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Improve Student Willpower to Get them Engaged When They ‘Just Can’t be Bothered’

If you still think that the last lesson before lunch, or the final session of the day, is a learning ‘dead zone’, there’s something about willpower you need to know, says Gordon Cairns

  • Improve Student Willpower to Get them Engaged When They ‘Just Can’t be Bothered’

Until now, the reasons why pupils couldn’t complete class work set for them could be split into three categories: the solvable, the unsolvable, and the plain frustrating.

The students who simply don’t understand what to do the easiest to deal with, as you can re-explain, try another teaching strategy or set different work.

Other concerns are unfortunately insurmountable – the issue of kids who are too tired to engage in class after staying up late with their games consoles can’t be solved within a lesson.

However, the most frustrating cause of disengagement surely comes from those able pupils who ‘can’t be bothered’ to learn.

This group of students would in the past have been considered a lost cause, as it was thought that willpower is a limited resource that runs out during the course of a day, or when used up too quickly by one task.

However, new research has discovered that what we thought we knew about willpower is wrong. Determination acts like a muscle; rather than becoming depleted through use, as was previously thought, it actually becomes stronger instead.

Dr Krishna Savani, Associate Professor of Strategy, Management and Organisations at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, has used a car analogy to explain the shift:

“Instead of thinking of willpower as the amount of petrol in a car… think of it as the car’s battery. The more you drive, the more the battery gets charged, and the longer it will last.”

The power of restraint

While our understanding of how willpower works has changed, the importance of having this elusive quality remains.

In a famous psychology experiment conducted almost 50 years ago and recently repeated on Channel 4’s The Secret Lives of Four and Five Year Olds, nursery age children were told they could have a cookie now, or wait 15 minutes and have two.

The psychologist who ran the experiment discovered the children who engaged their willpower and waited grew into adults who achieved more educationally, and had successful careers, compared to those who couldn’t wait to eat the biscuit.

It dovetails with the concept that underpins Growth Mindset theory, but instead of believing your abilities are unlimited, in this case you believe there is no ceiling on your willpower.

The new equation reads: belief plus desire equals willpower.

In 2010, Carol Dweck and psychology professors Veronika Job from the University of Zurich and Gregory Walton from Stanford University experimented by giving volunteers two tasks, asking them beforehand whether they considered willpower to be reduced by the amount of effort expended or infinite.

They found that those who believed that willpower is finite struggled with the latter task while those who believed that willpower is unlimited continued strongly in the second assignment.

Plan changes

This is all more than theoretical, and I am sure most teachers will have countless examples from actual practice.

Think about a lesson where the pupils are pushed to concentrate from the very beginning; perhaps you have devised a series of short, ongoing challenges to really get them thinking throughout the length of the period.

Do you feel the collective energy level in the room dropping by the end as pupils become ‘worn out’? No, me neither.

In fact, in my experience, at the end of the period the majority of the class will be energised, engaged – and even, reluctant to stop!

I’ve also experienced low impact lessons, where you feel you are dragging students through to the very end as your collective will to live slowly dwindles.

When looking over the pupils’ shoulders to check their work, the jotters are like an experiment into the fluidity of tar, revealing a heading, the date… and very little else between the start and the end of the lesson.

Understanding the unlimited nature of willpower can have a positive impact on how a daily timetable is organised.

For example, if I want to start a new unit or one that is heavy on the learning element, I would in the past try and avoid the last period of the day, assuming that the class as a whole will be drained of resolve – instead, I’d set a consolidation lesson for that time of day.

However, by approaching willpower as a developable asset then we needn’t consider abandoning chunks of our teaching time in the belief they are somehow not conducive to learning.


5 ways to improve willpower in your classroom

1. You may think simply telling your pupils willpower is infinite sounds like the easiest lesson in the world – and you would be correct.

In experiments conducted with adults, those who were shown the statement: “It is energising to be fully absorbed with a demanding mental task”, improved during a difficult mental challenge which lasted for 20 minutes whilst those who were shown no message stopped improving after 10 minutes.

You might want to work on a more child friendly positive message, but this simple lesson could be one that sticks with them for a lifetime.

Researchers who followed 1000 children into adulthood discovered that those with less ‘stickability’ when young were more likely to be unemployed, have poor health or engage in criminal activities as adults.

2. Research has also discovered that rewards can help pupils’ willpower. Teachers can follow the lead of games designers who understand the power of a notional reward to keep players engaged in the more monotonous elements of a game. Consider using whatever reward system your school operates during periods when you feel that collective willpower is weak – perhaps before lunch or the last class of the day.

3. If you can, make rewards tangible and tasty, such as some sweet, freshly chopped fruit. Research suggests that glucose in the mouth triggers reward-related brain activity that makes a challenge seem more rewarding, meaning it’s easier to keep going.

4. In the experiment where young children were tempted with cookies, the kids who succeeded used strategies such as not looking at the biscuits or distracting themselves by singing.

By the time children are teenagers, their object of desire is often no longer round, chocolate flavoured and sweet – but their phone, instead.

Work with your students to develop ways of helping them remove the craving to check for an update on their status, or read an inane text when they are supposed to be doing their homework, for example.

Forest is a cheap and engaging app that can really help to keep young people focused (forestapp.cc/en/).

5. Perhaps most importantly: use these methods on yourself, too. It is important to recognise when it is us that can’t be bothered with work, choosing a less challenging route throughout the day.

However, as the person who sets the work, this lack of willpower can negatively impact on the scores of others and obviously should be avoided.

You could also try implementation intention, a self-regulatory plan to act on our good intentions.

It is structured in an ‘If-Then’ format – if a situation occurs, then I will act accordingly – strengthening our desire to achieve that particular goal.


Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher, who works in a unit for secondary pupils on the Autism Spectrum Disorder.

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