Combating procrastination on massive online open courses via optimal calls to action

Ni Huang, Jiayin Zhang, Gordon Burtch, Xitong Li, Peiyu Chen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Massive online open courses (MOOCs) are a booming phenomenon in the digital era, having attracted millions of users around the world to date. At the same time, educational delivery via MOOCs comes with distinct difficulties for students and instructors because the online nature of MOOCs creates every opportunity for digital distraction and procrastination. In this work, we consider that the digital nature of MOOCs and online learning management systems (LMSs) may also offer unique opportunities to counteract procrastination. Building on the temporal motivation theory, this study examines a number of calls to action (CTAs) pertaining to the completion and submission of course assignments, with an eye toward combating student procrastination on MOOCs. We report on the results of a randomized field experiment on a leading MOOC platform in China. By randomly treating MOOC users with different CTAs related to active course assignments, we seek to examine the impacts of alternative informational interventions on students’ time to completion and probability of on-time assignment submission. We consider multiple types of CTAs: a simple CTA, a deadline reminder, descriptive norm interventions (communicating peer assignment completion rates), and a simple CTA combined with a financial incentive. We find that descriptive norms lead to higher probabilities of assignment completion and a shorter time to completion. In contrast, we find that the deadline reminder has a surprisingly counterproductive effect. Subsequently, exploring heterogeneity in the response to our different interventions—considering factors such as course load, education level, and user tenure on the MOOC platform—we find evidence that the deadline reminder in particular can backfire if students’ active course load is low. This result suggests that students with low course loads may perceive the deadline to be distant, which reduces their sense of urgency and leads to complacency. We discuss the implications of our findings for both research and practice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)301-317
Number of pages17
JournalInformation Systems Research
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2021


  • Calls to action
  • Massive online open courses (MOOCs)
  • Online learning management systems
  • Procrastination
  • Randomized field experiment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Management Information Systems
  • Information Systems
  • Computer Networks and Communications
  • Information Systems and Management
  • Library and Information Sciences


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