You sit in a room with almost nothing in it. It’s just you, a table, and a single cookie. The researcher who left a moment ago said you could eat the cookie—two chocolate wafers connected by a cream filling. Or, you can wait until he returns in a few minutes and have two cookies. You sit, thinking, “One now? or two later?”
Oh, one more detail: you are four-years-old, and whether you eat one cookie now or wait for two later may predict many aspects of your future.
Thanks to recent Radio Lab episodes, coverage on news programs, and attention from bloggers such as writer Jonah Lehrer and educator Aaron Eyler, self-regulation has become a hot topic. Much of the attention has focused on the original study, often called the “Marshmallow Test,” conducted by Walter Mischel in the 1960’s. (The researchers switched to cookies shortly after launching the experiment.) But more recent research provides insights into the relationship of self-regulation and academic achievement.
Also known as self-discipline, researchers describe self-regulation as the ability to consciously suppress or delay responses in order to work for a higher goal. Examples include “deliberately modulating one’s anger rather than having a temper tantrum, reading test instructions before proceeding to the questions, paying attention to a teacher rather than daydreaming, saving money so that it can accumulate interest in the bank, choosing homework over TV, and persisting on long-term assignments despite boredom and frustration.” Self-regulation predicts academic success better than IQ. It also better predicts GPA, standardized test achievement, homework completion, the potential for GPA gains during the course of a year, and even SAT scores.
Because it significantly influences student achievement, it makes sense to develop students’ self-regulation capacities. But how? How can teachers and schools aid their students’ strengthening of self-regulation? Self-regulation is much like a muscle. It can be exercised and strengthened. Any task that requires ignoring and delaying reward or that requires persistence through boredom or challenge exercises the self-regulation “muscle.” For example:
- Exercise students’ “muscles” of self-regulation. By engaging students in activities that require delayed gratification or perseverance, we provide a self-regulation workout. Just like exercising yields slow but steady results, gradually increasing the amount of self-regulation required for tasks slowly builds capacity. As Aaron Eyler suggests, engage students in complex assignments that require time spent thinking about how ideas connect instead of separate, quickly-completed assignments focused on individual ideas.
- Teach students stick-to-it and wait-for-it strategies, such as self-talk. The messages we consciously “speak” to ourselves influence our thinking, and our thinking influences our actions. In several recent studies, researchers have found that “mental tricks,” motivational and instructional self-talk has “small but significant effects” on “physical exertion…[and] performance” and help us stay “focused.”
- Teach students “cognitive transformation.” Cognitive transformation involves distracting the mind by shifting the focus. For example, in the famous “marshmallow test,” some children managed to avoid eating the marshmallow by imagining it as something else—a cloud, a table, a chef’s hat. This “distraction” prolonged their ability to resist eating the marshmallow.
- Engage students in attention training, such as listening for details, observing closely, and solving complex puzzles. Again, increasing the level and duration of attention required for success can strengthen the self-regulation “muscle.” Reading aloud to students is one of the best ways of accomplishing this. Throughout a school year, increase the amount of time you read to children and the complexity of the texts you read.
- Implement a school FITNESS program. The emphasis needs to be on fitness, not on competition or learning a specific sport. Students engaged in regular physical activity score higher on self-regulation measures.
Some may argue that because self-regulation is non-academic it should not be addressed in school. This perspective fails to recognize the strong connection between self-regulation and learning. Perhaps a metaphor can help. Imagine a suspension bridge, such as San Francisco’s Golden Gate or the Bristol Channel’s Severn. If the road, carrying travelers from one shore to another, represents a student’s learning, the cables, the roadway’s essential support, represent self-regulation. Weak cables limit the roadway’s depth and distance. Strengthening students’ self-regulation capacities supports the academic learning we’re seeking through our teaching.
Duckworth, A. L. (2008). Self-discipline, IQ, and academic achievement. Presented at Learning & the Brain: Using Emotions Research to Enhance Learning. Boston (Fall 2008).
Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science 16(12), 939-944.
Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Self-discipline gives girls the edge: Gender in self-discipline, grades, and achievement test scores. Journal of Educational Psychology 98(1), 198-208.
Eyler, A. (2009). Hybridizing education. Stretch our minds (May 22, 2009): http://stretchourminds.blogspot.com.