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Procrastination Among Students in Institutes of Higher Learning: Challenges for K-Economy

Written by Noran Fauziah Yaakub (PhD) while serving at the School of Languages and Scientific Thinking, Universiti Utara Malaysia (2000).


In the Western world, the word procrastination has been said to have a long history. However, not much has been researched and written on it. One of the earliest references to this topic was made in a 17th century sermon, which connected the concept of procrastination, task avoidance or delay with sin. In other words, to procrastinate is to sin.

Procrastination has been defined as "letting the low-priority tasks get in the way of high priority ones," (http://www.ucc.vt.edu/stdysk/procrast.html). It is also defined as avoiding doing a task which needs to be accomplished. For example, one would rather be spending time socializing with friends or relatives rather than working on an important work project that is due soon; or one would rather be watching an exciting movie at the cinema or television rather than sitting down at a desk for an upcoming quiz or test.

A procrastinator is someone who knows what (s)he wants to do, is equipped to perform the task, is trying and planning to perform the task, but does not complete the task, or excessively delays performing the task. Normally, the procrastinator will work on less important obligation, rather than fulfilling the more important obligation, or (s)he may use his or her time wastefully in some minor activity or pleasure. In most cases, procrastinators keep themselves ready to work, but end up avoiding the activity.

It is acknowledged that procrastination is a common and at times, serious problem. This complex phenomenon is manifested in both the general public and the academic environment (Ferrari, Johnson and McCown, 1995). Students have been found to have high procrastination and this tendency seems to increase in higher education. Most research on procrastination that had been carried out has focused primarily on college students (McCown and Roberts, 1994). Findings from such studies showed academic procrastination to be quite prevalent among college students. Procrastination tends to plateau in the early twenties and then decline until the sixties (McCown and Roberts, 1994). Rates of procrastination among college students have been reported between 46% (Solomon and Rothblum, 1984) and as high as 95% (Ellis and Knaus, 1977). Students were found to procrastinate more for written assignments and less for tests or examinations (Solomon and Rothblum, 1984).

In addition, frequent academic procrastination has been found across racial categories and regardless of gender (Ferrari, Johnson and McCown, 1995). Negative effects of procrastination has been associated with missing deadlines for submitting assignments, delaying the taking of self-paced quizzes, claiming test anxiety, obtaining low grades and low cumulative Grade Point Average (Beswick, Rothblum and Mann, 1988; Clark and Hill, 1994; Lay and Burns, 1991; Rothblum et al., 1986; Wesley, 1994; Wolfe and Johnson, 1995). Older adults were also found to procrastinate, at the rate of 1 in 5.

There are three components in procrastination, namely, behavioral, cognitive, and emotional. Behaviorally, procrastination is viewed as a bad habit which has been reinforced. Students have been found to avoid tasks which they find unpleasant (Solomon and Rothblum, 1984). They would rather be engaged doing activities which are more rewarding, especially with short term over long term gain, or the anxiety associated with studying. It is also related to stress.

Procrastination has been found to result from cognitive distortions or faulty thinking (Ellis and Knaus, 1977) and also related to problems perceiving and estimating time (Aitken, 1982). Procrastinators in the first category often have perfectionist expectation and are over-conscientious. They are believed to fear success or failure which eventually leads to neurotic avoidance. They lack self-efficacy and self-esteem, and are self-conscious and self-critical.

On the other hand, impulsive procrastinators may fail to pick up cues from the environment (Ferrari and Emmons, 1994). Reasons related to this category of procrastination include the inability to delay gratification of pleasure, lacking self control, lacking motivation for achieving targeted goals, and lacking energy or organizational abilities. Ironically, procrastinators are often resistant to change. This is done in order to maintain their self or sense of control (Salizman, 1979).

Researchers have identified different types of academic procrastination, such as low conscientiousness and anxiety-related procrastination (Ferrari et al., 1995). Academic procrastinators typically make five cognitive distortions which promote and maintain their task avoidance, namely:

1. Overestimation of time left to perform tasks,
2. Underestimation of time required to complete tasks,
3. Overestimation of future motivational states,
4. Misreliance on the necessity of emotional congruence to succeed at task, and
5. Belief that working when not in mood to work is sub-optional.

The literature has revealed several causes for procrastination. First, is poor time management. Someone who procrastinates suggests (s)he is unable to manage time wisely. It implies uncertainty of priorities, goals and objectives. There is also the feeling of overwhelm doing a certain task. Subsequently, one postpones doing academic assignments for a later date, while focussing on unproductive activities.

The inability to concentrate or having low levels of conscientiousness in one's work is a second reason for procrastinating. This difficulty may be due to distractions in the environment, such as noise, cluttered study desk or trying to do an assignment on a bed. A third factor for procrastinating is the fear and anxiety related to failure. A person in this category would spend more time worrying about forthcoming tests and projects rather than completing them. Negative belief about one's capability is another reason to procrastinate. Sixth, personal problem may hamper one's progress in completing a task. Seven, unrealistic expectation and perfectionism may also be another blocking hurdle for procrastinators.

In Malaysia, the main objective of higher education is instrumental in nature, viz., to produce responsible Malaysians with professional qualifications, skills, leadership qualities, ethical and moral values (Higher Education Department, July 2000). In line with this objective, it is therefore the responsibility of every university to ensure that this objective be achieved. In the spirit of striving toward an industrialized society, one of the strategic plans is to have an increased college student enrollment of 40% of 17-23 age cohort by the year 2020. Currently, total enrollment of students for all categories stands at 247,602 (Table 1), which, according to the Minister of Education is within the range of 21%.

The objectives of this paper are: (a) to determine the rate of procrastination among university students, and (b) to discuss some of the challenges of student procrastination for k-economy.


A group of university students from a Malaysian university were asked to write freely on when they would normally prepare for a test or examination. This exercise was given during the last class for the May Semester of 2000. Three weeks earlier, they responded to a ten-item instrument measuring test procrastination that was developed by Kalechstein, P. et al. (1989). The students in this particular class comprised first, second and third year students.


Of the 287 students who responded to this open-ended question, the majority (80%) of them gave their answers in number of days, while the remaining 20% gave their answers qualitatively. The range of answers given is from a last minute of just one day prior to a test or examination to a maximum of 60 days (Table 2). The majority (32.5%) were found to get ready about a week preceding a test, followed by 21.6% who started two weeks prior to it.

Thirty students, who could be categorized into the procrastination group, gave their answers qualitatively by giving remarks such as "last minute," "just near to the examination day," "depends on my mood" and that they will only begin their revision after they have finished their assignment. Students also reported they would spend more time on courses deemed more difficult, while some admitted studying only for a day for an easier course. Another 26 students admitted to starting their examination preparation "since the beginning of the semester" and upon closer analysis, it was found that the concept of getting ready early is in the range of four weeks. If this criterion is applied to the quantitative answers given by students in this study, then the majority of them (81%) would fall under the category of procrastinators.

Based on the responses to the test procrastination instrument, the results showed all students procrastinate, as a matter of degree (Table 3).

Based on the frequency distribution, more than half of students agreed that it was typical of them to avoid sitting and studying when an examination is coming up. About a third of students agreed that typically, they were procrastinators.

Based on the total aggregate score, more than half (53.7%) belonged to the low procrastination category, 40.33% in the moderate category and another 6% in the high procrastination category. This finding seems to support the open-ended responses of the same group of students.

Challenges of Procrastination for K-Economy

In a society that values productivity, doing and accomplishing are highly valued norms. However, procrastinating, or the failure to get things done in a timely manner, violates these norms. Procrastination involves delaying responsible decisions, or tasks that need to be done.

We hear a lot these days about the "new economy" or the "knowledge economy," since this concept was first introduced by Peter Drucker. What do these terms mean? They convey a sense of fundamental change taking place in the world economy - a change so profound that it affects the very nature of work itself. What it means here is that we are entering an era where knowledge and innovation are replacing muscle and brawn as the main ingredients for economic success. In simple terms, mind is power. This is in addition to what power meant earlier - might and money.

The role of higher education in the promotion of knowledge economy is profound. From the pragmatist perspective, the major role of institutions of higher learning is to be responsible for nation building through proper human resource development, which would ultimately lead to a knowledge society. Institutions of higher learning are among the building blocks to the k-economy through its democratizing of higher education through the normal mode, as well as distance education. There is an immediate need to have a world class workforce at all levels. Looking from the quantitative perspective, enrolment of students in higher education is impressive. However, the enrolment in the fields of study that is deemed important for national development is still far from satisfactory. There are more students enrolled in the arts and social science compared to the technical and science courses.

To achieve k-economy, there is a great need for knowledge workers. The country needs a critical mass of k-economy workers. This is one of the challenges of the new economy, that is, the need for more brain and less muscle and mud. For the year 2000 alone, the MDC, in its business plan projects a demand for 32,621 workers in the various aspects of information technology, such as technical and communication workers, analyst programmers, business area specialists, consultants in research and development, multimedia graphic designers and CEO's and managers (Mohd. Salleh Masduki, 2000). The number of graduates for 2000 from 633 institutions of higher learning (public and private) is about 21,278 diploma holders, 6,229 first degree holders and 843 post graduates. The total for the three categories of graduates is still short of the demand for workers in the field of information technology from 342 MSC firms in Malaysia.

Looking at the academic achievement of students in higher education, only small percentages manage to get high CGPA's. About 75% of students obtained CGPA of less than 3.0. Using deductive reasoning, if previous research showed students who procrastinate were in the low CGPA category, then this suggests that a large majority of our students in higher education are procrastinators. It further suggests that our students in higher education are not good time managers. This does not augur well if we want to be at the frontier of scientific and technological advancement. We cannot afford to have workers who procrastinate because the consequence would be that we would be left far behind in the global economy.

The results of this simple study showed students belonged to the procrastination category. If such a bad habit is to continue into the work place, this will put a real and painful challenge to the working organization.

The findings also suggest the need to identify students who are at risk for procrastination. After this has been done, then the next step is have an early intervention to arrest this problem.

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