Want to boost learners’ motivation for learning a new skill? Stress the importance of working together towards a common goal.

A recent study from Stanford University shows that social connections and collaboration can yield powerful results.

Previous studies have shown that social interaction improves knowledge retention and increases the desire to participate in the training process. But what if learners only think they’re working with a peer?

The research

The Stanford research tested the motivational power of collaboration. Subjects were given a puzzle to solve. They were permitted to work on the puzzle for as long as they wanted, and could give up and walk away at any time.

The control group worked alone. The experimental group was told they had a partner in another room working on the same puzzle.

In the middle of the exercise, the control group was given a tip from a researcher to help them solve the problem. The experimental group received the same tip scribbled on a piece of paper, which the researcher said came from their partner.

The experimental group subsequently spent 48% longer attempting to solve the puzzle compared to the control group. Just the impression of working together with a partner significantly boosted participants’ motivation. This group was also more successful at solving the puzzle. And after the task, people in this group had a stronger recall of the puzzle and expressed greater engagement and enjoyment in the task.


This research shows how powerful social effects can be on motivation and performance. Here are some ways to harness that power in your training:

Encourage learners to share with each other. Why was the tip more powerful when it was believed to come from a “partner”? The research suggests it’s because learners put a higher priority on content they receive from peers because it comes from someone who’s “in the trenches” with them.

After a training experience, consider taking a backseat and allow learners come up with the key takeaways. Facilitate the conversation by asking questions and directing the discussion. Information straight from a peer can resonate with learners in a powerful way.

Create opportunities for learners to work together. Build in training exercises where pairs or small groups of learners can work on questions and problems together. Set aside time for learners to discuss the content and how it can be applied on the job. These informal discussions, where learners are wrestling with the content, promote a deeper understanding of the material and how to practically apply it.

Frame training goals as a collaboration. Show them how a new skill will help the entire team succeed. Address training goals in collaborative terms, with everyone working together.

Carr, P. B. and Walton, G. M. (2014). Cues of working together fuel intrinsic motivation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 53, 169-184.

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