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Student Well-Being

Student Motivation: Age-Old Problem Gets New Attention

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 02, 2014 8 min read
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It’s rarely only one factor that drives a student to give up on school, but in recent years, educators have gained ground against a range of contributors, from early absenteeism and reading difficulties to teenage parenthood. Now, schools are working to make inroads against one of the most common and yet elusive reasons students cite for dropping out: They just aren’t motivated to stay in school.

What drives one student to stick it out through four years of high school, while another—perhaps equally talented—fades out of school?

“That’s something educators struggle with,” said Kerry E. Muse, the chief learning officer and head coach of Venture Academy, a Minneapolis charter school that teaches students to become entrepreneurs and build their own inner drive to succeed. “We know that learning is stickier if students have to struggle a little with it, but how do we get them past the hand-holding? Ninety-nine percent of the conflict we have is the student not knowing when you should come to an adult for help and when you should be self-directed.”

U.S. schools are on an upward trajectory to meet a national goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020, according to the annual “Building a Grad Nation” report—if they can continue the gains of the past few years. Even so, a substantial share of American teenagers remain spectacularly unmotivated and unengaged in schooling.

In the push to keep up that momentum toward graduation, policymakers, researchers, and educators like Mr. Muse are looking for ways to help students ramp up their own drive to graduate.

In the past year, the White House has held a symposium on ways to improve students’ academic mindsets, and nonprofits including the Raikes and the William and Flora Hewlett foundations have launched initiatives to identify ways to boost student motivation and academic mindset. (Both foundations have supported topical coverage at Education Week.)

And Maria Ferguson, the executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University in Washington, said the next iterations of major federal education laws are likewise being planned to take motivation and other critical noncognitive factors into account.

“Considering every piece of education legislation now is up for reauthorization—the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Higher Education Act, Workforce Investment Act, and Perkins [Career and Technical Education Act]—there is an opportunity to think about how federal policy can better support what we know about the needs of high school students as they make their way to college and whatever lies beyond,” Ms. Ferguson said.

Making Time to Build Character

Despite the issue’s new prominence, Mr. Muse said the intense focus on academic skills arising in response to federal and state testing-accountability requirements has often meant schools have less time to build students’ motivation and perseverance, and for the most part, administrators are not sure whether the initiatives used to boost reading and math proficiency help or hurt students’ academic drive. Yet in spite of tightening budgets and schedules, many schools are renewing a focus on noncognitive pieces of learning, like motivation.

Achievement Impact

Teachers and school-based administrators who responded to an Education Week Research Center survey were asked to rate the importance of a variety of factors to student achievement. Respondents gave student engagement and motivation an average score of 3.9 on a 4-point scale, the highest among the eight categories examined. Eighty-seven percent of respondents considered student engagement and motivation to be “very important.”


SOURCE: Education Week Research Center, 2014

Mr. Muse, who worked at other college-preparatory schools before founding Venture Academy, said he and other administrators have been disappointed when their efforts to academically prepare students for college fell apart when students had to study and keep organized on their own. “I’d sent enough kids to high school and college from ‘no excuses’ schools that I knew there was a gap there in social skills,” Mr. Muse said.

“I had a lot of kids who foundered,” he added. “When the really intense guidance and scaffolding [from high school] stopped, they really foundered.”

At Venture, educators, including working business people, teach students how to use what they learn to invent new products and services and develop their own businesses. Educator and technology business owner Eric Nelson said this sort of educational “tinkering” can make students’ learning more relevant and encourage them to learn more on their own.

A 2013 CEP analysis found four academic mindsets that contribute to a student’s motivation: belief in the student’s own competence; ownership of his or her learning; interest in the subject or at least understanding of the value of learning it; and a feeling of social relatedness to the school and community.

“It’s been demonstrated again and again that academic mindsets are real things and they do have a significant effect on students’ achievement,” said Camille A. Farrington, the lead researcher for the Chicago Postsecondary Transition Project at the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Context for Learning

The more students feel capable and in control of their own learning, for example, “the harder they work, the better they do, and the higher grades they receive,” she said. “It’s a feedback loop. Students are constantly in the process of either getting confirmation of the mindsets they already hold or their mindsets are being changed for the better or for the worse based on their interactions with people in the school environment.”

Schools across the country are also trying to motivate students by providing direct cash incentives to graduate, pitching ways they can help their families and communities through their own academic success, and leveraging groups of peers to push each other toward graduation.

“People often ask, ‘Can motivation be taught? Is that subject to intervention?’ I think certainly yes, in the context of a class where what the teacher is doing is building internal motivation. It may be short-lived or context-dependent, but at least some part of it spills over and becomes generalizable to things like graduation,” said Thomas J. Kane, a professor of education and economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “A great school experience” is “when you’ve had enough exposure to teachers who are great at cultivating motivation, it becomes second nature in students.”

Venture Academy, the Minneapolis charter school, is trying to create an environment that gets students planning their own high school and college careers. The school primarily serves those who previously performed below the district average in reading and mathematics and those considered at risk of dropping out in high school.

Mr. Muse and other staff members at the school admit it has been a matter of trial and error for teachers and administrators trying to help students become more active in their own learning while also catching up those who arrive several grade levels behind in reading, math, and other subjects.

“Motivation skills can be taught; The behaviors associated with motivation can be taught,” said David Levin, a co-founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, charter network, which is not connected to Venture. "[Educators] are building a research base about how you teach those.”

KIPP’s network has been experimenting with ways to build and measure so-called grit, or students’ internal motivation and perseverance.

‘Dark Side’ of Motivation

At the same time, researchers and policymakers are starting to see unintended consequences from the rising prominence of measures of internal motivation, such as grit ratings.

Substantial Challenges

In responses to an open-ended survey question, teachers and school-based administrators who are registered users of the Education Week website, described the greatest challenges they face in engaging and motivating students. An analysis of responses indicates that lack of parental support and student apathy were the most commonly cited obstacles.


SOURCE: Education Week Research Center, 2014

“There is a risk that poorly informed educators or parents could misuse the idea and … could overattribute students’ poor performance to a lack of grittiness without considering that critical supports may be lacking in the environment,” cautioned Nicole Schectman and other researchers from SRI International in a study for the U.S. Department

of Education’s office of educational technology that discusses both the potential and the “dark side” of efforts to improve student motivation.

Separate studies by Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck, Harvard University economist Roland G. Fryer Jr., and others, have found short-term efforts to motivate students to meet external goals, such as providing cash or prizes for behavior or improved test grades, could damage their motivation in the long term.

As schools work to motivate students, teacher Joey Weinstein warned that they should be careful to help students distinguish simple enthusiasm from true academic drive.

Mr. Weinstein, an upper-grades English teacher at Da Vinci Science High School in Los Angeles, created a two-year curriculum in which students learned to research colleges, practice application essays and resumes, and eventually apply to multiple colleges. Last year, nearly all the class of 2013—about half of whom would be first-generation college-goers—were accepted to universities.

Injecting Realism

Yet in follow-up interviews, Mr. Weinstein found that many students still didn’t continue to college, or opted for local community colleges over larger state and other schools where they had been accepted. He also found that students excitedly applied to out-of-state schools during class, but didn’t consider the realities of leaving family, paying higher tuition, or even simply moving from Southern California’s endless summer to the harsh winters of northern campuses.

Their responses persuaded Mr. Weinstein to overhaul the school’s college-preparation courses to make students more realistic about their goals after high school and how they planned to achieve them.

This year, students are starting with much more extensive writing on their academic and career goals and are assigned to have early conversations with their families on what options are financially feasible. Instead of basic college research, students now do comprehensive spreadsheets that allow them to compare academic and testing requirements for entry, available majors, student-faculty ratios, costs of transportation and living on campus, and other factors. In a paired economics class, students also study the costs and benefits of college and different options to pay for it.

“Getting students to think about these things,” Mr. Weinstein said, “is a big shift.”

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


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