Motivation and Middle School Students. ERIC Digest.
by Anderman, Lynley Hicks - Midgley, Carol
Few educators would argue with the premise that student motivation is
an important influence on learning. Motivation is of particular importance
for those who work with young adolescents. Considerable research has shown
a decline in motivation and performance for many children as they move
from elementary school into middle school (Eccles & Midgley, 1989).
Often it has been assumed that this decline is largely caused by physiological
and psychological changes associated with puberty and, therefore, is somewhat
inevitable. This assumption has been challenged, however, by research that
demonstrates that the nature of motivational change on entry to middle
school depends on characteristics of the learning environment in which
students find themselves (Midgley, 1993). Although it is difficult to prescribe
a "one size fits all" approach to motivating students, research suggests
that some general patterns do appear to hold true for a wide range of students.
This Digest outlines some suggestions for middle school teachers and administrators
for enhancing student motivation, and discusses three theories that are
currently prominent and that have particular relevance for young adolescent
students and their teachers.
The first point to be emphasized is that students' perceptions of their
educational experiences generally influence their motivation more than
the actual, objective reality of those experiences. For example, a history
of success in a given subject area is generally assumed to lead one to
continue persisting in that area. Weiner (1985), however, pointed out that
students' beliefs about the reasons for their success will determine whether
this assumption is true. Students' attributions for failure are also important
influences on motivation. When students have a history of failure in school,
it is particularly difficult for them to sustain the motivation to keep
trying. Students who believe that their poor performance is caused by factors
out of their control are unlikely to see any reason to hope for an improvement.
In contrast, if students attribute their poor performance to a lack of
important skills or to poor study habits, they are more likely to persist
in the future. The implications for teachers revolve around the importance
of understanding what students believe about the reasons for their academic
performance. Teachers can unknowingly communicate a range of attitudes
about whether ability is fixed or modifiable and their expectations for
individual students through their instructional practices (Graham, 1990).
While attribution theory focuses on the reasons students perceive for
their successes and failures in school, goal theory focuses on the reasons
or purposes students perceive for achieving (e.g., Ames, 1992; Maehr &
Midgley, 1991; Midgley, 1993). While different researchers define the constructs
slightly differently, two main goal orientations are generally discussed.
These are task goals and ability goals. A task goal orientation represents
the belief that the purpose of achieving is personal improvement and understanding.
Students with a task goal orientation focus on their own progress in mastering
skills and knowledge, and they define success in those terms. An ability
goal orientation represents the belief that the purpose of achieving is
the demonstration of ability (or, alternatively, the concealment of a lack
of ability). Students with an ability goal orientation focus on appearing
competent, often in comparison to others, and define success accordingly.
Studies of students' goal orientations generally find that the adoption
of task goals is associated with more adaptive patterns of learning than
is the adoption of ability goals, including the use of more effective cognitive
strategies, a willingness to seek help when it is needed, a greater tendency
to engage in challenging tasks, and more positive feelings about school
and oneself as a learner (Anderman & Maehr, 1994; Ryan, Hicks, &
If adopting a task goal orientation is related to positive educational
outcomes for students, the question then arises as to how such an orientation
can be fostered. Recent studies suggest that the policies and practices
in classrooms and schools influence students' goal orientations (Ames &
Archer, 1988; Maehr & Midgley, 1991). Specific suggestions (Midgley
& Urdan, 1992, p. 12) for moving toward a task focus in middle schools
include moving away from:
1. grouping by ability and over-use of standardized tests to grouping
by topic, interest, and student choice and to frequent reformation of groups;
2. competition between students, and contests with limited winners,
to cooperative learning;
3. using test data as a basis for comparison to using test data
for diagnosis and to alternatives to tests such as portfolios;
4. normative grading and public display of grades to grading for
progress or improvement and involving students in determining their grades;
5. recognition for relative performance, honor rolls for high
grades, and over-use of praise (especially for easy tasks) to recognition
of progress improvement and an emphasis on learning for its own sake;
6. decisions made exclusively by administrators and teachers to
opportunities for choice and student decision making, self-scheduling,
7. departmentalized approach to curriculum to thematic approaches/interdisciplinary
focus, viewing mistakes as a part of learning, allowing students to redo
work, and encouraging students to take academic risks;
8. rote learning and memorization, over-use of worksheets and
textbooks, and decontextualized facts to providing challenging, complex
work to students, giving homework that is enriching, and encouraging problem
solving and comprehension;
9. pull-out programs and retention to cross-age tutoring, or peer
tutoring, and enrichment.
A third motivational theory of particular importance for middle school
educators is self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985). This theory
describes students as having three categories of needs: needing a sense
of competence, of relatedness to others, and of autonomy. Competence involves
understanding how to, and believing that one can, achieve various outcomes.
Relatedness involves developing satisfactory connections to others in one's
social group. Autonomy involves initiating and regulating one's own actions.
Most of the research in self-determination theory focuses on the last of
these three needs. Within the classroom, autonomy needs could be addressed
through allowing some student choice and input on classroom decision making.
For young adolescent students, with their increased cognitive abilities
and developing sense of identify, a sense of autonomy may be particularly
important. Students at this stage say that they want to be included in
decision making and to have some sense of control over their activities.
Unfortunately, research suggests that students in middle schools actually
experience fewer opportunities for self-determination than they did in
elementary school (Midgley & Feldlaufer, 1987).
Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, and Ryan (1991) summarized contextual factors
that support student autonomy. Features such as the provision of choice
over what types of tasks to engage in and how much time to allot to each
are associated with students' feelings of self-determination. In contrast,
the use of extrinsic rewards, the imposition of deadlines, and an emphasis
on evaluations detract from a feeling of self-determination and lead to
a decrease in intrinsic motivation. It is important to recognize that supporting
student autonomy does not require major upheaval in the classroom or that
teachers relinquish the management of students' behavior. Even small opportunities
for choice, such as whether to work with a partner or independently, or
whether to present a book review as a paper, poster, or class presentation,
can increase students' sense of self-determination. Finally, it is important
to recognize that students' early attempts at regulating their own work
may not always be successful. Good decision making and time management
require practice. Teachers can help their students develop their self-regulation
by providing limited choices between acceptable options, by assisting with
breaking large tasks into manageable pieces, and by providing guidelines
for students to use in monitoring their own progress.
Middle school teachers often teach many students over the course of
a school day, and for a relatively short period of time. Given such brief
contact with so many, it is easy to underestimate the influence that one's
teaching practices can have on any one individual. Current moves to implement
the middle school philosophy may provide a more facilitative schedule for
both teachers and students, but even in a highly structured middle school,
teachers can take specific steps to provide a learning environment that
will promote the motivation of all students.
Adapted from: Anderman, L. H., & Midgley, C. (1997). Motivation
and middle school students. In Judith L. Irvin (Ed.), WHAT CURRENT RESEARCH
SAYS TO THE MIDDLE LEVEL PRACTITIONER (pp. 41-48). Columbus, OH: National
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