The predictive power of marshmallows

The Student Achievement Program Learning Education StudyingHave you ever read about the marshmallow test? In recent years I have found it quoted or recited in several books and articles on memory, behavior and personal leadership. The main idea? That children, who at a young age are able to refrain from eating a marshmallow for fifteen minutes knowing that there is a reward of an additional marshmallow at the end of their wait, are more successful by a variety of measures later on in life.

Having spent the better part of a decade observing successful students, I am convinced that in the academic domain, your ability to control impulsive behavior, such as eating the marshmallow, and focussing on the long term horizon rather then the pleasures of the here-and-now, is a key factor in performance improvement.

Successful students do not show this impulse control constantly (phew, you are human!), you show it more frequently than less successful students and, probably, you show it in moments of decision which influence events such as exams.

Yes, like the decision to go out for a beer or spend the evening preparing for a class the next day. Going out for the beer is the first marshmallow.

You know, as steady reader of this blog, that in my mind students are not so different in their intellectual ability. Given the exceptions at both ends of the spectrum, on average students who make it to university or college have the intellectual ability to be successful in their studies.

Yet it seems that the behavior of foregoing cups of coffee, shopping sprees, heat of the moment escapades and parties is crucial to the performance of who we consider to be top students. Actually, you are simply better at staying focused. At setting priorities. At delaying gratification. At controlling your impulses.

Yes, I just implicitly referred to at least a dozen articles and books discussing the same thing in different words. I think these are all elements related to impulse control.

Why is this so fascinating? Well, your ability to managing the trade off between feeling good in the moment or doing well in the long run is seemingly influences your future in an order of magnitude you do not (want to) comprehend.

Rationally you know what is best for you. Yet something clouds your judgement. Probably your emotions. When you observe the language you use for certain things, you may catch yourself confirming what I just said. You feel a need to do something. You know it is the right thing to do. Your language implies which part of the brain are in conflict here. The bad news? Your emotions are relentlessly swift and overwhelmingly powerful influencers. The good news? Your reason is very capable of learning to reign in your emotions.

In fact, you can learn to do better at the marshmallow test. But think carefully.  If you  think that by not eating the marshmallow within fifteen minutes, you suddenly have impulse control, you are mistaken. In that moment perhaps, but what about when it comes to something truly important to you, such as  deciding to putt in that extra hour at the end of the day for a course or going for a drink with some friends. For two weeks straight? Exactly – your irrational mind is already making up excuses why you should be able to go out with friends. Nobody is saying you should not go out with your friends. Somebody is saying that you do not have to go out with your friends tonight. 

You know that no matter how well you do at the marshmallow test, a hard task awaits you in turning around your academic performance.

The trick to improving your academic performance is simple. In fact, you have had so many opportunities to show to yourself that you are very capable of performing well. You may be smart enough, but are you behaving smart enough?

Marshmallows have no predictive power. You do. Every morning you can predict whether you will perform today or not. And every morning you have a chance to prove yourself wrong. Or right.

It really does not matter how long you leave the marshmallow on the table. What matters is that every day you do what has to get done. If you think that is partying – you might as well have that marshmallow now.

Test anxiety

It is quite simple. Too much test anxiety inhibits your ability to exercise your intelligence. The good news is it is very malleable, hence you can decrease your test anxiety, thus increasing your ability to perform cognitive tasks – committing new information to memory and answering questions about what you have learnt.

Already primed to think in this direction whilst reading Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, it seems that your emotional brain (the pre-historic part of your brain) is extremely powerful and exerts a tremendous amount of influence over your ability to use your intelligence. Left unchecked, your emotional brain reigns supreme, thus inhibiting your cognitive performance. Not what you want when you are trying to do well in your studies.

Here is the good news. Your rational brain has the capacity to regulate your emotional responses; in fact, you can train this ability. Mastering (finally, I managed to slip that word in to a blog again!) your emotions can lead to improved control over impulses, which helps you develop the habits you need to cultivate to improve your study results.

One does not simply… excel in academia. It requires dedication and devotion; perhaps emotional mastery is the first step. And it is not even a university course.

Test anxiety is an emotion; fear. A very powerful emotion which primes your body for many things, but not for excellent cognitive performance. It is not that you are not intelligent, you are not letting your intelligence flourish when you let fear take command of your brain.

Study. Practice. Talk to your peers. Take a course in test taking. If you put some conscious effort into training, your test anxiety decreases and, yes, your test performance will increase.


Brainiac… what a trip…

The Student Achievement ProgramTime flies… Ok, so I got up around 6.30 a.m. this morning with the intention to read, and consequently write about conscientiousness. Since I had covered this topic in my master’s thesis, I thought a quick refresher would be a good basis for a nice, quick and readable blog. As it is now 10:55 a.m. I thought wrong. Not only did I get a quick introduction to the wonders of neuroscience; I also see that scientists are making great strides in understanding how our brain works. It is truly amazing; and perhaps worth digging into for future blogs. But to go out on a limb on such a precarious topic after having read two or three articles and a book on how the brain works, I think is a bit too brave. I’ll spend some time mastering this stuff, so the reading can be profound and interesting, not merely entertaining.

Conscientiousness pays. It is true, proven without a doubt. And interestingly enough, one of the two articles I read this morning gave an interesting perspective on GPA. Indeed maintaining a high GPA over an extended period of time is a tough task; it requires dedication and the ability to deal with a complex and rapidly changing environment, whilst experiencing undeniable changes to yourself.

True, if you look at GPA in this light, I can only agree that looking at the behavior, perhaps GPA is indicative of some level of conscientiousness. However, just as conscientiousness scores can be inflated on a test, so the validity of GPA can be cast into doubt as students with high GPA might obtain these results through not-so-valid-means… perhaps more often than educators think. As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Back to conscientiousness. If you can describe yourself as hard working, organized, efficient and self-disciplined (Do you recognize in yourself a person with such ideal working ethics!?), then you are already halfway there. Don’t kid yourself; the research shows that you are able to inflate your score on this personality trait given a self-test. And obviously you want to see yourself as hard working, organized, efficient and self-disciplined… But are you really?

The Student Achievement ProgramIn coaching and training students for achievement, what counts is behavior. Not what you say you will do, but what you do. And just as important, how you do what you do.

And that is where conscientiousness kicks in. All though studies say as a personality trait it is constant during a lifetime, I am convinced by my own experience that conscientious behavior can be learned – and that you can apply it with success to achieve your goals and increase your performance.

In fact, if you were to self rate your conscientiousness level “low” before a training and intervention on this behavior and three months later, having changed your behaviors and routines to optimize your effectiveness, would you not rate yourself as more conscientious?

So perhaps, as a trait, it is stable (who am I to argue with scientific research, right?), but as far as the behavior goes – it is learnable.

Back to the brain. Interesting in this light was the note from the authors of an article that your prefrontal lobes are related to regulating social behavior and initiating and regulating goal directed actions. Does that sound like an abstraction of conscientiousness to you? It sure does to me…

You can train your brain and learn behaviors that will either obstruct your goal achievement or bring you closer to accomplishing your objectives. In a sense, you can train yourself to behave more conscientiously. It may take some effort, but in the end you are what you consistently do.

So what is my point? Even though snap shot tests like past GPA or self-rated conscientiousness may be in some way predictive of your ability to perform in the future, whether or not you perform is a different story all together. Understanding your level of conscientiousness is a tool, just like comprehensive reading or time management, and knowing where you stand is a good starting point to move to where you want to be.

Nothing in life is set in stone, in fact, high GPA is also proven to be a very poor predictor for real world performance, i.e. life… So don’t get stuck in the conscientiousness-influences-GPA-influences-my-future rut; there is more to life than getting good grades in university, but practicing your conscientiousness in university and getting good grades as a result will give you strong behavioral and psychological foundations for many of life’s wonderful challenges.

Getting started

The Student Achievement ProgramA month ago, I had a coffee-and-catch-up session with a dear friend of mine. It was a sunday afternoon, and as usual we had a long and inspiring conversation. She was about to set off exploring the world, and I, as usual, wanted to explore the uncharted regions of my mind. We created a mutual pact – that we would both venture forth, and deliver on our ambition. Obviously my friend has the more pleasurable end of the deal, as I believe her to be somewhere “on a beach, in the sun, sipping cocktails and enjoying life- ready to hug the world” (it’s not a real quote, but hey… it adds to the picture right?), whereas I am in Holland, enjoying what can only be described as the worst summer in history. At least I’m inside.

A month after we created this pact, I am taking the next step; a daily blog which will chronicle my unearthing of some interesting findings concerning the quest for mastery at universities and colleges around the world. What is mastery? Well, we’ll get to that at some point – this is the introduction, so hang in there.

Yes, it is true; I am writing a book. However, the more I write, the more I discover the vast number of tangents one can branch out on when exploring a topic such as this one.

The purpose of this blog is simple; rhythm. I have had the pleasure of studying writing at some occasion in my life, and the best advice I got from Professor F. (really, his name starts with an F, whatever you are thinking…) was to write every day (admittedly, I updated my journal twice that term… but still.)

This blog will be my immediate transference of inputs into my brain concerning the psychology of achievement in universities and colleges around the world, with a focus on your ability to learn, grow and accomplish what it is that you want, to paper. Just to get into the rhythm.

For more than 6 years I have been lucky enough to work with some of the most talented students I could have met, and you have all inspired me greatly with your feats – from trips to China to running your own businesses, from accomplishments in sports to academic achievements. Every story has fueled my inspiration – and I trust these chronicles will do your experience in my workshops justice.

So, I guess after years of drinking coffee with people, I finally filled my inspiration-tank enough to put this program to paper. I’m sure I will enjoy writing it. Hopefully, you will enjoy reading it.

(p.s. The challenge is to write the blog before I start my day; so it will not be thoroughly edited. All comments welcome, but keep in mind that this (all) was written before breakfast… thanks!)

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