What’s the best way to motivate a student who lacks motivation? 

I frequently encounter parents who ask me this question. Full disclosure, it’s a question I would like an answer for myself. Getting my children to do homework is no easy feat.  Punishment for not doing it is one strategy but realistically, how many times can you take away their phone? Rewards are another option but studies show that this is not necessarily a good idea. It might work for a little while but always expecting something in return for putting in the effort can actually undermine motivation.  For instance, if you incentivize your child to get good grades with cash, it’s unlikely they will ever find any internal motivation to want to learn on their own.  

My go-to strategy has always been to explain why working hard is important and then to offer time tested advice about creating solid study habits. I worked my tail off in school and think of myself as a treasure trove of information about how to do well. For years, I was convinced that my words of wisdom would light the academic fire within my children. Perhaps seeing their eyes glaze over as I banged on about the benefits of applying oneself and doing one’s best should have alerted me to the reality that the message wasn’t sinking in. 

So, what does help? Research from the University of Pennsylvania offers a counterintuitive solution. Instead of giving students expert advice about how to do well in school (as I have been doing ad nauseam), ask them to provide advice to other students about how to do well. In the study, middle school students (6th, 7th, and 8th grades) who shared their thoughts about why school matters with 4th graders and, specifically about the importance of doing vocabulary homework, became more motivated to study vocabulary themselves.  To measure motivation, the researchers tracked the number of minutes advice-giving students spent on an online vocabulary training program following the intervention.

Here is an example of a 7th grader’s words of wisdom to a younger student:

“As you become older, you start to realize what is important to you. I realized that school and academics are the most important thing. It is still fun to do things outside of school, but you have to realize what is important to you.”  

A different group of middle schoolers received advice from teachers on how to be better students. Here is an example: “Trying your hardest is always the way to go. You should always try and do better. Don’t settle. Always try to make things better and better. You need to put in your full effort, not just coast by! Sometimes that means putting in a lot of time after the school day ends, like studying vocabulary online. It’s very important to apply yourself to your work, even once the school day is over.”  

These tips are remarkably similar to the ones provided by yours truly to my kids. In the same way that my advice has had minimal impact, the teachers’ advice didn’t affect student motivation either. These advice receivers didn’t spend any more time studying vocabulary afterwards.  

Contrary to the assumption of well-meaning parents and teachers everywhere, explaining to children why and how they should study doesn’t make much of a difference. It seems that children are fully aware of the value of an education and optimal study habits.

In other words, they don’t need more information. What they need is motivation. A more effective strategy is to ask them to give advice to other students.  What is so special about giving advice? It boosts confidence and is empowering. Instead of being a struggling student in need of guidance, when you give advice, you become a new person with valuable experience capable of providing guidance. Plus, human beings like to be consistent. When advocating for an idea, we take ownership of it. In the process of telling another person about how important something is, we remind and persuade ourselves of its importance too.   

The motivational power of giving advice isn’t just for students. People trying to lose weight, control their temper, save money, and find a new job became more motivated after giving advice to other people facing the same issues than when they received advice from experts. Helping others fueled their own desire to be successful.  

All too often, we confuse motivational problems with informational deficits. Getting advice from others is helpful only when we lack information but not in areas when we’re already in the know.  Indeed, most are fully aware of what they need to do in order to eat healthier, save money, control their anger, and be better students. Traversing the gulf that separates knowledge from action is the challenge. As these studies suggest, flipping strugglers from receivers into givers provides a bridge.  

Next time you encounter a person or a child who is having trouble reaching a goal, save your breath. Instead of offering your words of wisdom, flip the script, and ask them what they would say to another person in a similar predicament. In giving, they will receive.