Why this study
Why do some students start a piece of work with good intentions of working hard at it, but sometimes fail to follow through with their good intentions?
Are they lying, either to themselves or to you, when they make bold predictions about what they are going to do? Or is something else happening?
To answer this question, we can examine the findings of The Daffodil Study. Once a year, over four days in spring at Cornell University, students are encouraged to buy a daffodil. All the money raised goes to the charity American Cancer Society. To help boost sales, access to the daffodil is easy as the campus is flooded with them, they do not cost much and students are made aware of the good cause that the proceeds will go to.
A month before they were due to go on sale, researchers asked 251 students if they were planning to buy a daffodil and, if so, how many they would purchase. Three days after the event, the same students were again surveyed in order to find out how many they actually bought.
The main findings
Prior to the Daffodil Drive, 83% of students said that they would buy a daffodil, with said students pledging to buy an average of 2 daffodils. Interestingly, students rated themselves as being more likely to buy a daffodil than their classmates. When the researchers questioned the cohort of pupils after the event, they found that only 43% of students reported bought a daffodil, and on average they only bought 1.2 flowers.
Students were almost twice as likely to predict that they would buy a daffodil compared to their actually buying one. In reality, this gap may even be bigger when you consider that predicting your future behaviour in a study may lead to that behaviour being even more likely to occur, due to a desire to confirm your earlier prediction.
Why are we bad at guessing our future behaviour? Perhaps when predicting what will happen, we are more likely to think of ourselves and the situation with rose tinted glasses. The authors of the study comment that “when making their predictions, students may have brought to mind a situation that differed significantly in its objective details from the one actually encountered. Students may have imagined, for example, being calmly greeted at the precise moment when they happened to be carrying some extra cash when in fact they were more likely to be assertively confronted by an overbearing college student just before converting their last borrowed dollar into a vending machine lunch”.
Research around predicting future behaviour has found that ‘the wisdom of crowds’ is more likely to lead to accurate guesses. By surveying a group and taking the average, it helps reduce self-serving biases and removes the extreme outliers. In terms of helping turn good intention to action, creating a productive environment for behaviour change seems to outweigh personal motivation. This means: minimising potential distractions for procrastination (as starting the task is half the battle); increasing autonomy; and tapping into intrinsic motivation by focusing on either fun, mastering the task or creating a sense of purpose. These have all been found to help boost positive behaviour change.
So if students (and indeed, in all likelihood, all people) are not very good at predicting their future behaviour, how can we best support students in the classroom – especially when, as they get older, being an independent learner is more important? As well as taking future predictions with a pinch of salt, it is important to remember that these failed predictions are not necessarily caused by students lying – in this study, the pupils really did believe they would buy lots of daffodils.
Harnessing your students’ energy whilst also planning what obstacles they may face and how they will overcome them seems key. It is not negative to talk about what may go wrong, as long as it is followed up with productive discussion about what to do in such an eventuality. This model of ‘If this, then I’ll do that’ is a subtle yet powerful strategy to help convert good intentions into actual behaviour.
This study is from our latest book, “The Science of Learning: 99 studies that every teacher needs to know”.
Reference: Epley and Dunning, 2000, Journal of Personality and social psychology