Research every teacher should know: self-control and learning

There is a wealth of psychology research that can help teachers to improve how they work with students, but academic studies of this kind aren’t always easy to access or translate into the realities of classroom practice. This series in The Guardian seeks to redress that by taking a selection of studies and making sense of the important information for teachers, as we all seek to answer the question: how can we help our students do better at school? This time, we consider a well-known study looking at self-control.

If I offered a child a marshmallow and told them that if they could refrain from eating it for 15 minutes they would get two marshmallows instead, would they be able to do it? In the early 1970s, Stanford researcher Walter Mischel and colleagues put the challenge to 92 children aged three to five, and the follow-up studies and results 20 years later have had a significant impact on how we view self-control.

Self-control is a fundamental part of learning in the classroom. If students can maintain focus and block out potentially exciting but handicapping short-term distractions, they can benefit from sustained improvement in their knowledge.

Some students, when given the choice between eating a marshmallow straight away or waiting to get two marshmallows, could barely contain themselves and ate the first marshmallow. Others were able to wait and delay their gratification, and were given the extra marshmallow.

Subsequent research has focused on what causes some children to seek instant gratification while others are able to wait. A 2011 study attributed it, at least partly, to differences in the brain, with those who give in to temptation having less activity in their prefrontal lobes (associated with conscious decision-making and impulse control) and more in the ventral striatum (associated with addictive behaviours).

There has also been research suggesting it may be associated with trust. A 2013 study found that, if young children don’t think they will really get a second marshmallow if they wait, they are more likely to eat the first one. This has some interesting implications for students who may not trust teachers or parents: if they don’t believe that the person advising them is trustworthy, they’ll be less likely to work hard for them.

What does this mean for the classroom?

In some ways, we could see school as one big marshmallow test. With technology such as mobile phones in some classrooms increasing distractions, the ability to improve self-control and delayed gratification has become a particularly important skill. Perhaps it’s not surprising that recent research by the London School of Economics found that banning mobiles phones in schools can help improve students’ test scores.

Read the full article on self-control and the way if can improve learning Research every teacher should know: self-control and learning

Have you tired the marshmellow test on your class? Do you already know the pupils with more self-control without the test? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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