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Willpower, the Brain, and Education

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Evren Çakır

Brain, Education, and Inquiry

Paper 2


Willpower, the Brain, and Education


            As a high school student, Jimmy finds his life to be fairly stressful. However, anytime he talks to his parents about it, he thinks they trivialize his stress. “Just wait until you’re raising children of your own, working a full-time job, and paying bills; then you’ll know what stress it,” Jimmy’s mother lectures. So Jimmy tries to organize his time and creates a schedule to get his work done. He says to himself, “If I just work really hard at it and focus, I’ll be able to finish my English essay, math problem set, history reading, chemistry pre-lab, and photography portfolio over the weekend. I just have to spend less time watching TV and playing video games.” Jimmy works hard all day Saturday, and finishes his English essay, but falls asleep during his history reading. When he wakes up, it’s dinnertime, but because he lost so much time to his nap, he chooses to skip dinner and keep working. He finishes his reading late at night, and is exhausted. He tells himself that if he goes to bed now, he can get a good night’s sleep and be well-rested enough to finish everything the next day. On his way to bed, he passes the TV and decides to plop down on the couch and watch some SportsCenter and catch up on all the sports he had missed that day. After watching the football highlights, Jimmy feels an urge to play Madden NFL 11, saying to himself, “I’ll just play one game, then go straight to bed.” A few hours later Jimmy looks at the clock and sees that it’s four in the morning. “Golly gee!” he exclaims, “I need to go to bed right now!”

            Jimmy wakes up at one in the afternoon the next day and isn’t able to complete either his problem set or his portfolio and doesn’t have time to read the pre-lab. He has to turn in the problem set and portfolio late, incurring a penalty on both assignments. On Monday he has lab in chemistry class and gets frustrated when on the first part of the lab his yield doesn’t match the theoretical yield. He spends the rest of the lab trying to get the theoretical yield, but to no avail, thus leaving him no time to finish the rest of the lab. As he munches on a savory ham and swiss sandwich with onions, lettuce, and honey mustard, Jimmy asks himself, “Why didn’t I get all the work done that I wanted to this weekend? Do I lack discipline? How can I become a better student? What am I doing wrong, and how can I change it?”

            Jimmy set himself lofty goals for the weekend, and it would take a lot of willpower for Jimmy to get all his work done and resist the urge to watch TV and play video games. Why Jimmy failed can be explained by how part of the brain works. The prefrontal cortex (located just behind the forehead) carries out “executive function,” which is a psychological term that relates to the ability to “differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social "control" (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially-unacceptable outcomes).”(1) As it applies to Jimmy, the prefrontal cortex is largely responsible for willpower. While the prefrontal cortex is a large part of the brain, it has several responsibilities. Executive function relates to solving abstract problems, keeping focus, and short-term memory.(2) In short, the prefrontal cortex is a busy part of the brain, and like any part of the body, it has limitations. By deciding that he would complete all his work over the weekend, not watch TV, and not play video games, Jimmy was asking a lot of his prefrontal cortex.

            Stanford University professor Baba Shiv conducted an experiment in which several graduate students were split up into two groups. One set of students was given a two-digit number to remember while the second group was given a seven-digit number. They were told to go down a hall and submit their numbers. On their way down the hall, they were offered a choice of chocolate cake or fruit salad, a gesture of gratitude for participating in the study. The students who were given a seven-digit number were twice as likely to choose chocolate cake. Baba Shiv notes that because the prefrontal cortex has much responsibility and is a busy part of the brain, the extra five-digits were enough to have the prefrontal cortex neglect its role of differentiating good (fruit salad) from bad (chocolate cake).(3) This explains why after a long day of work on Saturday, ESPN and video games were too much for Jimmy to resist. He had already exerted much willpower and prefrontal cortex ability to focus and finish his English essay. When tired, the prefrontal cortex is especially susceptible to slipping up, and allowing Jimmy to give in to his urges.

            Jimmy isn’t alone in his belief that an inability to exert his willpower throughout the weekend is a character flaw, indicating that one lacks discipline. However, the scientific results of relevant studies suggest that willpower is inherently limited by the brain’s capacity. In fact, those who seem the have more willpower find ways to district themselves instead of directly resisting what they desire. A study of children showed that those who demonstrated willpower by not eating a marshmallow were more likely to sing songs or fiddle with their shoelaces and thus focus on other objects.(2)  Fiddling with objects and singing songs is a sign of creativity, thus, seeking out creative outlets helps people exercise willpower.

            Perhaps studying the clichés used by athletes on SportsCenter would help Jimmy study more productively. “Taking it one assignment at a time” would allow him to keep focus and not overtax his prefrontal cortex. Additionally, allowing himself a time to practice a creative (and productive) hobby would allow him to focus on his work. While willpower is limited, it can be increased. By choosing one aspect in particular to work on for an extended period of time, for example, if for a few weeks Jimmy made a concerted effort to watch less TV (instead of simultaneously trying to watch less TV and spend less time playing video games) Jimmy would be more likely to improve his willpower than if he tried to make several resolutions once. Furthermore, taking time to eat instead of skipping meals as he did on the weekend would help keep his prefrontal cortex energized, and he would find it easier to exercise willpower.

            This information about willpower can be very useful for students like Jimmy. However, in a larger sense this information could greatly improve how schools educate students. The results of the mentioned studies would suggest that taking fewer classes at a time would improve students’ ability to learn and focus, since they would have fewer subjects to worry about at a time. Thus trimester systems (sometimes called quarter systems) would be better at educating students. In the trimester system, a school year has three trimesters instead of two semesters. Generally, a student will take three classes in a trimester as opposed to the four most students take in a normal semester system. Fewer simultaneous courses means more focus in each course so that the prefrontal cortex’s abilities aren’t spread thin. In high schools, using block scheduling (fewer, longer classes each day) would have a similar effect, although in both block scheduling and the period system, students take about the same number of classes.

            The most intriguing result of these studies as it relates to general education is the suggestion that creativity assists willpower. By encouraging students to think creatively schools may better equip learners to focus on each school assignment instead of overwhelming them with many assignments and ultimately having the students’ willpower fail. This means no more rigidly structured five-paragraph essays with an introduction and conclusion in each paragraph where the use of the first person is taboo and arguments must be made in a particular way. Instead essays should focus on self-expression and introspection. This doesn’t mean analysis is removed from an essay, it means that the analysis is more creative, more insightful, and more novel. This means more inquiry-based learning: begin a new science topic with a lab, let the students see the phenomena in action, and then learn the causes and scientific laws behind them. Ask students questions that allow them to think critically and come to conclusions on their own. Teach math with more applications; discuss how the derivative and integral apply to physics and real-world phenomena. Allow students to teach themselves and create a more personal connection with the material through creativity instead of testing their willpower.

            Understanding the prefrontal cortex can dispel false the conception that willpower is a personality trait, and the lack of willpower is a sign of a weak student with no discipline. By understanding that in fact willpower is inherently limited because the prefrontal cortex is limited in its abilities, educators can develop new ways of teaching that assist students and prevent limited willpower from overwhelming learners. If understanding one part of the brain can have such a significant effect on how to educate (emphasize creativity, teach fewer courses at a time) one can only imagine all the ways we can change the education system for the better if we understand how all of the brain works. Perhaps understanding what part of the brain corresponds to a student’s perceived indifference could reveal how teachers can improve motivational techniques. Perhaps there is an answer to why women seem to struggle more than men in the natural sciences, particularly math and physics. Educators could then model curricula to better educate both genders. The brain is a complex, twisted, large maze filled with answers and revelations, many of which can be used to improve how we educate.


(1): Prefrontal cortext, Wikipedia,


(2): “Blame It on the Brain,” The Wall Street Journal, December 26, 2009,


(3): “Willpower and the ‘Slacker’ Brain,” NPR’s Morning Edition, January 26, 2010,





Paul Grobstein's picture

wil power, brains, and educational reform

"By understanding that in fact willpower is inherently limited because the prefrontal cortex is limited in its abilities, educators can develop new ways of teaching that assist students and prevent limited willpower from overwhelming learners."

A very nice point both in the specific case and in general about ways in which knowing something about the brain can replace "false conceptions" that may get in the way of educational reform.