Pain of procrastination a dubious claim

brainA recent blog article by Christopher Lane casts a light on the varied claims about what is happening in our brains based on fMRI scans. A recently published critique of neuroscientific research by Stanford scientist John Ioannidis and Denese Szucs (see References) found serious flaws in many of the reported studies based on fMRI scans.

My immediate reaction was to go back and check my notes from my recent course, a MOOC called “Learning How to Learn” and the content that referred to fMRI data and how the heightened activity in the pain centres of the brain when people procrastinated demonstrated why we are so quick to switch our attention to more pleasurable or easier tasks or thoughts. Would this mean that the strategies to overcome procrastination weren’t valid either?  Well, I was unable to track down the specific fMRI data that the professor referred to (and can’t ask as the course is over) but I reviewed the tips I learned that I wanted to share with other instructors – and they still seem to make intuitive sense – see what you think.

Even if the fMRI data about the responses is inaccurate, there does seem to be real “pain” felt by those of us who procrastinate too often; avoiding important tasks too often can undermine success, create stress, frustration and unhappiness, and can become a habit that is difficult, but not impossible to break. But we also know, from the more recent neuroscientific research, that our brains can adapt and change (referred to as “neuroplasticity”). So how do we change bad habits?

pomodoro timerIn the recent past, researchers found that regular short breaks could help student stay focused. A technique developed by Francesco Cirillo, called the “Pomodoro Technique” involves working in 25 min cycles with short breaks. The cycles were called “pomodoros” which means “tomato” in Italian (named for the tomato-shaped timer that Cirillo used as a student). After four pomodoros, you take a longer break and then start on a new task.

If you’d like to try the process, here’s a straightforward explanation by Dr. Terrence Sejnowski, Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, from his website Mind Tools “How to Use the Pomodoro Technique.”

Note:  The technique incorporates what Iowa State University researchers have found about the importance of spacing practice  (see Spacing and Interleaving of Study and Practice  in References). Evidence presented in the paper documents the changes in learning observed when the intervals between practice sessions varied. It appears as though different intervals, rather than “massed practice”, can help us build more constructive habits.

Some other possible techniques (proposed by psychologists, researchers, time management experts):

  • “chunk” your tasks (makes tasks smaller and more manageable);
  • identify the value of your tasks, relative to other options;
  • recognize the “pain” of avoidance; (take time to look ahead to the true consequences of inaction);
  • limit distractions (put your digital devices away, turn off the TV or sound system, close a door, turn on an answering system, put a sign on the door);
  • plan for small rewards (set a target – “if I do this much, I can do _____ or I can have ____”)

Another theory, referenced in an August 2016 post in Open Culture, The Neuroscience & Psychology of Procrastination and How to Overcome It from Piers Steel, Distinguished Research Chair at the University of Calgary (explained in a Youtube video – The Procrastination Equation) explains procrastination as arising from the fact that the primitive part of our brains, the limbic system, responds much faster to stimuli than our more rational pre-frontal cortex. This can result in a haze of distractions that prevent us from accomplishing tasks we find difficult or distasteful or just don’t feel like doing. His main recommendation to overcome procrastination:  mindfulness meditation.

For further learning, check out the references below or review the excellent article in Open Culture (cited below). Of course you may have to set a timer, or meditate to make sure you don’t just put if off until a better time 😉


Carpenter, S. J.,  (2014)  Spacing and Interleaving of Study and Practice, In Benassi, V.A., Overson, C.E., & Hakala, C.M. (Eds.), Applying Science of Learning in Education:  Infusing Psychological Science in Curriculum. American Psychological Association, retrieved from

Cirillo, Francesco, The Pomodoro Technique (his website based on the book by the same name)

Ioannidis, JPA, D. Szucs, (2016) Empirical assessment of published effect sizes and power in the recent cognitive neuroscience and psychology literature. Stanfordretrieved from

Jones, Josh, (2016, August 18). The Neuroscience & Psychology of Procrastination, and How to Overcome It, retrieved from

Lane, C. (blog post Sep 09, 2016) Neuroscience Research Faulted for Widespread Inaccuracies, Psychology Today, retrieved from

Sejnowski, Dr. Terence, Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, The Pomodoro Technique: Staying Focused Throughout the Day, retrieved from



Always look in gift horse’s mouth

12Apps of Christmas graphicI’m really looking forward to exploring new apps during the #12appsBC event (coming up F-A-S-T-!). I have the enviable position this year of being able to “peek behind the curtain” and see the apps that our enthusiastic, experienced edtechs and educator teams are preparing for you. I see a few I’ve tried, I see a few I’ve read about but haven’t tested, and a few I’ve never heard of before. I’m looking forward to seeing what a wide range of educators comes up with – a scenario ripe with possibilities and potential.

But I’ve also been reviewing my awareness and knowledge around some of the risks inherent in using any cloud-based “free” apps – partly because of this event but also cuz I’m developing an online design work for educators and I want to make sure I am aware of current issues, particularly in regards to any institutional initiatives or guidelines for faculty. For those in BC, you’re aware of the requirements of the BC FoIPPA legislation for higher education – but are you comfortable with how to protect your students’ privacy while still creating engaging and useful learning activities or resources? Does your institution have practical advice or assistance that you can tap into?

Twitter conversation JHengstlerI had a brief (and informative) Twitter exchange with VIU’s @jhengstler to try and understand a tweet she posted recently with question about how much teachers do when they assess the risks of using online edtech. Although I’ve been reading terms of use and privacy policies of hundreds of Web2.0 tools and cloud-based apps since I got involved in supporting instructors in utilizing the “new” free technologies in 2004 (;-), I would not be able to say that I read every line as Julia says she does. She’s a great resource if you want to learn more about the issues (maybe start with her 2014 blog post  The Compliance Continuum ? or follow her Twitter feed.

Other places to look for information about cloud-based tools and their use in BC-based schools is to:

  • follow the BC Edtech Privacy Group (my 12Apps colleague, BCcampus’ Clint Lalonde is a member);
  • check out one institution’s approach to supporting the safe use of cloud-based tools (that I know of), Royal Roads University’s Cloud-based Learning Tools Notification
  • and read about the reality of that approach for many faculty (Privacy in BC…)
  • or try out UBC’s Digital Tattoo site to learn more about your own digital presence and the important elements of digital identity.

look in horse's mouthAnd a few things to leave you with…

Even if you can’t read every line of the ever-changing, densely worded, mind-numbing terms of reference and privacy agreements for every cloud-based app you use, keep in mind the adage “always look a gift horse in the mouth” – read for the essentials – who has ownership of what you post – where is the transition between “free” and “paid services” – what are the cancellation policies – what happens if there’s a conflict between you and the app provider – can you backup your own work in a readable format.

Keep developing your digital literacy skills – one of the better descriptions of what that entails (IMHO) is Digital Literacy Fundamental from Mediasmarts

Don’t be afraid to take risks – most powerful learning experiences involve risk. But be aware, plan to mitigate risks and, have fun exploring!

Losing the personal touch in online teaching?

One of the best things (IMHO) about the Facilitating Learning Online workshop (offered regularly by BCcampus and Royal Roads University) is the emphasis we place on building a sense of community for learners and a sense of being “seen” by the instructor and other participants. Previous studies of the experiences of learners online highlighted the sense of isolation that they felt and the importance they placed on receiving timely feedback on their actions and assignments from instructors.

Personalized Learning DesignerI just finished tracking down a tweet that mentioned a webinar on the potential value of using a Personalized Learning Designer in Moodle. I was curious how Moodle would “personalize” learning. I reviewed some back-and-forth discussion about what it was and why it wasn’t available in current versions of Moodle ( and found the actual description of how it works. If I’m understanding it correctly, you (the instructor) devise a series of “rules” that states something you want to do or respond to a student doing (events, conditions or actions); the rules automate the instructor-student communication process so you never miss a beat, particularly during the crazy-busy times at the beginning of courses when you’re teaching several courses with large cohorts. You can find some examples of rules in this article from Moodleroom: “Three rules you can’t live without

While I can see the benefit to some instructors, I have experienced the “fussy-ness” of rules – if you don’t set them properly they end up causing confusion, miscommunication and additional work to correct. If you have a team of learning designers or instructional technologists, this may not be an issue (or if you’re good at writing rules and setting consistent conditions). But I wonder how much of the “personal touch” would be lost and how the development of a sense of “instructor presence” might be hampered by using a tool that intends to “automate facilitation” and make your course run like “a well-oiled machine.”

I guess my concern is that so many of the new apps and tools are intended to take away the need to focus on our learners; to get to know them and to develop a relationship that is mutually respectful and provides support and encouragement at times and in ways that best suit each student. By automating that relationship we may ensure that we never miss responding to something that we pre-identify as expected and important but we may lose the unexpected opportunities to emphasize “learning moments” or suggest alternatives or simply acknowledge and praise our learners when they may need it most.

I’ll be curious to hear what intructors find when they use this new tool (and to hear what participants think) although I understand it’s only available to a limited group for now (“the Personalized Learning Designer is a feature of joule, the Moodlerooms distribution of Moodle available only to Moodlerooms hosted customers“)