The Marshmallow Experiment

Children aged 5-6 years old at Stanford participated in an experiment. They were offered one marshmallow now or two later. When the researcher left the room the child had to decide whether to eat the marshmallow now or wait for another. Some ate it as soon as the researcher left the room and others waited for a second one.

The researchers followed the children who participated in the experiment for 40 years. It turned out that the ones that could resist the temptation to eat the one marshmallow right then and there turned out to be more successful. Delaying gratification made them more successful.

The children who delayed gratification ended up having higher SAT scores, lower levels of obesity, lower levels of substance abuse, better social skills, etc.

How can this be used in the ESL classroom?

I don't personally use rewards much, like Troy Jodoin I think that the education is the reward. If your classes are effective, fun and interesting you won't really need rewards or need to manipulate your students with them. But if you do you can do the following on occasion. And you won't be just rewarding them you will be teaching them self control and discipline.

Here are some examples of how you could use rewards to teach self control:

  1. Stamps. "Sally you did good today. You participated in class more than you usually did. That's great. I'd like to offer you one stamp now or two at the beginning of next class."
  2. Stickers. "Jack you did well on your test. I'd like to offer you a sticker now or two when we meet again.
  3. Pencils, pencil cases, erasers, etc. "Tara I can see that you are really trying and that you are making an effort. I'd like to offer you a new eraser now or an eraser and a pencil when we meet again."

How does this work?

Some kids will give in right then and there and take what they can get. Others will wait. The kids who give in will eventually catch on when they see their peers reaping the rewards a day or class later.

You have to be consistent and you can't give in. Meaning if they opted for one stamp, sticker, etc. and the next class they ask for another you have to say no. Otherwise you are doing a poor job of controlling your students and managing your classroom. They are controlling you.

Read more on using rewards.