Way back in March 2013, I posted “Are We the Cursed Experts?” This highlighted our often unrecognized inability to remember what it’s like to NOT know what we know. After reading The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control by Walter Mischel, I’m convinced that the gap in expertise between students and instructors may not be confined to the knowledge bases of our disciplines.
In The Marshmallow Test, Mischel reviews the now-famous series of experiments that revealed differences in how young children react when confronted with an agonizing choice: One treat now, or two treats if you can delay eating until the experimenter returns to the room. In the book, Mischel discusses many variations and observations of the test beyond what has been covered in TV news shows. Still, the central questions about the origins of the ability to delay gratification—and, critically, whether these can be learned or manipulated—are the focus of the book and Mischel’s life work. It’s a great read.
This video is a mashup of similar experiments:
Delaying gratification sounds inherently, ahem, UNpleasurable, and it often is. Still, a night spent studying instead of heading out for pizza and a movie can lead to the pleasure of crossing a stage with a diploma in your hand…and a pay stub in your hand earned at a higher paying job….and a golf club or ticket to Paris in your hand because you invested well in a 401K as part of that great job.
Could it be that we college teachers have so much expertise in delaying gratification that we don’t realize that many of our students haven’t developed this skill? Could that explain missing assignments, absences from class, and late submissions of required papers, not to mention unread required reading? If we don’t realize that they don’t have it, we can’t begin to help them get it.
The early marshmallow experiments indicated that some of us are born with greater abilities to resist temptations than others, but Mischel’s later work offers hope that environment (including our classrooms?) can have a great effect on the ability to persevere in the face of challenges. We may highlight some coaching strategies in upcoming posts. For now, treat yourself to The Marshmallow Test.