Students' self-control: what the research says


New research has offered some key insights into how students can learn to self-manage and persist in the face of challenges.

Carly Robinson, a Ph.D. Candidate in Education at Harvard University, recently led a study into how well middle-schoolers respond to a ‘Commitment Devices’ (CD) – otherwise known as a voluntary agreement to limit future choices through restrictions or penalties for failing to accomplish a goal.

The study evaluated the plausibility of offering middle school students a CD, and then assessed whether the opportunity to pre-commit to achieving a goal would improve their behavior relative to students simply acknowledging they would like to achieve the goal.

The students were sorted into three groups.

The first was an “opt-in group,” which offered students the choice of committing to a goal of earning 10% more, but losing 20% if they failed to meet it.

The second was an “opt-out group,” where students were automatically enrolled in the intervention. However, they could choose to drop out if they wanted.

The third group was a “control group,” who merely indicated they wanted to set a goal of increasing their paycheck.

The study found that the students who agreed to lose part of their paycheck if they failed to increase it were no more likely than their control group peers at increasing their paycheck.

In other words, the researchers found no evidence that the commitment device had any impact on students’ behavior.

Do what does this mean for schools?

Harvard University’s ‘Usable Knowledge’ pointed to research from experts Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, which found that if students are given autonomy over their tasks and feel a sense of competence, they are more likely to develop an inherent desire for growth.

Ryan and Deci also found that students’ motivation will increase with the relevance of the work – insights that schools can use to develop effective behavioural interventions.

Another academic with some insights on this topic is Nathan DeWall, Professor of Psychology at the University of Kentucky.

In a paper, titled: ‘Self-control: Teaching students about their greatest inner strength’, Professor DeWall said that while self-control might seem stodgy, it is the job of educators to show students that self-control will contribute to their success more than their smarts or family background.

“Self-control levels the playing field. It puts the keys to achievement in students’ hands,” Professor DeWall said.

“By showing students what self-control is, how it works and why it is important, we will provide them with knowledge that can help them achieve their goals and have happy, productive and meaningful lives.”


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