Reading Non-Fiction in English Class


Shanna Douglas, a teacher of eighth-grade English at Lower Manhattan Community Middle School, has her students read nonfiction like speeches and letters related to assigned fiction.CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

In Harrison, N.Y., 10th graders read articles about bipolar disorder and the adolescent brain to help them analyze Holden Caulfield. In Springdale, Ark., ninth graders studying excerpts from “The Odyssey” also read sections of the G.I. Bill of Rights, and a congressional resolution on its 60th anniversary, to connect the story of Odysseus to the challenges of modern-day veterans. After eighth graders in Naples, Fla., read how Tom Sawyer duped other boys into whitewashing a fence for him, they follow it with an op-ed article on teenage unemployment.

In the Common Core era, English class looks a little different.

The Common Core standards, which have been adopted by more than 40 states, mandated many changes to traditional teaching, but one of the most basic was a call for students to read more nonfiction. The rationale is that most of what students will be expected to read in college and at work will be informational, rather than literary, and that American students have not been well prepared to read those texts.


Under Common Core standards, the reading of fiction classics like “To Kill a Mockingbird” is complemented by historical and contemporary texts like newspaper articles.CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

At first, many English teachers and other defenders of literature feared that schools would respond by cutting the classics. That has happened, to some extent. But most districts have managed to preserve much of the classroom canon while adding news articles, textbook passages, documentaries, maps and other material that students read or watch alongside the literature, sometimes in strained pairings.

“Unfortunately there has been some elimination of some literature,” said Kimberly Skillen, the district administrator for secondary curriculum and instruction in Deer Park, N.Y. But she added: “We look at teaching literature as teaching particular concepts and skills. So we maybe aren’t teaching an entire novel, but we’re ensuring that we’re teaching the concepts that that novel would have gotten across.”

The new standards stipulate that in elementary and middle school, at least half of what students read during the day should be nonfiction, and by 12th grade, the share should be 70 percent. Many educators say the shift was necessary, particularly in elementary school, where students encountered relatively little nonfiction. The change is seen as particularly helpful to boys, who lag behind girls in reading and tend to be more interested in nonfiction.

Schools generally choose their own reading materials. For nonfiction, however, the Common Core standards specify that students should read certain “seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance,” including the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” as well as presidential addresses and Supreme Court opinions. Many high schools have added these to American literature classes.

They have also added contemporary nonfiction by authors like Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Pollan and units on argumentative writing and debate. And along with “Romeo and Juliet,” for example, students might be assigned readings about Shakespeare’s life or a contemporary magazine article about teenage suicide.

At Lower Manhattan Community Middle School, the eighth graders began the year by reading a novel in verse about a Vietnamese girl whose family flees the country at the end of the war, along with texts on the history of Vietnam and the experiences of refugees from various countries.

The students were more excited about a unit on women’s rights, focused on speeches by Shirley Chisholm and Sojourner Truth, and a 2006 letter by Venus Williams criticizing Wimbledon for paying female winners less than men.

Eli Scherer, a special-education teacher, said he found that struggling readers were often more engaged by nonfiction because it seemed more relevant to them.


Karma Lisslo, an eighth grader in Manhattan, said she would rather read books, not short nonfiction, in her English class. CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

But Karma Lisslo, an eighth grader and an avid reader, said that while she appreciated that nonfiction could provide historical context for a novel, she got tired sometimes of the short informational texts she was assigned.

“We do so much nonfiction,” Karma said. “I just want to read my book.”

Kim Yaris, a literacy consultant, said her son had a similar reaction last year, when his fifth-grade class in Dix Hills, N.Y., began the year by doing a painstakingly close reading of sections of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (For those who have not been in the fifth grade recently, the declaration was drafted in the aftermath of World War II and adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.)

On the ninth day, she said, her son got into the car after school and started to sob.

Ms. Yaris said she thought the lesson, which is part of a curriculum suggested by New York State and used widely around the country, was not a good interpretation of the Common Core. “If you look at the standards and what they say,” she said, “nowhere in there does it say, ‘Kill the love of reading.’ ”

Susan Pimentel, who led the team that wrote the language arts standards, said she thought that reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was valuable, in part because it contained a lot of academic vocabulary, which she said was critical to students’ reading comprehension skills.

Reading the G.I. Bill along with “The Odyssey,” however, gave her pause.

“It does sound curious to me,” she said, while adding that she would want to see the unit itself. “There is enough great literary nonfiction out there that there shouldn’t be a forced fitting.”


“Inside Out & Back Again,” by Thanhha Lai,  about a Vietnamese girl whose family who fled their country after the war, is paired with informational writings about Vietnam.CreditSam Hodgson for The New York Times

If some of the nonfiction texts that districts choose seem overly technical and abstruse, other choices — like opinion pieces on whether cellphones should be allowed in schools or an article about injuries from cheerleading— seem based on a set of low expectations about what students will be interested in, said Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University.

Without guidance from the Common Core standards themselves, he noted, the definition of informational texts “very easily slides into blog posts — it shifts over to topical contemporary discussions of things.”

Some teachers have resisted the changes. At Midwood High School in Brooklyn this year, the new assistant principal for English, Suzane Thomas, made the English teachers use the Common Core lesson plans offered by New York State, and some were not happy.

“There are several teachers who accused me of destroying the English department,” Ms. Thomas said. Previously, she said, teachers had been able to choose which books they wanted to teach, and many of them taught only literature. (She also noted that some teachers had taught the same books each year, no matter which grade they were teaching, so some students were being assigned the same books over and over again.)

Ms. Thomas said she believed many students were more interested in talking about real-world issues like genetic testing than about how a character changed over the course of a novel.

“I was in a class once and the bell rang, and the kids wouldn’t leave, because they were having a strong debate about whether privacy was more important than security,” she said.

Some teachers, too, said they did not mind cutting back on some canonical works of literature to replace them with contemporary nonfiction that engaged students more.

Angela Gunter, the dean of liberal arts at Daviess County High School in Owensboro, Ky., said she assigned a “Beowulf” excerpt to her 12th graders that was shorter than the one she used to assign, to make time for them to read a nonfiction book of their choosing later in the year.

She said the decision was driven partly by the Common Core’s emphasis on nonfiction and partly by her recognition that students just were not that interested in “Beowulf.”

“If we had to get rid of some fiction,” Ms. Gunter said, “that was one that I was willing to part with.”

How to Help Students Develop a Growth Mindset

100 Percent Is Overrated

The Atlantic

People labeled “smart” at a young age don’t deal well with being wrong. Life grows stagnant.

Debra Hughes / Shutterstock
ASPEN, Colo.—At whatever age smart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”

The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I’m smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think:Oh no, I’m not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.

“Mistakes grow your brain,” as the professor of mathematics education at Stanford University Jo Boaler put it on Monday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by The Atlantic. I wondered why, then, my brain is not so distended that it spills out of my ears and nose. I should have to stuff it back inside like a sleeping bag, and I should have to carry Q-tips around during social events as stuffing implements. Boaler notes, more eloquently, that at least a small part of the forebrain called the thalamus can appreciably grow after periods of the sort of cognitive stimulation involved in mistake-making. What matters for improving performance is that a person is challenged, which requires a mindset that is receptive to being challenged—if not actively seeking out challenge and failure. And that may be the most important thing a teacher can impart.

People are born with some innate cognitive differences, but those differences are eclipsed by early achievement, Boaler argues. When people perform well (academically or otherwise) at early ages and are labeled smart or gifted, they become less likely to challenge themselves. They become less likely to make mistakes, because they stay in their comfortable comfort zone and stop growing. And their fixed mindset persists through adulthood. The simple and innocent praising of a smart kid feeds an insidious problem that some researchers track all the way up to gender inequality in STEM careers.

So ending the reign of the S word, as Boaler calls it, is a grand mission. “It’s imperative that we don’t praise kids by telling them they’re smart,” she argued in a Monday lecture to an audience that received her message with many knowing nods. “You can tell kids that they’ve done something fantastic, but don’t label them as smart.”

The idea of a fixed mindset, in which people are smart or not smart, stands in contrast to a growth mindset, in which people become intelligent and knowledgeable through practice. In her 2006 book The New Psychology of Success, psychologist Carol Dweck described the two: People with growth mindsets believe that the harder they work, the smarter they get. And the subtleties of the ways in which we praise kids are related to the mindsets those kids develop.

The group most damaged by fixed-mindset thinking is high-achieving girls, Boaler argues, because it’s girls who are told by society that they probably won’t be as good as boys at math and science. That means girls are only more likely to avoid challenging themselves in science and math, and that aversion to making mistakes leads to less learning and progress. The more that certain disciplines cling to ideas of giftedness, the fewer female Ph.D.s there are in those fields.

“When we give kids the message that mistakes are good, that successful people make mistakes, it can change their entire trajectory,” Boaler said. 100 percent is not an ideal score. When kids come home from school and announce that they got everything right on their school work, Dweck advises parents to offer some sympathy: Oh, I’m sorry you didn’t get the chance to learn.

Speaking of percentages, math is a good example of the importance of avoiding the fixed mindset. The idea of a “math person” or a math gene is a primary reason for so much math nihilism, math failure, and “math trauma,” as Boaler called it on Monday. When kids get the idea that they “aren’t math people,” they start a downward trajectory, and their career options shrink immediately and substantially. There is also the common idea of a wall in math: People learn math until they hit a wall where they just can’t keep up. That wall may be trigonometry, and it may be advanced calculus, and it may be calculating a tip. In no other discipline but math are people so given to thinking, instead of I need to practice, just Well, I’m not good.

“Big news,” Boaler said during her lecture, “there is no wall.”

With that, she advanced her Powerpoint and to a slide bearing a rendering of the Kool-Aid Man busting through a brick wall.

“I didn’t know who this was,” she said. “One of my teammates made this slide. I’ve learned that this is Kool-Aid Man.”

How Student-Centered is Your Classroom?


In the education world, the term student-centered classroom is one we hear a lot. And many educators would agree that when it comes to 21st-century learning, having a student-centered classroom is certainly a best practice.

Whether you instruct first grade or university students, take some time to think about where you are with creating a learning space where your students have ample voice, engage frequently with each other, and are given opportunities to make choices.

Guiding Questions

Use these questions to reflect on the learning environment you design for students:

  • In what ways do students feel respected, feel valued, and feel part of the whole group?
  • In what ways do students have ownership of the classroom? Do they ever make decisions about resources, environment, or use of time? When? How often?
  • Do they have ownership in their learning? Do they have choices and options for projects, assignments, and partners for group work?
  • When are students comfortable with expressing who they are and their thoughts and ideas? When are they not?
  • When do you inquire about the needs of your students? How often do you do this? How often do you check for group understanding and adjust the instruction accordingly?
  • How are desks arranged? Are students facing each other? Do they have multiple opportunities each week to share with fellow classmates, and to share with a variety of classmates?
  • As the instructor, what is my “air time” each class session? How much direct instruction is there? How might I change some of that directing teaching to facilitating? (Here’s a post I wrote on this topic, How to Transform Direct Instruction.)

Balancing Teacher Roles

So let’s talk about that last question, and specifically, direct instruction versus facilitation. When considering various teaching approaches, balance is the key word. If we turn to the work of educational researchers Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, and their seminal book, Understanding by Design (UbD), they make a call for educators to reflect on how they balance the following three teaching roles:

  • Facilitation: open-ended questioning, problem posing, Socratic seminar, and guided inquiry
  • Direct instruction: demonstration, modeling, and lecturing
  • Coaching: providing feedback, conferencing, and guided practice

How do you decide on how much of one role and not enough of another? Well, when designing learning for your students, keep this is mind: There needs to be a healthy balance between student construction of meaning and teacher guidance.

In other words, yes, you need to tell them stuff and show them how to do things, but you also need to let your learners discover, experiment, and practice even if they miss the mark or target. Educational research tell us time and time again that all learners (young or old) need time to muddle through and make meaning of new content, ideas, and concepts with some coaching and guidance, but also independently.

In the comments section below, share with us your ideas and practices for fostering a learning environment that is student centered.

Let Them Be Bored

Let Them Be Bored

It’s been only a few days since the last final exams were turned in, summer has not yet officially begun, and yet teens in my practice are already talking about clashes with their parents around not being busy and productive enough. John, for example, puts enormous pressure on himself to get good grades in his academically rigorous independent high school despite having significant dyslexia. He became tearful as he told me that his mother has been yelling at him for “doing nothing” and waking him up at 9 AM “so he won’t sleep the day away.” Natalie, who left her freshman year of college a month early to get treated for a debilitating medical condition, got upset while relating that her mother has been “hovering over” her and asking “what I’m going to do with myself so I don’t get bored.”

Although teens experience these parental behaviors as critical, I believe that they’re really about anxiety. Like most mothers and fathers, you may have many understandable reasons to worry if your sons and daughters look as if they’re going to be sitting around all summer. You might be afraid they’re going to get bored, lonely, unhappy, or depressed unless they have planned activities. You might fear that idleness could lead to them getting into mischief or real trouble. These days, empty calendar weeks can make you lament lost opportunities for activities that could build their skills and resumes. And let’s be honest, seeing your own kids lounging around watching TV or glued to their devices when you hear about all the fabulous internships, community service projects, college programs and jobs other teens are doing can evoke all sorts of uncomfortable feelings that can make you question your parenting as well as your teen.

And yet, in my experience, there is much to be said for boredom. Here are some considerations in favor of not preempting that experience this summer by signing up your teens for a myriad of experiences that fill their schedules.

1. Give Them a Much-Needed Break

Teens today are busier than ever. Between classes, never-ending homework assignments, projects, exams, clubs, sports practices and games, tutoring sessions, after school jobs, volunteer commitments, and standardized test prep, many kids’ days start at dawn and end at midnight. Add to that the pressure of feeling as if every activity is a performance that determines their futures—not to mention the approval or disappointment of their parents—and you can imagine the state of constant frenzy that is modern teenage life. As one girl explained, “I can only see you in August when I get back from my program because once school starts in September I won’t have time to talk until I graduate.”

Many teens are so exhausted, mentally and physically, that all they want to do is sleep and “veg.” Believing in the mantra “Work hard, play hard,” I would argue that this is exactly what they need: days to get up whenever they awaken, without setting an alarm, without rushing, without having unfinished tasks hanging over their heads. Much-needed relaxation prevents the cognitive impairment, burnout, and depression that result from sleep deprivation. Getting rest at night and taking delicious summer naps can spark teens’ motivation and boost their energy.

2. Encourage Reflection

In my experience, too many teens are so swept up by their desires to achieve—to get stellar grades, shine in their extracurricular activities, join the most desirable friendship groups, look good, impress their parents and teachers, and get accepted to prestigious colleges—that they are not examining their reasons for doing so. As I was testing a rising high school junior the other day, Samantha burst into tears as she said she desperately hoped to be allowed to take AP English this fall. When I asked why she wanted to take this class so badly, she replied, “That’s what people do in my school.”

Samantha’s goal is not based on her personal interests or needs; in fact, she hasn’t even considered them. She wants to be in an AP class only because she wants to be seen as one of the smart kids. But because of her dyslexia, she finds reading difficult and slow going. If she were to take on the challenge of such a rigorous course, she would have to decide if she could keep up with the faster pace of assignments, how the extra work might affect her other classes, whether she can realistically get the As she strives for in the non-AP English class and, if not, how she would feel about lower grades. Samantha is intent upon doing something that may be not at all in her best interest and in fact totally inappropriate for her.

It is not unusual for teens to go through the motions in adhering to plans that have been set out for them. If they’re fortunate, they’ve been able to follow their own path; too many, however, feel as if they have been railroaded by others’ expectations, either explicit or tacit. And even if they have decided, say, to play Varsity soccer or take AP Bio or get recruited for lacrosse, if circumstances or their own wishes change it is nearly impossible for them to make mid-course corrections.

As a result, many teens are arriving at college with little awareness of why and how they got there. Ironically, and more worrisome, the frantic compulsion to prove their worth has prevented them from getting to know who they really are. Time for self-reflection can be the antidote, giving teens the means to becoming more self-aware, authentic, and confident.

3. Facilitate Executive Function Skills

One of the reasons many students are not making it in college is they can’t manage their lives when they’re living away from home. Trouble self-regulating sleeping, eating, and study habits or poor management of socializing and partying lead to problems such as academic probation, suspension, and legal issues. Professionals believe this is becoming more prevalent because teens these days have precious little practice in developing these crucial skills.

It’s become the norm, for example, for teens to expect their parents to wake them up for school (often repeatedly, sometimes by dragging covers off them), monitor their assignments online, remind them of due dates, ask if they’ve studied for tests, and track their extracurricular commitments and appointments. When there are conflicts with teachers or coaches, parents often call or email to intervene on their kids’ behalf. So great is the fear of mistakes and their “consequences” (such as lower grades or late assignments or missed athletic practices) that teens are not given the chance to figure out how to avoid such incidents in the future.

When you allow them to become bored, however, teens get to sit with their feelings and decide for themselves what to do about them. They may be impelled to make and implement plans. Or if that strategy fails, to flexibly think of alternatives. Teens who are given the space to get bored have the chance to monitor and satisfy their needs without relying on others—or by learning to ask for whatever help they realize they need. Left to their own devices, they figure out how to manage their time. Eventually, they develop problem-solving skills that serve them well once they get to college and beyond.


I’m not suggesting it’s easy to allow kids to become bored. As parents, we’ve all jumped on the bandwagon of using teens’ “productivity” as markers of their success—and our own. It’s also admittedly hard to see half-asleep sons and daughters emerge from their darkened bedrooms well past noon. “Wasting away their days” is the thought that comes to many adult minds. (Giving them the chance to be bored doesn’t mean giving them a reprieve from chores, either, which any responsible family member should do while living at home.)

The hardest thing for parents, by far, may be dealing with our own anxiety so we can resist criticizing teens for doing “nothing,” making suggestions about what they could do, and jumping in to “protect” them from possible discomfort. But I believe it’s worth the effort. Leaving teens with their real thoughts and feelings, which teaches them how to channel them constructively, is one of the best ways to raise capable, confident, and successful young adults.

Students building hover cars with 3D design

Iowa City Press Citizen

Hover cars soon will fly at M.C. Ginsberg Objects of Art, where middle-school students began taking a class on 3D design this week.

The class, which covers design, additive manufacturing and 3D printing, is one of several offerings for students in grades 6-8 through the University of Iowa Belin-Blank Center’s one-week Junior Scholars Institute. The class also is the first of its kind to be offered at a business rather than a classroom, said Lori Ihrig, supervisor for curriculum and instruction at the Belin-Blank Center.

Students must apply to participate in the institute, which includes room and board, and those accepted receive $325 scholarships to help cover the $1,025 fee.

Ihrig said the 3D design course exposes students to artistry, engineering and entrepreneurship, and that the partnership with M.C. Ginsberg allows students to work in an authentic space.

She said students will go above and beyond simply using technology by engaging creative, integrative thinking and problem solving.

“It’s not 3D printing for the sake of 3D printing,” Ihrig said.

Tuesday, students designed and assembled Styrofoam, cube-shaped puzzles at M.C. Ginsberg’s Studio for Advanced Design. In the coming days, they will design and build model hover cars using 3D printers and other materials.

Kevin Wilkinson, a teacher at Williamsburg High School, taught the students Tuesday and said the class encourages kids to be creative. He said it also exposes them to 3D printers as they become more user-friendly.

“It allows children to now create, design and build these products,” he said.

Hayden Johnson, 13, an eighth-grader living in Iowa City, said he loves building things. He said interests in 3D modeling and computer graphics drew him to the class, and that he hopes to get firsthand experience in these areas.

Ananya Albrecht-Buehler, 12, a seventh-grader living in Iowa City, said the opportunity to work with new technology drew her to the class.

“I just like technology and designing things,” she said.

Mark Ginsberg, owner of M.C. Ginsberg Objects of Art, said he was excited to partner with Belin-Blank on a class where students could gain experience in a non-traditional setting. He said these settings give students freedom to explore a variety of disciplines.

“They get to see real-world applications,” he said.

U.S. Millennials Know Technology, But Not How to Solve Problems With It, Study Says


By Guest Blogger Michele Molnar

The U.S. education system isn’t adequately preparing students to use technology for problem-solving, according to a newly released analysis, which recommends what public schools and businesses can do to address that problem.

Change the Equation, a Washington-based organization promoting science, technology, engineering, and math, or “STEM” studies, looked at how American millennials—the first “digital natives” because they were born after the Internet—fared in an international study of adult skillsin 19 countries.

To do so, the organization conducted an original analysis of data from the 2012 Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies, which tested the key cognitive and workplace skills needed to participate in society.Digital Native Does Not Need Tech Savvy.JPG

“Yes, [millennials] can take selfies,” said Linda Rosen, CEO of Change the Equation, in a presentation announcing the organization’s findings this week. “Yes, they can use social media.”

What they are not so capable of doing is solving high-level problems with technology, she said. In fact, 58 percent of millennials struggle to use digital tools and networks to solve relatively simple problems that involve skills like sorting, searching for, and emailing information from a spreadsheet, the study found.

Beyond that, 19 percent of the U.S. population sampled cannot categorize using technology, she said. That capability involves a task as simple as creating folders to handle the daily deluge of email.

Translated into earning capability, a person with the highest ability to problem-solve with technology is likely to earn more than double what a person at the lowest level earns, according to the organization’s analysis.

At the event to announce the STEM study, Jo Handelsman, the White House’s associate director for science in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, offered three suggestions for schools and businesses:

  1. Add relevance to what is taught in the classroom by asking students to solve real-world problems, including ones that businesses allow students to tackle. “This is particularly significant for women and minorities,” she said. Studies show that they have a higher need for relevance to keep them interested in STEM, according to Handelsman.
  2. Change how teachers teach. “So much of K-12 education is passive,” she said. “It’s the old-fashioned lecture model, with rote memorization.” Injecting the “exciting aspect of real-world work” like coding and creation will increase students’ receptivity to STEM, Handelsman said, noting that students need to learn with “hands-on, active techniques” in science and technology. Kids will “start expecting it,” she said, “and teachers will come along.”
  3. Improve the image of STEM and STEM careers. “That’s an area where we have to work with the larger media,” she said, emphasizing the importance of “getting images of exciting people in exciting careers” into the public’s eye.

The work of Techbridge, a nonprofit that inspires girls to pursue technology, science and math, was also in the spotlight at the event, as was the involvement of Chevron, one of that organization’s corporate sponsors. Several organizations’ work in trying to increase participation in STEM has been profiled in the new brief published by Change the Equation, “Does Not Compute: The High Cost of Low Technology Skills in the U.S.—and What We Can Do About It.”  

To learn more about how problem-solving in technology-rich environments was measured in the 2012 Program for International Assessment of Adult Competencies by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, visit this link.

Study Ties Procrastination to Lower Scores

Data mining finds lessons about procrastination

Highest grades achieved by college students who start their homework at least three days in advance

The Hechinger Report

Photo of Jill Barshay

Education by the Numbers

Students scored 3 percent points worse than the class average when they waited until the last day to start their college chemistry homework. Source: “The Early Bird Gets the Grade: How Procrastination Affects Student Scores,” by Hillary Green-Lerman at Knewton.

Many college students say they procrastinate because they do their best work under pressure. And there’s usually no way to prove that they’re wrong. But now that more college students are logging onto a computer to do their assignments, data scientists can sometimes measure what the actual cost of procrastination is.

In one recent data-mining analysis, researchers from an education technology company found that almost one third of the students they studied waited until the day before the due date to start their chemistry homework  (typically weekly problem sets). And these students scored 3 percentage points lower, on average, than their classmates. In other words, if the class average was 88, the procrastinators scored 85.

Of course, there were individual bright students who waited until the last moment and still scored well. But the average procrastinator did worse.

The sweet spot to start weekly assignments was at least three days before they were due. But fewer than half the students had the discipline to start their work that early in the week. Interestingly, students who began even sooner —  four, five or six days before the due date — scored about the same as the students who gave themselves only three days.

“You’d expect the earlier you start, the better you do. But we don’t see that,” said Hillary Green-Lerman, a data scientist at New York-based Knewton, who analyzed homework grades for 5,000 students who were using its educational software across 27 introductory chemistry classes at different colleges.

“You don’t do any better for starting six days before it’s due. We don’t know what’s causing that,” Green-Lerman added.

(One theory is that if you start too early, the professor hasn’t covered that material in class yet. So you might as well wait for the next lecture first.)

The cost to last-minute procrastination echoes what psychologists have previously found in traditional experiments. Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University, said that students who waited until the last minute thought they did better than they actually did, in his 1993 study.

“A lot of students think, ‘I work best under pressure,’ ” he said. “There’s a real misperception.” Commenting on the Knewton analysis, he added, “Even with computers, people are still waiting, and they do worse.”

Procrastination is an important issue for companies like Knewton, which develop algorithms to tailor computer instruction to each student’s needs. The company believes that many student behaviors, from boredom to confusion, can play an important role in student achievement, and that they should be factored in to what the computer recommends to a student.

In the chemistry-course data analysis, Knewton was able to see when students first opened up a homework assignment, and how that timing correlated with the grade they received on it. Not counted were how many hours a student worked on the assignment each day. A student who simply opened up the homework on the first day, but didn’t do much work on it until the night before, would still be credited with starting the homework six days ahead of time. However, the company said the assignments in this particular analysis were generally completed on the same day on which they were started. (More details on the analysis on the company’s websitehere.)

Right now, Knewton is still collecting data on procrastination behavior. It hasn’t reprogrammed its algorithms to remind students to start their homework three days before it’s due, for example. This analysis was only for college chemistry, and most of the 325 homework assignments the company looked at were only one week long. It’s likely that procrastination’s consequences are different in different subjects, or with longer, more complicated projects.

But this first glimpse shows that it’s often a modest cost to wait until the last moment, and you don’t need to start on homework too early. Go ahead and play some ultimate frisbee first.


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