Every teacher knows there are students who always seem to be a step ahead of everyone else. And then there are the slackers, who are just as intelligent but who don’t seem to mind being mediocre. The difference seems obvious: some people are inherently motivated to succeed, whereas others simply don’t care. But a study conducted by psychologists William Hart, now at the University of Alabama, and Dolores Albarracin of the University of Illinois suggests otherwise. Simply reframing a task as “fun” caused the underachievers to outperform those who usually excelled—indicating that the way an educator describes an activity might have a powerful influence on how well students do on it.

The researchers first screened participants of comparable academic ability, categorizing them as interested in achievement or interested in fun. They then had the students look at a computer screen that flashed words related to high achievement (for instance, “win,” “excel” and “master”). In subsequent tests of ability such as a word-search puzzle, the participants who were interested in achievement performed significantly better than did those who were not.

That experiment confirmed conven­tional assumptions, but the next one had a confounding outcome. Participants were again primed with high-achievement words and asked to complete a word-search puzzle. But instead of describing the task as a serious test of verbal pro­ficiency as before, the researchers called it “fun.” The results of that simple seman­tic change were profound: not only did the supposed slackers perform better on the task this time around, their scores actually surpassed those of the high-achievement crowd.

The study authors point out that for some students, when a task is portrayed as “fun,” not only does their motivation improve, but their performance does, too. Educators and parents should take note, the researchers say, and be careful to frame activities so that they engage students with a range of learning styles.