The Marshmallow Challenge

The task is simple: in eighteen minutes, teams must build the tallest free-standing structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. The marshmallow needs to be on top. —Marshmallow Challenge

Kindergartners regularly beat business school graduates, in part because the suits spent time jockeying for position within the team, they planned and executed what they thought would be the perfect structure, and then in the last few minutes they added the marshmallow — which often caused their structure to buckle. 

By contrast, the kids started with the marshmallow right away, and tried multiple different ways to get it up higher.

That’s the secret: start with the marshmallow, which is heavier than most people assume, and tweak as you go.

I’m very impressed with the final research papers my upper-level students have produced. They’ve had plenty of time to learn from previous papers.  By contrast, some of my freshmen are crashing and burning because they’ve waited until the last minute to “add quotes” to turn a personal essay into a research paper.

What I ask them to do is start by finding good sources, and seeing what kind of academic argument they can support based on the sources they find. 

The next time I deliver the “start with peer-reviewed journals” lesson, I’ll mention the marshmallows.

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