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What Can Students Learn from Marshmallows?

By Kayla Burrow, Marketing and Communications Specialist, AVID Center

They’re puffy, soft, and sweet, the delicious glue that holds together every s’more, and they have a lot to teach us about success.  Who would think that something as simple as a marshmallow would help a group of researchers and psychologists at Stanford University discover what Dr. Joachim De Posada calls, “the most important principle for success, the ability to delay gratification.”  In the late 1960s, Dr. Walter Mischel asked hundreds of preschool-aged children to complete the marshmallow test; the results of that test and ongoing research show that the ability to delay gratification is the number one indicator of success in a person’s life.

In Dr. Mischel’s study, the adorable four- and five-year-old participants in the marshmallow test were placed in a simple room with just a table and chair and a plate.  An adult then produced a marshmallow, placed it on the plate in front of the child, and explained that it was his or hers to eat, but if the child could wait for the adult with marshmallows to return to the room in about 15 minutes, the prize would be two marshmallows instead of the one.  All the children wanted the greater reward, but asking preschoolers to wait that long for a treat with such temptation right in front of them proved to be a challenge, much to the delight of the researchers who were secretly watching the children as they struggled with their dessert dilemma.  Some children began a staring contest with the marshmallow, seemingly transfixed by it.  Others picked it up and admired its shape and texture.  Many smelled the marshmallow again and again.  In an attempt to end their suffering, several children touched the marshmallow and then thoroughly licked their fingers.  There are plenty of videos online of this cute interplay between tiny tyke and tantalizing treat.

In the end, about two out of every three children ate the marshmallow.  Some could barely wait for the adult to leave the room, and others almost reached their goal.  The one out of three who were successful in earning two marshmallows often relied on distraction to control their urge to scarf the single marshmallow – they distracted themselves with their hair, clothing, and little games they invented that kept them from focusing on the source of their stress, the road block to their goal, the solitary marshmallow on their plate.

Years later the researchers at Stanford revisited the participants of the study, and they found that 100% of the children who had resisted the marshmallow were successful in school and life.  Teachers, parents, and peers saw them as competent; their grades and test scores were excellent; and their plans were solid as they were preparing to end their high school careers and begin their adult lives.  Unfortunately many of the participants who had not been successful with the marshmallow test as children were also feeling failure as adolescents.  They struggled with school work and behavior.  They were floundering. Researchers continue studying these participants today and are moving into exciting work on how genetics, brain structures, and life experiences affect the ability to delay gratification.

Previous blogs have noted the strong connection between effort and success.  Delay of gratification is also a key part of success.  The participants who were able to earn two marshmallows did so because they were able to control their attention and emotions in a way that made their goal attainable.  A successful person must be able to navigate a minefield of distractions, temptations, emotional upheavals, and stressors that can block true goals.  Those who were able to hone the skill to delay gratification by age four continued to use it throughout life, and it served them well.

Dr. Posada recently replicated the marshmallow test with the same results.  He spoke about it in a 2009 Ted Talk, one that I always share with my students.  He argues that delaying gratification can help in almost every aspect of life.  The examples are almost endless.  The better performing students are able to tell their friends that they will have to go to the next party because they know they need to study.  The most effective teachers take the time to understand their students’ individual learning styles and adapt as needed, rather than try the one size fits all approach.  The people with the best interpersonal relationships do not rush to anger, but instead take a moment to think before speaking, or worse, punching.  Delay of gratification is key for success in almost any circumstance.

What does this mean for an AVID student?  In my AVID class, I used delay of gratification as an integral part of my students’ discussions about time management and goal setting – at least it began that way. My students and I caught ourselves referring back to the marshmallow test and the concept of delay of gratification again and again all school year.

I first introduced my students to the marshmallow test by discussing what delay of gratification is, the metacognitive ability to do what is necessary to reach a goal.  Then I showed them Dr. Posada’s Ted Talk, and we discussed the original study at Stanford.  Students often asked to see the short six-minute talk again, just to giggle at the footage of the children trying so hard to not eat the marshmallow.  The classroom filled with laughter every time, and in each class period my most earnest students told me that they would be doing the test with their little siblings at home.

I asked the students to reflect on the marshmallows in their lives, first in writing, and then in small collaborative groups, before they shared their key insights with everyone.  Our discussions always started innocently.  “I shouldn’t be on my phone so much.  I need to do my homework before I let myself text.”  “I need to stop getting on Facebook as soon as I get home.”  These words always made me smile, and I confessed to my students that I struggle with the Facebook “marshmallow” too.  As the students became more comfortable, serious topics emerged: unhealthy eating, wasting money, using drugs and alcohol, acts of violence, sex, and teen pregnancy all started to come into focus as possibly devastating marshmallows in someone’s life.  I asked my students to think about people they knew, to consider who eats the marshmallow and who doesn’t, and who they want to be.  I asked them about their “two marshmallow goals,” the things they truly wanted for themselves, and we all started to know each other more as we shared.  It is one of my favorite lessons to teach.  Hearing my students speak with such intelligence and heart about their own lives and goals is always rewarding.  Plus, it is an excuse for me to buy them marshmallows.  Who doesn’t like a treat?

But the most rewarding part of the marshmallow test lesson began weeks later.  I started to hear my students reference the marshmallow test over and over.  If someone was whispering about procrastinating on a project or planning to organize the binder later, I started to hear other AVID students say things like, “Don’t eat the marshmallow!” “Hey, you want two marshmallows, don’t you?” I could hear the laughter in their voices, but I also saw the sincerity in their eyes. Something had clicked, and they were now giving their AVID family positive peer pressure in an easy, kind-hearted way.

The marshmallow test results have a clear connection to what David T. Conley calls, “key self management skills.” These skills are an essential part of college readiness.  Students must be able to prioritize, set goals, make plans, and then be able to follow through with their plans.  Delay of gratification is vital for student success in college.  They need to develop the self management skills that will enable them to focus on their path to success and avoid pitfalls along the way.  Discussing delay of gratification and the marshmallow test with students helps them understand how their ability to endure the many distractions and challenges they will face in college and in life, will help them achieve their most important and rewarding goals. 

As AVID Teachers, we want our students to develop the skills to earn their two marshmallows.  We want them to work hard to attend college and graduate once they are there.  We want them to be fulfilled human beings. We want them to be successful. We want them to wait to eat the marshmallow.


Kayla Burrow has been a member of the Marketing, Communications, & Development team at AVID Center since 2012. She was a first-generation college student and received her Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Texas at Arlington in English and Secondary Education. Kayla has worked in education in many roles, including AVID tutor. She taught English at Grand Prairie High School Ninth Grade Center in Grand Prairie, Texas, where she was also the AVID Elective Teacher and Coordinator. Now, she works to help spread the word about AVID and all the great work AVID educators are doing around the world.


For more on AVID, visit http://avid.org/what-is-avid.ashx.


Want to read more blogs from Kayla? Check these out!

Top 5 Reasons for Educators to Get Social!

Curious, Persistent, and Willing to Take Risks

Confronting Stereotypes in the Classroom: Part 1

Confronting Stereotypes in the Classroom: Part 2

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Reader Comments (3)

This is brilliant, the intentional teaching of a growth mindset based on delaying gratification will rewire the Pre Frontal Cortex for increasing this capacity - teaching “two marshmallow goals,” is something all of us in education can intentionally do. this is especially true when it comes to students we may find difficult. Seeing the longer term goals and "hanging in there" with the challenging kids is the key to turning them around. Too many educators just want to teach the easy kids - the ones that give us easy returns. Remaining in a good faith struggle with a challenging young person is THE best route to their transformation. A transformation that ennobles the teacher, too. Thanks for this good stuff, Kayla!

September 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBill Madigan

It is so refreshing to read an article that strikes a chord on AVID's moral purpose in teaching self management skills. The richness of the article is the story written by Kayla. Today more than ever, students need directed focus learning on delaying gratification to be successful in school and life.

September 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGary Kroesch

I had already planned on my students doing a team building activity using marshmallows next Friday. Now, I know how my students will be starting out their week. We are working on a class quilt and my square will read, "Don't Eat the Marshmallow!" Thanks so much!

September 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKC Amerson

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