Learn Academic English 6: The Marshmallow Test

Level: C1/C2, prospective postgraduate students

About the lesson

In today’s lesson, we will look at ‘the marshmallow tests’ (studies on delayed gratification) from three different perspectives (four if you include mine).
First, we will listen to Joachim de Posada’s TED talk that provides some background information on children’s self-control.  Subsequently, I will ask you to read the original study on children’s self-control by Mischel et al. (1990) and the updated version of the marshmallow test–the study by Watts et al. (2018). Finally, you will be asked to answer several questions, discuss the articles and write a short academic assignment.

Goals of the lesson

Students preparing for IELTS/TOFEL often assume that once they get the desired score on the tests, they have the necessary skills to study at English-speaking universities.  It is rarely the case.  Many students learn the hard way at university that they don’t have adequate reading, writing, and critical thinking skills to deal successfully with academic demands.  This lesson will give you a taste of tasks you can expect at a university.  The lesson will be particularly beneficial for prospective masters, doctorate and Ph.D. students who will have to do quantitative research in the fields of social sciences, psychology, education, business, etc. Discuss your answers with someone who read the articles, understands research and can lead a stimulating academic discussion, ask for feedback on your academic writing.

A few words of warning 

It a challenging lesson. Reading and understanding the two journal articles can take a few hours. You are not likely to understand everything. Planning and writing answers might take several hours. If you do well on the tasks, treat as a good omen. Actually, it is a better indication of your preparedness for university than IELTS/TOEFL score.  If you cannot do the task, think twice before you decide to study abroad.  Maybe you are not ready for the challenge yet. I would expect my postgraduate students to be able to answer these questions.

Introduction to the lesson
When my son was four, I gave him his favorite piece of sweet and I told him I would leave the room for 15 minutes.
I asked him to wait, resist the temptation, and not to eat the sweet. If he listened to me, I would give him an extra one sweet as a reward.
Why did I do this?
I sort of replicated the seminal research conducted first by psychologist Walter Mischel and his colleagues in 1990.
The research is widely known as ‘the marshmallow test’. It investigated how children’s self-control predicts success later in life. The experiment is one of the most famous pieces of psychological research. It influenced education, teachers, and parents also to some extent my own behavior.
What about my son?
Surprisingly, he did not gobble up the sweet when I was away and got an extra treat as promised. I should be happy about it since according to Mischel’s research my son’s ability to delay reward might have a deciding impact on his future success. However, me being me, I started asking questions. Was it self-control that helped my son avoid the temptation?  Maybe he was just distracted by his favorite toy?  Does the test really predict children’s future success? Can only one factor predict future success? Is it not all too simplistic?
Tasks 1
Listen to Joachim de Posada’s TED talk and answer the comprehension questions

Joachim de Posada was a co-author of the book Don’t Eat the Marshmallow…Yet.
Sadly, he died in 2015. His funny talk will provide you with background knowledge on non-cognitive factors affecting success.
Important vocabulary:
marshmallow – noun spongy confection made of gelatin and sugar and corn syrup and dusted with powdered sugar
equivalent – adj. being essentially equal to something; equal in amount or value;
principle – noun a basic truth or law or assumption
delay – noun the act of delaying; inactivity resulting in something being put off until a later time; time during which some action is awaited; verb cause to be slowed down or delayed; act later than planned, scheduled, or required; slow the growth or development of; stop or halt
gratification – noun the act or an instance of satisfying; state of being gratified; great satisfaction
self-discipline – noun the trait of practicing self-discipline; the act of denying yourself; controlling your impulses
Hispanic – adj. related to a Spanish-speaking people or culture; noun an American whose first language is Spanish
reproduce – verb have offspring or young; make a copy or equivalent of; recreate an idea, mood, atmosphere, etc. as by artistic means; repeat after memorization
follow-up – noun a subsequent examination of a patient for the purpose of monitoring earlier treatment; an activity that continues something that has already begun or that repeats something that has already been done; a piece of work that exploits or builds on earlier work
Comprehension questions:
What is the main message of the talk?
Joachim said ‘we have found the most important factor for success’. What is this factor? Do you agree with the statement? Why? Why not?
Describe the experiment Joachim conducted.
Joachim thought the experiment had applications in all walks of life. Do you agree? Why?
What does the marshmallow test prove?
Is the test important? Why?
How do you avoid instant gratification?
Is the child doomed to fail if he/she eats her marshmallows during the test?
What factors are behind children’s capacity to delay gratification? Name, describe and elaborate on them.
Can you find the research backing Joachim’s claims? Find three pieces of convincing research evidence.
What questions would you ask Joachim?
Task 2
Read two research articles and answer the questions
Study 1
Shoda, Yuichi, Walter Mischel, and Philip K. Peake. “Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification: Identifying diagnostic conditions.” Developmental psychology 26.6 (1990): 978.

Study 2
Watts, T. W., Duncan, G. J., & Quan, H. (2018). Revisiting the marshmallow test: A conceptual replication investigating links between early delay of gratification and later outcomes. Psychological Science, 29(7), 1159-1177.

Describe the first study in written (300 words, the topic of the study,  methods used, analyses, findings, etc)
Describe the second study (300 words, the topic of the study,  methods used, analyses, findings, etc)
Was Watts’ study the exact replication of Shoda’s study?
What were the differences and similarities between these landmark studies?
What factors were controlled in Shoda’s study?
What factors were controlled in Watts’ study?
Describe the sample sizes in the first and second study.  Comment on them.
How were life outcomes measured? Any problems with that?
In Shoda’s study, the sample comprised children who were preschoolers in the Bing School of Stanford University.
How could it affect the results?
Why do you think Watts and his colleagues did the follow up study?
Does delay gratification lead to better outcomes?
Discuss the findings of the first and second studies.
Why is the replication of research important?
Why poor children tend to eat the marshmallow and more affluent tend to wait?
Why self-control alone might not overcome social disadvantages?
What other factors increase the chances of long-term success?
What does it mean we control for another variable?
What were the problems with the first study?
Does the second study debunk the finding of the original marshmallow paper?
Can finding of the first study be generalized?
What is the most important lesson from these two studies?
Do you think a child’s willpower and self-control hold a key to their success in life?
Task 3
Written Assignment: ‘Does self-control predict children’s future success?’
3,000 words. At least 10 additional references (beyond Shoda and Watts’ studies)
This assignment represents the culmination of your work with the TED talk and the journal articles.
Get feedback on the assignment from an academic tutor.
Your report should be assessed in three areas:
– Research/content: information gathered and logic applied
– Writing: clarity, coherence, and correctness
– Critical thinking