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Academic Delay of Gratification, Motivation and Self-regulated Learning Strategies

How students can more effectively delay gratification

Competing intentions. We all have them; Exercise as we intended, or spend another night as couch potato. A recent study on academic delay of gratification sheds some light on the self-regulatory skills and learning strategies that successful students use to delay gratification.

Héfer Bembenutty (Queens College, City University of New York) has been doing research related to academic self-regulation and delay of gratification for over a decade. His research also includes studies on the effects of test anxiety on learning, homework self-regulation, self-efficacy beliefs and multicultural education. It is obvious that he is a dedicated educator with a clear focus on evidence-based practice. One of his most recent publications appeared in the February issue of the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Academic Delay of Gratification
As Dr. Bembenutty describes on his Web site, "Academic delay of gratification refers to learners' intentions to postpone immediately available rewards in order to obtain larger rewards temporally distant. Delay of gratification is important for self-regulation of learning because, for example, alternatives to academic goals are attractive, in part, because they offer immediate gratification, in contrast to rewards for academic goals (e.g., grades, degrees) that are temporally remote."

Certainly, every teacher knows how important student self-regulatory skills are to successful learning. As I've written previously, these volitional skills (sometimes even as simple as keeping the seat of one's pants on the seat of the chair) are propaedeutic to every other learned skill.

In this most recent study, Bembenutty sought to explore the relation of delay of gratification to motivational and self-regulatory variables. In addition, he wanted to explore potential gender differences - do males and females have different motivations or self-regulatory skills related to their ability to delay gratification?

The study
Using a sample of 250 college students (153 females) with an average age of about 20 years, Bembenutty measured academic delay of gratification, preferences for immediately available distracting options (e.g., hang out with friends as opposed to work on assignments), their motivation for staying on task (e.g., how important the academic tasks are or how they perceive the negative consequences of failing to stay on task), as well as an academic volitional strategy inventory (e.g., reminding themselves of their goals and intentions - something I've written about from other research known as self-affirmation).

The results
As always, I will only summarize some of the key findings.

  1. Although most of the motivation scores were significantly correlated with delay of gratification, of the motivational variables, "importance of the alternatives" was the most highly related to delay of gratification. To the extent that students saw their academic tasks as more important than competing alternatives, they are more likely to stay on task.
  2. Delay of gratification was related to two key self-regulated learning skills - self-efficacy enhancement and value-based incentives. As we've seen in previous research, to the extent that students feel competent  and work to increase these feelings of competence (self-efficacy), and to the extent that they internalize the value of pursuing the academic goal, the more likely they are to delay gratification.
  3. Gender made a difference. First, the regression analyses revealed that females were more likely to delay gratification than males, although the effect size for this finding is small. Second, as Bembenutty writes, "Students' willingness to delay was influenced by their perception that the delay alternatives could increase their chances of getting a good grade; however this relationship was stronger for females in comparison to males. The findings also suggest that females' reported use of stress-reduction strategies had a greater effect on their willingness to delay as compared to their male peers" (p. 349).

Implications of this study - what students should take away
"The findings of this study were consistent with the view that students' willingness to delay gratification is associated with their use of self-regulated learning strategies and motivation-related judgments of the delay versus non-delay alternatives" (p. 351). For example, to the extent that students can use strategies like reminding themselves of their overall values and goals (self-affirmation) or focus on the importance of the academic task in relation to the alternative activity, they are more likely delay gratification. Of course, this delay of gratification means that the students don't procrastinate on their work, leading to increased time and effort on task - key elements to academic success.

I only have one point of disagreement with my colleague's interpretation of his findings, particularly his strong emphasis on cognitive and metacognitive academic processes. I think we need to think more about emotional processes as well.

Dr. Bembenutty writes, ". . . there is now suggestive evidence that delay of gratification can be accounted for by the relative value and expectation of success of engaging in delayed versus immediate activities typically faced by students" (p. 351). I believe that the real psychological process for students is not so much a "value x expectancy" calculation as some measure of utility, but rather that this serves as a proxy in the research of an emotional process. To the extent that the students feel that they will succeed at a task that is valuable to them, they don't perceive the task as aversive (an emotional response, not a issue of utility per se) and approach the task rather than avoid it. If students find the task aversive (typically because they feel a lack of competence or self-efficacy), their focus will be on short-term emotional repair, and they "give in to feel good" by engaging in the alternative task at the expense of their long-term goals.

My perspective is that students are not lost in thought over these choices between one task or a competing alternative. They can make the distinction in the "blink of an eye," and this is based on an emotional response to the tasks. I argue that many thoughts follow this, some of which have been measured in this study such as the measure of self-efficacy (I think that the measure of importance may simply reflect part of a rationalization process related to cognitive dissonance, but this speculation awaits future research).

In the end, Dr. Bembenutty and I agree on the fundamental importance of academic delay of gratification in terms of the long-term success of students' learning and performance. Certainly, delay of gratification is an important aspect of self-regulated learning, and this can be fostered by helping students develop and perceive their competence to complete tasks that are valuable to them.

Bembenutty, H. (2009). Academic delay of gratification, self-regulation of learning, gender differences, and expectancy-value. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 347-352.