The Twitter Generation: Teaching Deferred Gratification to College Students


The posting below looks at the relationship between deferred gratification and academic performance and suggest ways that the former can be taught to students. It is by Patty O’Grady, of the University of Tampa in Tampa, Florida, and is #61 in a series of selected excerpts from The NT&LF reproduced here as part of our “Shared Mission Partnership.” NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [] The on-line edition of the Forum – like the printed version – offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Vol. 21, Number 3, March 2012.© Copyright 1996-2012. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.
The Twitter Generation: Teaching Deferred Gratification to College Students

Consider this: The research on deferred gratification connects with the research in the emerging neurodevelopment science of education. Moreover, there is a strong correlation between deferred gratification-defined as self-regulation-and current and future academic, social, and emotional success. And finally, teaching deferred gratification may increase student retention. Happily, there are specific, unique, and research-based strategies that educators can deploy to explicitly teach deferred gratification or self-regulation to all college students.


Current college students are conditioned to expect instant gratification, whether in instant messages, instant admissions, speed dating, instant credit, or instant feedback from professors: How many pages do you want? Deferred gratification-also referred to as impulse control, self-regulation, self-control, self-discipline, patience, and will power-is the ability to delay reward. Goleman (1996) suggests that self-regulation is a key factor in emotional intelligence, predictive of both academic and personal success across multiple assessment variables. New neuroscience research suggests that deferred gratification is a brain process that activates the frontal cortex to manage the impulses and emotions of the amygdala. There is also emerging evidence that deferred gratification can be affected by direct experience and, as I’ve said, explicitly taught to young adults who may possess poor patience and planning abilities. (Davidson 2003).

The Marshmallow Effect

The famous Stanford University “marshmallow experiment” offers some background indicating that good impulse control seems to be important for academic achievement and life success (Mischel et al. 1989). In the 1960s and 1970s, Mischel and his colleagues studied 651 preschool-aged children examining the mental mechanisms that affect cognitive and emotional self-regulation (Mischel et al. 1989; Mischel & Ayduk 2004). The children were given a marshmallow and advised that if they waited to eat a marshmallow until the experimenter returned from an errand after 15-20 minutes, the experimenter would give the child two marshmallows to eat. One-third of the children ate the marshmallow almost immediately. One-third of the children waited some period of time, but ate the marshmallow before the experimenter returned. One-third of the children waited long enough to earn the second marshmallow. In a longitudinal follow-up study, the same children were tested at 18 years of age (Mischel, Shoda, & Peake 1989). The children who ate the marshmallow immediately, labeled the low delayers, were compared to the children who waited to receive the enhanced reward, labeled the high delayers. Across a range of measured variables-including behavioral measures, cognitive measures, attention measures, social and relationship measures, physical health measures, stress measures, school attendance, school completion, early pregnancy, truancy, drug use, and criminal activity-low delayers performed less success- fully. Most significantly, the high delayers (610-625) scored, on average, 210 points higher on the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT) in mathematics than the low delayers (524-528). The predictive variable was deemed the “strategic allocation of attention” or the ability to self-distract (Mischel et al. 1972; Mischel et al. 1988). As children, these adults exhibited the ability to self-moderate and modulate emotions using cognitive strategies (e.g., singing to self, covering eyes). The findings are stable across cultures. Based on this research, ability to self-regulate is a better predictor of SAT score than Intelligence Quotient (IQ) or parent education or even economic status (Goleman 1996).

Neuroscience of Self-Regulation

Goleman (1996) advanced the theory of emotional intelligence summarizing the research that students who are emotionally competent, recognize and manage their feelings, exhibit empathy and tolerate frustration are less impulsive, more focused, and concentrate better. Goleman further argued that emotionally intelligent students manage their impulses and tend to find rational solutions to problems. Goleman’s propositions are perfectly aligned with Mischel’s claims that self-regulation is a key determinant of future success across multiple variables and that a lack of self-regulation is associated with increased academic, social, and behavioral difficulties. Fredricks et al. (2004) suggest that the neuroscience is persuasive that teachers must emphasize cognitive engagement. Cognitive engagement occurs when teachers explicitly teach self-regulation to students activating intrinsic motivation mechanisms rather than extrinsic motivation mechanisms, and by developing the student’s internal locus of control (Rotter 1990). This approach emphasizes the intrinsic value of learning and the need for self-mastery such that students are able to persist by consciously avoiding distractions. In young adults, important parts of the brain in the prefrontal cortex that control planning, working memory, organization, anticipation of consequences, impulse control, and mood regulation are not fully developed. Even in later adolescence and young adulthood, freshman and sophomore students may have an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex and thus compensate by relying heavily on other parts of the brain including the amygdala, a more primitive part of the brain that reacts more instinctually and impulsively, impairing judgment and reducing patience.

For proven biological reasons, these students are less able to self-regulate overall than other students. Students with a predisposition to impulsivity will fare even less well in the areas of controlling behavior and making sound judgments (Davidson 2003). Connecting the neuroscience evidence with cognitive self-regulation theories, it seems a legitimate claim that high delayers have earlier and more advanced prefrontal cortex development. Recently, McClure found two different areas of the brain that appear to be involved in balancing short-term versus long-term rewards in college students. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies demonstrated that in students who chose short-term gain, the active areas of the brain are those areas that regulate emotion. Students who chose the long-term gain had more activity in the prefrontal cortex that activates logic and reasoning. While both parts of the brain are involved in the decision, less emotionally reactive students make the better choice.

Teaching Self-Regulation

The research clearly indicates that educators can directly impact student success by teaching self-regulation as a disposition predictive of success. Experience can be found to reduce emotional decision-making and increase rational decision-making. Teaching strategies to develop self-regulation can be infused into the content curriculum relatively easily. Ten recommended approaches are derived from the literature.

1. Sensory and Sensory/Motor Experiences – Increase students’ personal and physical attention to self and body movement in space holding positions for prescribed periods of time, as occurs in yoga. Use music, smell, touch, and emotion to focus student’s self and sensory attention, discussing the amount of time the sensory experience takes, how long it lingers with the student, and how immediate the need is to recreate pleasant sensory experiences. Encourage all freshmen and sophomores to take experiential classes in movement, dance, and exercise science (Davis 2001; Kolb 2008; Wilson 2001).

2. Project-based Learning – Increase complexity of task, challenge of task, and student-driven inquiry to cognitive engagement through inquiry around essential questions that pose multiple solutions, such that students are aware of the amount of time needed to thoroughly investigate a problem or finalize a project. Eliminate short term quick tasks such as quizzes and increase semester-long projects – with intermediary steps clearly structured – that require more in depth learning (Kwon & Lawson 2000; Montgomery & Whiting 2000).

3. Stress Reduction – Stress is known to have a negative impact on neurodevelopment, so educators need to reduce stress to the maximum extent possible by creating supportive, nonthreatening, nonpunitive, emotionally safe classroom climates and school cultures committed to integrating the principles of positive psychology in the classroom that are correlated to regulation and resiliency. Freshmen and sophomores should work with advisors to record and chart antecedent conditions associated with stressful situations and report amount of stress time experienced daily (Resnick 1993).

4. Affiliation – Provide diverse opportunities to fully participate and succeed at school in both curricular, cocurricular, and extracurricular activities with full inclusion and zero rejection policies to ensure a sense of belonging, including clubs, field trips, competitions, intramural sports, and more. Include service-learning activities that help others and build empathy. Freshmen and sophomores should be required to participate in one club and take one service-learning class each semester as part of their academic requirements. Students record and chart time spent preparing for those activities and participating in those activities and record positive outcomes experienced (Catalano et al. 1997; Resnick 1993).

5. Goal Setting – Students generate self-directed plans that include written goals and an implementtion timeline that requires students to plan, monitor, evaluate progress, and identify ways to continuously improve in all freshman classes.

6. Strategic Time Allocation – Freshman students are required to generate daily/weekly/monthly schedules with specific times to complete tasks and assessment of how long the tasks took to complete, with ongoing revision of schedules as needed or modification of tasks for successful completion based on data analysis. Schedules are posted online as a prerequisite for continued enrollment.

7. Positive Distractors – Freshman students identify personal positive distractors (e.g., headphones with music, work time in library, exercise breaks) that increase persistence to tasks as part of orientation activities.

8. Token Economy Systems – Freshman and sophomore students collect tokens that are saved to acquire larger and more valued rewards such as independent work time in exchange for a set number of days of uninterrupted attendance.

9. Competitions – Hold competitions to determine what individual/groups can defer gratification longest. Coach individuals and groups, explicitly teaching definitions of deferred gratification, examples and non-examples of deferred gratification, distracting techniques (e.g., counting when angry). Practice through competitions for cases where a longer term commitment to tasks is required.

10. Second Chances – Provide opportunity to change and improve prospects at crucial “turning points” in development, especially during times of significant transition. Students report how lack of self-regulation contributed to the need for a second chance, and anticipate and describe how the second chance will improve their future (Rayner et al. 1993). Adopt a restorative justice discipline model university-wide for freshmen and sophomores.

Mischel (1989) argues that you can teach deferred gratification. He and other researchers identify three key conditions necessary to teach deferred gratification or impulse control. The first consideration is the trust expectation that relates to the degree to which the college student believes the reward will actually be received (Ferrin & Dirks 2003). Second, the reward must be worth waiting for because college students assign a set value to certain rewards and the rewards must be commensurate with the exertion of the wait (Washington Lewis Univer- sity 2007). Finally, an academic environment that is predictable and structured is essential to the practice of deferred gratification. The academic environment must insist on written goals and plans to ensure a level of cognitive engagement with tasks that increases the ability to defer graduation. Trust, value, and practice are the core considerations in a curriculum design that is intended to give students a significant advantage by explicitly teaching deferred gratification.

References for this article will be found as supplemental materials on


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