How to encourage delayed gratification in GCSE students

Working hard now for rewards in the future can be a tough sell - Niki Kaiser looks at the science of taking a long-term view

gcse delayed gratification

I was a pretty geeky teenager. 

I distinctly remember talking to a fellow Year 11 about friends of ours who wern’t bothering to work for their upcoming GCSEs, because they were too busy doing fun things like watching TV and going out.

“It’s only six months out of our lives!” I moaned. “Why can’t they just buckle down? It’s such a short time.”


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I realise we weren’t exactly typical (and maybe we would’ve benefited from a bit more of that fun stuff) but I’ve often wondered why some students are more able than others to avoid distractions and take a long-term view, so they achieve something important further down the line. 

It’s the difference between someone who has a natural flair for music and someone who practises and becomes a musician.

Or between a talented runner and a sportsman. And it’s a key characteristic of students who achieve well academically. 

Stay on track

As a teacher, I am keen to find ways of helping my students stay on track with their studies, especially exam cohorts like Year 11.

So I was interested to come across a study entitled Inherent Association Between Academic Delay of Gratification, Future Time Perspective, and Self-Regulated Learning, which examines students’ willingness to delay gratification to work towards a distant goal, and assesses their use of cognitive strategies and self-management skills. 

The authors found that students who regularly employ metacognitive strategies, such as planning, monitoring, and self-regulation are more likely to delay gratification and achieve academic success. 

These successful students are more able to consider future consequences, and moderate their behaviour accordingly. They are able to delay gratification, and so are more likely to complete academic tasks, which means that they tend to achieve more highly in the long run.

This felt particularly relevant for my Year 11 students, who need to maintain their focus on exams that are still months away, and will encounter plenty of distractions along the way.

The likelihood of them staying focused will depend on factors such as how interested they are in studying, how valuable they think their exams are, and how motivated they are by the lure of a particular career.

But this will vary from student to student, so how can we guide them, inspire them and help them to stay on track?

Metacognitive skills

A key recommendation is to support our students in developing their metacognitive thinking and to explicitly teach them self-management strategies, such as time management and study skills. 

Unsurprisingly, this paper is referred to in the EEF Guidance Report on Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning, which offers practical ways of doing this. We should also help students to evaluate their beliefs and goals, therefore encouraging intrinsic motivation by reminding them of where they’re heading.

The likelihood of a particular student succeeding depends strongly on their beliefs and orientation towards future goals, and their ability to keep that in mind, maintain their focus and reflect on their progress, as they work towards something they value. 

One of the things I try really hard to do is convince my students that, although Year 11 will be tough at times and they’ll feel like giving up, it will be worth it in the end if they stick with it.

I’m careful to emphasise that there is more to Year 11 than exams, but ultimately, the students who keep their eyes on the prize throughout the year will be more successful.

Self-regulated learners are also able to view large tasks as a series of smaller, more manageable steps and as teachers, we can help nurture this in our students by guiding the process initially. 

On the run

People often liken studying for exams to marathon training, but when we’re trying to build up our students’ focus and resilience, I think it’s more useful to think about the race itself. 

Marathons are not just physically demanding, they’re also mentally tough. I’ve run a couple of them and at times, the only way I could force myself to keep running was to think about the next lamppost. 

I couldn’t contemplate the remaining distance, so I just focused on getting to that upcoming lamppost, then running on to the next one, and so on. 

Help students to think of Year 11 as a series of shorter, manageable chunks: get them to do 30 minutes of self-directed study a few times a week, rather than directing them to “revise”, for example. And help them to plan how, when and where they’ll study.

It’s also good to remind your students of times when they’ve felt challenged in the past, but were able to face up to it and come out the other side. This could be something relatively small, like the time they had to stand up in front of everyone and read something in assembly, or it might have been something more involved. 

I bumped into one of my ex-Year 11s yesterday, and she remarked on how tough she was finding Year 12 chemistry. I reminded her how unconfident she felt at the end of Year 10, but how she’d stuck with it, and then how proud and happy she had felt when she got her results. 

Sometimes, it’s good to be reminded that we’ve been here before, and to be reassured that we’ll get through it again, if we just stick our heads down and get to the next lamppost.

Dr Niki Kaiser is network research lead at the Norwich Research School at Notre Dame High School

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