindful of their workload.
Students often have peaks and valleys with their classes: some weeks they may have an exam and project due in every class, and some weeks they may be doing review and have a light homework load. If possible, try to coordinate with other teachers so that we can spread out major assignments and avoid having all deadlines be at the same time.
Sixth, be a human.
Yes, it’s important to hold high standards and have high expectations. However, you can do both those things AND also be a human being when events are out of a person’s control. For example, it’s not “being lenient” or “letting students off the hook” by being flexible about a deadline when there are unforeseen circumstances or challenges at home. Remember: these may be young adults that you want to hold to a high standard, but they are also just...young. And human. And imperfect. And with a lot of their surroundings that are out of their direct control.