What can marshmallows teach us about student success?

Sally Dicketts is Group Chief Executive of Activate Learning.
Follow Sally on twitter @sallydicketts


Picture the scene. You are left alone with your favourite sweet treat and told not to eat it – or at least told not to eat it for 20 minutes after which your self-control will be rewarded with double helpings.

You can’t leave the room, you can’t do anything else, just sit and wait.

Would you forego instant gratification for the promise of something better in less than half an hour?

In his book The Marshmallow Test, Walter Mischel documents a remarkable discovery about the inherent self-control of five and six-year-olds and their propensity to succeed in later life.

The marshmallow test

In a simple test carried out in the 1960s, pre-schoolers were left alone with a marshmallow and told not to eat it. If they followed instructions and waited they would be rewarded with two marshmallows.

This simple experiment turned into a long-term scientific study in which Mischel tracked the progress of these pre-schoolers as they entered adulthood. The experiment proved that the ability to delay gratification is critical for a successful life – predicting educational achievement, better social and cognitive functioning, a healthier lifestyle and greater sense of self-worth.

Put simply, good things come to those who wait.

If we understand this to be true, how can we use this knowledge to improve the success rates and career prospects of our young people?

Generally speaking today’s young people seek instant gratification. When it comes to learning few, other than the exceptionally academic, need to see the immediate relevance and impact of what they learn. The days of learning for learning’s sake are slipping away.

For students in our further education colleges we need to create the right environments to help them maintain motivation. That means creating commercial environments, such as learning companies, where young people can work and learn simultaneously. Here they can quickly understand the impact of doing something in a certain way and adjust accordingly.

But, not ignoring the marshmallow test experiment, we also need to help them rewire their brains to improve self-control. We should help them to think how their course or programme will form the basis of a career pathway to their future goals. By working with a tutor or career coach they can begin to think about their future ambitions, and how effort put in now can pay off in the longer term. This approach can help them to imagine the lifestyle they hope to attain and what that means for decisions they make today.

Above all we need to help them accept that they can change their internal processes and thought patterns. Just because you eat the marshmallow straight away today, it doesn’t mean it has to stay that way for life. Walter Mischel proved that people can change their responses and improve self-control, and we need to create the environments to help our students do that too.

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