Delaying Gratification for Academic Success
Many children have little patience to satisfy a want, especially when the rewards do not seem obvious. Math homework, for example, presents a challenge that stands between young students and their preferred after-school activities. Oftentimes, when the answer does not seem immediately apparent, students would prefer to give up or rush to the wrong answer rather than work through the problem. Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment in the 1960s demonstrated that some children have a stronger ability to delay rewards. Four-year-old children were placed in a room with a marshmallow and told if they waited for the experimenter to return, they could have two marshmallows. The children who were able to wait had higher SAT scores and academic results when tested several years later.
Recently in Newsweek, Sharon Begley and Jean Chatzky discuss the conundrum of spenders versus savers, people who would prefer to buy something now versus those who would save up for something big later. Scientists are starting to identify which regions of the brain connected to “saving,” specifically the prefrontal cortex (PFC). They have even figured out how to stimulate the PFC, which improves people’s ability to delay gratification.
While activating students’ PFCs might not be the immediate solution, there appear to be other ways to promote patience in exchange for a higher payoff. One of the challenges to both parents and educators is getting children to think into the future to see the benefits of motivation and hard work. A student that I tutor dreads doing her math homework because it does not come easily to her. She would always prefer to work on Spanish, a subject in which she excels. She struggles to see that focusing on math will improve her success in the subject and make it much more enjoyable. Fortunately, research by psychologist Warren Bickel of Virginia Tech suggests that improving working memory boosts people’s ability to develop longer time horizons. And with practice, children can learn that hard work in the present will result in better outcomes in the future.
Waiting for this higher payoff requires some practice and training, but the skill of delaying gratification can be developed, a hopeful sign for math education. While tricks and shortcuts get students to the answer more quickly, they often come at the cost of understanding core concepts. If we can improve students’ working memory and time preferences, they will become more successful math learners in the long term.