When I mention the problem of student procrastination to teachers, I often get a sense that they’re thinking: “That’s not news – we all know it’s a problem.” Yet even though teachers might acknowledge this point, they often don’t act like they do in their day-to-day teaching.
Procrastination arises because when people look at something they don’t want to do, such as a maths exercise, or even simply think about a subject they don’t like, it sparks sensations of physical pain in the area of the brain that processes such feelings. To be rid of them, you must turn your attention towards something more pleasant. The result? You feel happier – albeit temporarily.
You do this once, you do it twice, it’s no big deal. You do it frequently, however, and it can have major negative consequences for your life.
The science of cramming
Procrastination tends to lead to cramming, which is the opposite of what you want your students to do. When we sleep, the brain builds the new neural architecture that underpins learning. But only so many new connections can be formed in one period of sleep. So you want your students to space out what they’re learning – a little bit every day, over a number of days, so that their neural architecture can continue to grow. You definitely don’t want them to cram everything in at once.
Hence, tackling procrastination should be at the forefront of how you manage your lessons. One of the best ways to do this is to develop a learning schedule for your students that involves frequent repetition and practice of the concepts you’re covering. Testing helps with this. Students taking a test will learn far more than they would by simply studying for the same amount of time. It forces them to break down the learning and to stop procrastinating.
There’s another reason to avoid procrastination, which relates to the fundamentals of how we think. It turns out that we have two very different modes of thinking.
The “focused” mode is when we are concentrating on something, such as figuring out a problem or understanding a new concept. The “diffuse” mode involves one of many neural resting states; our brains are often in this relaxed mode when we’re standing in the shower, walking or absent-mindedly staring out of the window on a bus. Learning or problem-solving involves the ability to toggle between the focused and diffuse modes.
Does Salvador Dali have the key?
Salvador Dali, one of the great surrealist painters, didn’t spend all his time focusing on his work. He also deliberately invoked the diffuse mode. When he had an issue to resolve, he’d sit in a chair with a key in his hand, dangling it just above the floor. Then he’d relax and let his thoughts run free, drifting into a neural resting state. But just as he’d relax so much that he’d fall asleep, the key would fall from his hand and the clatter would wake him up. He’d then take those new connections – new thoughts – from the diffuse mode back into the focused mode, where he could refine and consciously understand them.
If you think that accessing resting states is only for artist types, think again. According to legend, Thomas Edison – one of the world’s most influential inventors – used to do the same thing: when he had a problem to figure out, he’d relax in a chair with ball bearings in his hand and, at the point of falling asleep, the noise of the falling ball bearings would wake him up.
The lesson for us all is that problem-solving or understanding often takes time, and we have to be able to toggle back and forth between neural modes to be successful.
As teachers we should try to facilitate this. If your students are looking to solve a difficult problem, make them stop, back off and take time away from the conundrum – it is often a vital part of the process of understanding new and difficult concepts. Giving pupils this time helps to prevent procrastination.
Teaching with tomatoes
You can also teach students to beat procrastination in a more direct way by learning to use the “Pomodoro Technique” (the name is based on the tomato-shaped kitchen timer).
“Doing a Pomodoro” is simplicity itself. First, remove all distractions – turn off the sound on your mobile phone and the notifications on your computer, and make sure you’re in a place where disturbances are reduced to a minimum. Then set your timer to 25 minutes. Finally, just concentrate on your work.
Almost anyone – including you – can focus on a task for 25 minutes. It is important to give yourself a little reward when you’re done – a few minutes’ surfing the internet, or even just stretching or mindlessly chatting, allows your brain to enjoyably change its focus for a while.
Of course, it’s a challenge. When distracting thoughts arise – and they inevitably will – don’t try to push them away. Just acknowledge them and let them drift silently by.
For example, when I use this technique (I use it quite often), I’ll sometimes get about three minutes into my 25-minute stint and go, “Oh my goodness, I’ve only done three minutes – I’ve got 22 minutes to go. The agony, I can’t do it!” But then I just let the thoughts drift by – that’s the best way to deal with them.
Teach this to your pupils. It’s a little like an intense 25-minute workout at a mental gym, followed by some brain relaxation.
Barbara Oakley is a professor of engineering at Oakland University in the US and author of A Mind for Numbers: how to excel at math and science
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