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Work avoidance in the classroom

Reasons students avoid doing their work

It’s a fact of life that students don’t always want to do their work. The resistance to doing homework, studying for tests, and preparing for exams causes many students anxiety and exasperation.

Regardless of how comfortable or uncomfortable a teacher is in a classroom, they will always experience a degree of pushback from students when it comes time for them to complete some sort of work.

Some teachers make more effort than others when engaging their students in the learning process, but even the most active and interactive teacher will still encounter problems with student apprehension towards doing schoolwork.

There are many ways that you can approach helping your students complete their work or other tasks. One of the most effective ways that I’ve found is to first understand why they resist doing their work. Whether it’s avoiding reading, writing, answering questions, etc., there are strategies you can use to help them overcome this resistance.

Students have a hard time with deadlines

Most of us are pretty good at taking care of things that matter to us. We wipe up spills before they become a permanent stain and clean the house before guests arrive. We water the plants and feed the dog before they die or run away.

The problem comes with things that don't directly matter to us; that we think about them, but struggle to make ourselves do anything about them.

It's like when our dentist worries about our gums, so she recommends for us to floss more often. But you can't floss just once, you have to keep doing it every day for the rest of your life—and even then you won't be sure if it's really helping. So we put off buying the floss until our teeth hurt, and then we buy some and don't use it because it seems so extra, and meanwhile our dentist worries some more about our gums.

Teachers are like the dentist when it comes to students' work: it's hard enough to do once, let alone every time a deadline comes around.

So teachers end up either nagging or giving up on most of their students most of the time. Either way, many students' education ends up being something they had to do but never felt like doing, which is not the best way to go about learning.

Students frequently report that they avoid working on an assignment until just before it is due. The problem with this strategy is that the last minute is a poor time to work. If a student waits until then, he may be tired or distracted, or his thoughts may be elsewhere. Or he may have been putting off studying for another test, and now he's forced to do two things at once.

A common reason students procrastinate is that they don't have a routine to get their work done. I don't mean there is a single routine that would work for every student, but that each student has to find a routine that works for them.

Many students don't have a routine for completing their school assignments

A common reason students procrastinate is that they don't have a routine to get their work done. I don't mean that there is a single routine that works for every student, but that each student has to find a routine that works for them.

In this sense, procrastination is more a problem with time management than anything else. Some students have worked out a routine that makes it easy to get their schoolwork done on time. For other students, the problem isn't finding the time, but knowing how to fill it usefully while they wait for the hours to pass.

In my experience, a most important factor in academic success isn't intelligence or even effort, but certain patterns of behavior. In particular, students who develop a routine for completing their school assignments tend to do better than those who don't.

They get distracted by social media, games, etc

I have heard students say that they are "too busy" to take care of their work. The truth is that they are not too busy to take care of their work. They are doing something else — they are distracted by social media, games, etc.

When you look at how people actually spend their time, you discover they are not spending it the way you (or they) think they are. People who complain that they are too busy to do something never seem to be too busy to do everything else.

Students have always found ways to distract themselves. The flood of distractions online is more intense—the screen invites you to click. The notifications urge you to respondthe apps beg you to play one more game — but it's all the same difference.

Schools need to help students overcome these obstacles

Students don't like to write papers or solve math problems. Why not?

One answer is that they're lazy. They avoid doing their work because they're lazy. Maybe this is true of some students, but I doubt the majority fit this description.

Students also don't like to do their work because they're afraid of it; they don't know how to do it well. Most students don't know how to write a paper so that it's worth reading. Most students don't know how to solve math problems so that their answers are correct and their reasoning is clear.

And why are these things so hard for most students? Because most teachers don't want them to learn these skills. Most teachers would rather assign a paper with a few questions about what the student has read than teach the student how to write a good paper.

And most teachers prefer assigning a problem that requires mechanically applying some formula or concept — the "plug and chug" method as they call it in the mathematics world — rather than teaching the student how to solve problems that require thought, insight, and creativity.

If we want students to do more of their own work, we need to help them overcome those obstacles. And that means facing the fact that for many of them there are no straightforward answers. We can't just push a button and suddenly students become free of the obstacles that have been holding them back.

The major obstacle has to do with time and energy: even if they understand something and really want to learn it, they may not have enough time or energy. But there are other obstacles too — feeling overwhelmed by the subject; not trusting one's own judgment; not knowing how to start; lack of confidence; fear of failure; fear of success; fear of embarrassment; fear of looking like an idiot; and many others I haven't thought of yet.

What we need is a system that helps students overcome these obstacles – without doing all their work for them.

Students who get their work done on time get better grades and are less overwhelmed

When students avoid doing their work, they are often motivated to do so. They have a reason for putting off what they know they should be doing. Whether that reason is rational or not, it exists.

It is important to identify the reasons students avoid doing work, since doing so can help teachers better address the underlying causes of this behavior.

For example, if the reason is that the student doesn't understand how to do something, then step-by-step instruction may be all that is needed to encourage them to get started. If the reason for avoiding work using technology is because they don't know how to use it, then basic training in the software may be the solution.

But if the reason for avoiding work has nothing to do with productivity—if it has to do with motivation—then simply getting them started on an activity may not solve the problem. Indeed, forcing them to start may well exacerbate it by causing frustration in students who feel forced into an activity that does not motivate them.

It is important for teachers to determine whether students are avoiding work for productivity-related reasons or motivation-related reasons — both when they first notice these behaviors and throughout the year so they can monitor changes in student behavior over time.

In the end, the reason students avoid doing work is often a matter of motivation. If teachers can better identify why students are avoiding their work, they can help them overcome that barrier — something that may lead to a more productive classroom environment.


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