Marshmallows, Delayed Gratification, and Test Prep

I just read this fascinating article in the New Yorker.  It describes a professor's research into mechanisms by which people learn to delay instant gratification.  Specifically, it describes an experiment where a marshmallow is placed in front of a young child, and the child is told that he or she can eat the marshmallow at that moment, or wait 15 minutes and get 2 marshmallows.  Surprisingly, only 30 percent of children can wait the 15 minutes, but those that do have a much higher rate of success in life, both academically and emotionally.

I am struck by the parallels between this article and the work that I do in standardized testing.  Most of the students I work with feel a need, a compulsion even, to solve the problem as quickly as possible.  Now, this initially might not sound like a bad trait, but when I say as quickly as possible, I mean that they show no work, have no idea whether their answer is correct or not, and become slightly agitated if I dwell on the problem for too long.

In a previous posting, I talked about how few students really study their wrong answers and attempt to learn from them.  I referenced how I thought there were deep-seated psychological reasons for this behavior, and this article provides at least a clue in that direction.  I suspect that many students are intimidated by abstract thought [we're not wired for abstract thought, apparently - Anna], especially in a topic in which they do not have innate confidence.  Very few students have innate confidence in standardized tests, and so like any unpleasant subject, they try to do things as quickly as possible and avoid thinking about the problem solving process itself.

The metaphor to the article above works as follows:  instead of placing a marshmallow in front of students, you place a standardized test problem in front of them.  The rewards to solving the problem correctly are not as tangible as the marshmallow, but for students primed to get into a competitive university or graduate school, the benefits are certainly obvious.  Now, the answer to the problem is not obvious at first glance, but with a little persistence and patience, the student could certainly work out a solution in a relatively short amount of time.

I would concur with the article that students are by nature impatient [and maybe also distractable - Anna].  They want the quick fix, the one formula or principle that will tell them the answer.  I emphasized the phrase ‘tell them,' because often these formulas and principles are a substitute for thought, not a vehicle for it.  

So much of what I do is to show these students how to be patient, to attack a problem in a piecewise manner so that the problem unfolds before their eyes.  There are some students who have the greatest difficulty in making this adjustment.  For the ones who do, the higher scores that initially seemed so remote turn out to be not that remote after all.

Thoughts? Comments? Please share.