A couple weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to present on motivation across the elementary and middle school transition at the California Charter School Association meeting. It was a really cool experience to be able to interact with so many practitioners from across the state.
In my talk, we discussed the problem that many students lose motivation across the elementary to middle-school transition, what the causes of this drop are, and three techniques we can use to support student motivation.
Motivation and Middle School
The transition to middle school is a tough one for lots of students. Researchers reviewing this transition have found that adolescents have lower perceptions of their competence, lower value for all school subjects, and lower intrinsic motivation. (Gottfried, Fleming, & Gottfried, 2001).
Graph from Lepper et al. (2005)
The reason for this decline is multi-faceted. Students are undergoing biological changes at this time that can make focusing in the classroom difficult. Relationships begin to become front and center for kids this age and the peer makeup that once provided support often changes. Students in middle schools get more strictly ability grouped and often multiple elementary schools combine into one middle school, leading to an upheaval in friend groups that can leave students feeling alone and unsupported. Furthermore, the more severe ability grouping can lead students to label themselves based on their new peer groups. This is even more problematic as we consider that this is the age where kids begin to form their Identity. Taken together, all of these factors can cause students to change their relationship with school and academics, leading to a decrease in motivation.
In my talk, I reviewed three techniques for combating this: high expectations, improving student-teacher relationships, and promoting a growth mindset.
This is the absolute first thing I used to teach in my EdPsych 100 course: Students live up to the expectations you set for them (Rosenthal and Jacobson, 1968). When you hold expectations for certain students or certain groups of students, that changes the way you interact with them. For instance, in the following table, researchers (Bamberg, 1994; Marzano, 2010) have compiled a list of the actions that teachers have demonstrated that reflect low expectations for their students. These actions decrease the richness of that students’ academic environment and can make them feel like even the teacher doesn’t think they can succeed. A point we examine further in the next section.
Improved Teacher-Student Relationships
Another thing that shifts significantly from Elementary to Middle school is the way teachers and students interact with each other. Middle School is often seen as the time students begin “serious” academics and teachers, as we say in Texas, stop “coddling.” This can often lead to students feeling like their teachers don’t care about them or their progress.
Students need to know that their teachers care for them and want them to be successful. Students who feel like they are cared for and respected by their teachers have higher motivation (Fraire et al., 2013; Baumeister and Leary, 1995; Wentzel et al., 2010; Prino et al., 2016), higher achievement (Hughes, 2011; Pasta et al., 2013), and higher socio-emotional well-being (Pianta et al., 2008). Basically, students who feel like the classroom is a safe space and that teachers care about their individual successes do better. That doesn’t mean you don’t hold students to high standards, you just make it clear that you are holding them to high standards because you think they can do it and are worth the investment (Ryan and Deci, 2000).
This idea can be summarized by the findings regarding ideal teaching styles. The ideal style of teaching is called being a “warm demander.” The teachers that are the most successful make their students feel supported in the classroom while still holding high expectations and creating a structured learning environment. As Lisa Delpit (of Other People’s Children fame) put it, “warm demanders expect a great deal of their students, convince them of their own brilliance, and help them to reach their potential in a disciplined and structured environment.”
To become a “warm demander”, you have to build relationships with all your students. Learn about their lives, what they care about, and who they are. The difficult part is that while you are building these relationships, you also have to carefully control the classroom environment. Establish norms for behavior. Make clear where the boundaries are. As important as the student relationships is the structure you provide.
It’s also important to learn about and respect their cultural backgrounds. A great review of this is the book Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond. I can’t recommend it enough. We use it a lot in our professional development to support English learners.
If you think your intelligence can be changed with effort, you have a growth mindset and you are more likely to work hard, persist in the face of challenges, and maintain motivation and achievement (Anderman et al, 1999). If you think intelligence is pre-determined, then you tend to give up when things get hard. Lisa Blackwell and her team did one of my favorite experiments to determine the impact of a growth mindset on student achievement throughout middle school. In this study, they randomly assigned students to either receive weekly training on growth mindset (e.g. learning about how the brain builds neural connections as you learn new things) or training on generic study skills (e.g. highlighting main ideas). They maintained these trainings for a whole school year and found that instead of having declining performance, students who got the growth mindset training, had increasing performance that continued even after the training had ended. The students who received training on study skills, maintained the typical declining performance that most students have across middle school.
Graph from Blackwell et al. (2007)
This study is so powerful because they literally changed the trajectory of students with 30 minutes a week. When students feel as if their effort is rewarded, they are more interested in persisting in the face of challenges and really doing the work necessary to learn.
This is one of the easiest motivational concepts to manipulate. There’s so much you can do. You can use direct instruction on growth mindset, you can do subtle things like praise effort, not answers. You can model growth mindset in your own actions. You can celebrate mistakes for their benefit to learning. The options are really endless.
All of these motivational concepts are intertwined. When you have high expectations for all students, that can improve teacher student motivation and help support a growth mindset. Conversely, promoting a growth mindset helps you be a warm demander and hold all students to high expectations. Supporting student motivation is not something that can be ignored as motivation is closely tied to achievement. Supporting students’ socio-emotional well-being is also supporting student’s academic well-being!