A simple strategy to keep struggling learners motivated
  • corporate
  • Blog post

A simple strategy to keep struggling learners motivated

The road to mastery is never a straight line. During the learning process, trainees will inevitably experience roadblocks, mistakes and disappointments. It’s only natural. But sometimes that fact is of little consolation to frustrated or defeated-feeling learners.

There are techniques that you, as a learning professional, can use to encourage and motivate struggling learners. But motivation is even more powerful when it comes from within – from the learner herself. And researchers have recently discovered an incredibly simple yet effective technique that will not only increase motivation but improve learner performance.

The research

An international team of researchers recruited over 44,000 subjects to participate in a study on motivational techniques. Before being given a series of challenging tasks, subjects were divided into one of four groups:

1. The self-talk group – participants were instructed to encourage and motivate themselves during the task.

2. The imagery group – participants were instructed to imagine themselves performing better before taking on the next task.

3. The if-then group – participants were instructed to create an if-then statement before taking on the next task, e.g. If I make a mistake, then I will let it go and stayed focused on the task.

4. The control group, which received no instructions.

Then the subjects were given a series of timed online concentration tests. The participants were measured for speed and accuracy and were also questioned about their mental attitude and emotional state after the tests were over.

The results

The researchers found that both the self-talk group and the imagery group improved significantly over the course of the tests. But the greatest improvements on every measure came from the self-talk group, particularly members of the group that focused on self-talk outcomes (telling themselves, for example, “I can beat my high score”) or self-talk process (telling themselves, for example, “I can concentrate more and react more quickly the next time”).

What specifically set the self-talk group apart was their attitude after the challenge. They possessed positive beliefs in their abilities and performance, and remained confident and motivated after the tests.

The researchers summarized that “… a brief self-talk intervention focused on motivational outcomes just prior to performance intensified pleasant emotions, arousal, and effort and led to improved performance.”


Given the large number of participants in this study, the findings are particularly compelling. The results shine a light on how important our emotional state and attitudes are to our performance. With that in mind, here are a couple of suggestions based on the study.

Tell learners about the importance of self-talk. As the study suggests, our internal monologue can dramatically affect our performance on a task as well as our attitudes about that task. So consider telling learners about this study and how their own self-talk can improve – or perhaps derail – their learning progress.

If a learner makes a mistake, for example, tell him not to beat himself up. Instead, he should tell himself a simple, positive statement, such as “I can do better next time.” According to the study, it could make all the difference.

Show learners the technique. The researchers found that self-talkers who focused on process and outcome were the ones who benefited the most. So advise learners to shape their self-talk around these two areas.

An example of process might be “After I practice a few more times on my own, I will be successful.” An example of outcomes might be “I will get better over time.”


Lane, A. M., et al. (2016). Brief online training enhances competitive performance: Findings of the BBC Lab UK psychological skills intervention study. Frontiers in Psychology, 7. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00413

1 Comment

  • These are really fresh insights to learn, Stephen. Motivation is really important in any learning process. I’m amazed at the result of the research that was done. So the self-talkers, who are more focused on the process and the outcome, gained the most benefit?

    This is really interesting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Get a demo of all our training features

Connect with an expert for a one-on-one demonstration of how Rapid Learning can help develop your team.