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Learning Strategy: Mental Contrasting and Implementation Intentions

By Dave Stuart Jr.

To increase the odds that our students will follow through on their goals, evidence suggests that mental contrasting and implementation intentions help a lot.

Here's how to use it in just four steps:

  1. Have students set a goal.
    • I'm going to read three books this semester.
    • I'm going to use every document in my next DBQ argumentative essay.
    • I'm going to turn in a completed article of the week each Friday.
  2. Have students visualize what it will be like to achieve the goal. This can be done with their eyes closed and just in their heads, or through a brief, descriptive quickwrite.
    1. I will feel a sense of accomplishment. I'll be able to tell my mom, and she'll be proud of me.
    2. I will earn the point and score better. My teacher will pat me on the back.
    3. I won't have any more zeroes. I won't need to be stressed about my classwork grade.
  3. Have students visualize what is likely to get in the way. What in their present reality makes the goal unlikely?
    1. I will get home and get distracted by my Xbox.
    2. I will get flustered during the essay and will forget a document.
    3. I will procrastinate until Thursday night, and then I won't do it Thursday night because I'll say I'll do it Friday morning, and then I will get to class and it won't be done.
  4. Finally, have students write an If/Then plan based on their envisioned obstacle(s).
    1. If I get home and want to play my Xbox, I will read for twenty minutes first.
    2. If I start feeling flustered during a DBQ essay, I'll create seven checkboxes so that I can keep track of what documents I've used.
    3. If I start feeling the urge to procrastinate with my AoW, I will complete the reading part on Monday, the writing part on Tuesday, and turn it in early on Wednesday so that I don't have a chance to put it off.

Parts 2 and 3 are what the research calls mental contrasting. Part 4 is an implementation intention. There's some powerful academic work behind these four steps, and they've been greatly simplified into something called WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. Steps 1-4 above. You and your students can learn more at Character Lab's free WOOP page. They've even got great (and free) posters.

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