and Middle School Students
Anderman & Midgley
ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education
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).
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, & Midgley, 1997).
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:
by ability and over-use of standardized tests to grouping by topic,
interest, and student choice and to frequent reformation of groups;
between students, and contests with limited winners, to cooperative
- using test
data as a basis for comparison to using test data for diagnosis
and to alternatives to tests such as portfolios;
grading and public display of grades to grading for progress or
improvement and involving students in determining their grades;
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;
made exclusively by administrators and teachers to opportunities
for choice and student decision making, self-scheduling, and self-regulation;
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;
- 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
programs and retention to cross-age tutoring, or peer tutoring,
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 ones
social group. Autonomy involves initiating and regulating ones
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).
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 ones 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.
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 Middle School Association.
For More Information
Ames, C. (1992). Classrooms: Goals, structures, and student motivation.
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Ames, C., &
Archer, J. (1988). Achievement goals in the classroom: Students
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M., & Maehr, M. L. (1994). Motivation and schooling in the middle
grades. Review of Educational Research, 64(2), 287-309. EJ 488 853.
Deci, E. L.,
& Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination
in human behavior. New York: Plenum.
Deci, E. L.,
Vallerand, R. U., Pelletier, L. G., & Ryan, R. M. (1991). Motivation
and education: The self-determination perspective. Educational psychologist,
Eccles, J. S.,
& Midgley, C. (1989). Stage/environment fit: Developmentally
appropriate classrooms for early adolescents. In R. E. Ames &
C. Ames (Eds.), Research on motivation in education (Vol. 3, pp.
139-186). New York: Academic.
Graham, S. (1990).
Communicating low ability in the classroom: Bad things good teachers
sometimes do. In S. Graham and V. Folkes (Eds.), Attribution theory:
Applications to achievement, mental health, and interpersonal conflict
(pp. 17-36). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Maehr, M. L.,
& Midgley, C. (1991). Enhancing student motivation: A schoolwide
approach. Educational Psychologist, 26(3/4), 399-427.
(1993). Motivation and middle level schools. In P. R. Pintrich &
M. L. Maehr (Eds.), Advances in motivation and achievement, Vol.
8: Motivation in the adolescent years (pp. 219-276). Greenwich,
CT: JAI Press.
& Feldlaufer, H. (1987). Students and teachers decision-making
fit before and after the transition to junior high school. Journal
of Early Adolescence, 7(2), 225-241.
& Urdan, T. C. (1992). The transition to middle level schools:
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24(2), 5-14. EJ 454 359.
Ryan, A. M.,
Hicks, L., & Midgley, C. (1997). Social goals, academic goals,
and avoiding seeking help in the classroom. Journal of Early Adolescence,
Weiner, B. (1985).
An attributional theory of achievement motivation and emotion. Psychological
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was funded (June 1998) by the Office of Educational Research and
Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under contract no. DERR93002007.
expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions
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