The messenger matters: New research shows peers better than teachers at academic motivation

Posted by Andy Henion

“Why do I have to learn this?” is a common question among young adults. New research suggests an answer from their peers has more weight than one from their teachers.

University students who received a rationale for why learning is important from people similar to them—in this case actors posing as young professionals—wrote more effective essays and got a significantly better final grade than students who were given the same rationale from the course instructor.

“These findings suggest that what instructors were good at was getting across cold facts, while the peers seemed to be tapping into an identification process,” says Cary Roseth, associate professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University.

“In other words, as a student, I can identify with my peers and imagine myself using the course material in the same way they do. This gives the material meaning and a sense of purpose that goes beyond memorization. When I hear a peer’s story, it connects to the story I am telling myself about who I want to be in the future.”

The research, published in the International Journal of Educational Research, took place in an online college course. Online course enrollment has grown dramatically during the past decade, and more than a third of all US higher-education students—more than 7 million—have now enrolled in at least one online course.

For the experiment, students in an  introductory-level educational psychology course, a requirement of all teacher education students, were randomly assigned to receive either the peer rationale, the instructor rationale, or no rationale for why the course was important and beneficial to their potential careers as teachers. The peer and instructor rationales were scripted and identical.

Students who received the peer rationale scored an average of 92 percent—significantly higher than the 86 percent scored by students who received the rationale from the instructor. Interestingly, students who received no rationale averaged 90 percent for a final grade, which is still higher than those who received the instructor rationale.

“We found that receiving the instructor rationale led to lower final grades than both the peer rationale and no rationale conditions,” Roseth says. “This gives support to the idea that, motivationally, the fact that instructors control grades, tell the students what do to, and so on, may be working against their efforts to increase their students’ appreciation of why the class is important.”


Bottom Line for Mentoring Organizations

While it is always possible to present information and educate youth on the importance of academic success, that message may not take root in the youths’ minds as well as it could, depending on the messenger. This research was conducted with online students, so it may be that the medium had an impact on the motivation the students felt.

For those programs that focus on improving academic outcomes for youth, including a peer mentoring component to your curriculum can help boost your mentees’ motivation to do well in school. For information on other ways in which peer mentors can help improve outcomes for youth, try reviewing the National Mentoring Resource Center’s overview of peer mentoring and a research summary on peer mentoring and boosting healthy behaviors in mentees.

As a secondary potential lesson from this research, it is possible that, when framing online messaging for mentees, programs may have more success in motivating their mentees by using peer voices and framing rather than through adult mentees or other adults.

By engaging with youth from a variety of avenues, programs have a greater opportunity to not only improve outcomes for their mentees and their programs more broadly.


To access the original research article, click here.