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The Early Bird Gets the Grade: How Procrastination Affects Student Scores

Posted in Adaptive Learning on March 4, 2015 by

It’s 3:13am on a Thursday morning. Everyone else in the dorm is asleep, but here you are, frantically typing at your computer. Your chemistry problem set is due in less than four hours. It was assigned last Wednesday, but you kept putting it off. You had plans with your friends over the weekend. You had team practice on Monday night. You had to work on Tuesday afternoon, and your favorite television show was on last night. You procrastinated, and now you have to pay the price…

But what exactly is the price of procrastination? Do students do worse when they wait until the last minute to finish their homework? How much does it affect their performance?

We looked at the work habits and performance of over 5,000 college chemistry students to try to answer these questions. (This study examined students’ work on 325 assignments in 27 different classes.)

In general, students had at least a week to work on each assignment. The following chart shows the distribution of assignment lengths.


Unsurprisingly, we found that most students don’t start their homework on the day it’s assigned. Instead, the majority of students do their work no more than three days before the assignment is due. The chart below shows the date on which each student was most active, relative to the assignment due date. (The small number of students near zero are those who turned in their homework late.)


As any student knows, homework assignments vary in difficulty. Because we were looking at many different assignments from many different classes, we wanted to account for the different difficulties of each assignment in our analysis. If we normalize each student’s assignment score by her class’s average score on that assignment, we can see if a particular student did better or worse than average.

So what did we find?

Students who worked on assignments the day before the due date did significantly (p<0.01) worse than average, scoring on average three percentage points below the class average. Students who did their work three days or more before the due date did significantly (p<0.01) better, scoring on average three percentage points better than the class average. Starting earlier than three days before the due date didn’t have any additional benefit.


Turns out the early bird really does get the worm higher score! So, the next time you’re tempted to wait until the last minute to complete a project, think twice.