I’ve been reading a few pages of The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control every evening, and the findings of Walter Mischel and his team regarding delayed gratification are interesting. After observing young children who manage to resist eating a tempting treat in order to be rewarded with two treats, Mischel wondered if “priming” the children before a truly irresistible temptation would influence their ability to resist. The devilish distraction was a machine called “Mr. Clown Box,” featuring brightly colored lights, loud sounds, two windows with rotating toy prizes, and a voice that nagged the children to engage with the machine. The kids were given a boring task to complete after the examiner left the room and were urged to keep at their work, ignoring the clown.
Some of the children were primed with an “if-then” strategy—something along the lines of “If Mr. Clown tries to get you to play with him, just tell him that you are working and can’t play.” Many of the children in this group devised their own strategies as well. The children in the primed group were nearly twice as persistent in their assigned task and accomplished twice as much as the group of children who were not offered a coping strategy.
What does this suggest to a college teacher? After all, my students are adults who “should” have developed strategies for coping with distractions long ago. But did they? Their world offers temptations far more beguiling than Mr. Clown Box, including cell phones, TV, and their family and social lives.
Mischel stresses the efficacy of the “if-then” strategy for accomplishing tasks that require persistence, including dieting, smoking cessation, and completing academic work. A student might say, “When the clock strikes five, I’m going to study A&P for thirty minutes.” Or, “If the kids’ practice runs late, I’ll review my notes while I wait.”
For those of us who have completed higher ed successfully, these behaviors may be automatic. These are the strategies that got us here. But some of our students may need a little help in learning to use the “if-then” model. Mischel’s work strongly suggests that a little influence goes a long way. Starting on the first day of class, and in the syllabus before that first class, we can offer a few “if-then” tricks:
- “If you need to get to class on time, make sure you have your ID to get on post before pulling out of the driveway.”
- “If you have children, think about what you will do if they get sick and can’t go to school.”
- “If you have to miss class, make sure that you have exchanged phone or email contact with someone in the class so that you can find out what you missed.”
- “If you have trouble grasping a concept in class, use the tools in the on-line platform to review.”
Whether we call it “priming” or “words to the wise” or good ol’ common sense, The Marshmallow Test offers hope that our small suggestions can make a difference in our students’ performance.