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New Study Finds Giving Advice to Younger Students Raises High School Students’ Own Academic Achievement

An advice-giving nudge raised students’ motivation, a key factor in improving performance.

PHILADELPHIA — A new study finds that high school students raise their own academic achievement by anonymously giving advice to younger students on how to improve study habits, upending traditional beliefs about how to boost motivation and performance for people who are struggling to achieve their goals.

The study, A Large-Scale Field Experiment Shows Giving Advice Improves Academic Outcomes for the Advisor,was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on July 8, 2019, by researchers Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, Katherine L. Milkman, Dena M. Gromet, and Angela L. Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania. 

“When someone is struggling to meet their goals, we intuitively believe that giving them advice may improve their performance,” said lead researcher Eskreis-Winkler.

“This finding illuminates that the inverse may be true: we increase individual motivation and ultimately performance by placing students in a position to give, rather than receive, help. If we want to motivate kids, we should give them opportunities to help others.”

– Lauren Eskreis-Winkler

The advice-giving nudge, an online activity that took high school students an average of eight minutes to complete, prompted students to suggest study strategies to younger peers. Participants (N=1,982) answered 14 open-ended and multiple-choice questions, and they were also asked to write a motivational letter to an anonymous younger student who was “hoping to do better in school.” In the sample tested, the benefit of giving advice was consistent across student gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, grade level, and prior level of achievement. 

This research was conducted in partnership with Character Lab and the Behavior Change for Good Initiative. Character Lab is a nonprofit that facilitates school-based research to advance scientific insights that help kids thrive. The Behavior Change for Good Initiative, based at the University of Pennsylvania, works with an interdisciplinary team of scientists to help people of all ages improve their habits.

Many great teachers ask students to help other students, but with this insight, we better understand why this strategy works and can share it with others seeking evidence-based strategies to improve academic performance.

– Sean Talamas

“Many great teachers ask students to help other students, but with this insight, we better understand why this strategy works and can share it with others seeking evidence-based strategies to improve academic performance,” said Sean Talamas, chief operating officer at Character Lab. “This is the first insight of many to come from Character Lab’s network of researchers.”

The study’s authors suggest that advice giving has the potential to improve a wide range of outcomes in which motivation is key to success. Further research is needed on whether advice giving could also raise achievement by increasing the advisor’s sense of influence and power, or by leading advisors to more strongly believe the advice they have given.