Motivation of Adolescent Students Toward Success in School

Eileen Friday

Florida Gulf Coast University

EDF 6215 Learning Principles

Dr. Mike Tyler


Research reports addressing the motivations of adolescents in school were examined for clues useful to teachers of adolescents. Helpful motivations included mastery goal pursuit, (to learn the subject rather than to look good compared to others or for a reward), interest in school, social responsibility goal pursuit, and prosocial goal pursuit. Factors that correlated positively with these goals included family, peer, and teacher support, positive feelings about cognitive and social capabilities, clarity about class rules and consequences, positive values of admired peers, the studentís choice to use deep processing strategies, and student internal control beliefs.

Motivation of Adolescent Students toward Success in School

Cultural Expectations

"We need to improve our schools" is a politically correct statement currently: politicians use it freely, and pass laws designed to legislate that outcome. National and state goals and standards have been established around the themes of the year 2000 and school-to-work or school-to-career emphases. The Florida Department of Education has developed a comprehensive set of "Sunshine State Standards" and is moving toward performance-based funding of schools. This is funding based at least in part on how well students do on standardized tests, how many find jobs in the vocational program they complete, how many find well-paying jobs, and how many go on to post-secondary schools or to the military. In response, school improvement committees list "improving student test scores" among their goals. In addition, teacher evaluations are now heavily weighted toward student performances.

If students were motivated to master their course work by such external factors, there would be no problem. However, the experiences of teaching tell us otherwise. Other motivations are at work among our students. And many drop out: in Hendry County approximately fifty percent of ninth grade students have left before twelfth grade in recent years. (Some of these have later obtained a GED.)

Motivational Factors Considered

A student motivated to succeed may have one of several goals: to learn and perhaps to master a subject (mastery goals), to be seen as better than others (relative goals), or to get a reward or avoid punishment (extrinsic goals). (Ryan & Pintrich, 1997). Pro-social goal pursuit and responsibility goal pursuit may also be factors in success. (Wentzel, 1998). In addition, student behaviors may be affected by student perceptions of classroom goals (mastery or extrinsic) and school goals (mastery or performance). (Anderman, et al, 1998).

How a student feels about himself is another factor in school success: whether he feels sure of himself cognitively and socially, whether he attributes success to his own efforts, whether he worries about his image to others. (Ryan and Pintrich, 1997).

A third factor is that of relationships with family, peers, and teachers. (Wentzel, 1998). Are the relationships supportive, and do the goals of admired others include school success? (Graham, 1997). What strategies do others use which help or hinder learning? (Hootstein, 1995).

Research Report Notes

Wentzel (1998) in a study of middle school students found several indicators to be independent, positive predictors of outcomes. Family cohesion predicted mastery and performance goal orientations and interest in school. Perceived support from teachers predicted interest in class and social responsibility goal pursuit. Perceived support from peers predicted prosocial goal pursuit. However, Waxman and Huang (1996), comparing very high and very low performing students in an inner-city middle school, found no significant differences between the two groups on parent involvement, peer affiliation, and teacher support. High but not low achieving students were found to be more likely to feel that their performance was directly related to their own efforts and prior planning, that the teacher was pleased with their work, and that they were satisfied with the class. High achievers also were more likely to actively, attentively participate in class, be clear about class rules and consequences, and find the class work appropriately paced and difficult. In another study (Huang and Waxman, 1995) found that Asian-Americans, who on average did better than white students in math, had stronger parent support. This correlated with greater pride in their classwork, a stronger desire to succeed, and higher expectations to do well. Graham (1997) investigated peer role models. She found that African American adolescent girls admired, respected, and wanted to be like other African American girls who try hard and do well in school. However, African American boys were more likely to admire, respect, and want to be like African American boys who did not try hard or do well in school. This matched her observation that many of the boys were not doing well in school. Wentzel (1997) found that perceived caring from teachers was related significantly and positively to studentís pursuit of prosocial and social responsibility goals and to studentís academic effort, as well as to internal control beliefs. Ryan and Pintrich (1997) looked at characteristics related to adaptive help seeking (asking for the help needed to learn independently, not for "the answer"). Students with mastery motivations who felt sure of themselves cognitively and socially were more likely to use this strategy than those with other motivations and less self-assurance. Anderman et al (1998) researched cheating behaviors and beliefs. They found that students who cheated were more likely to have extrinsic motivational goals and to perceive classroom and school goals as extrinsic or performance goals rather than mastery goals. Hootstein (1995) surveyed methods used by teachers to motivate students and student evaluations of those methods. The first choice in these social science classes was "have students role-play characters in simulations" for both teachers and students. After that, preferences differed.

Applications for Teachers

These research studies do not indicate "the answers" for motivating adolescents toward success in school. Different studies look at different variables, with different populations of students, and ask different questions. Motivational factors may include many things, and may interrelate with each other. There are variables and population groups not included in these studies. However, there are clues for teachers. 1) Students with mastery motivational goals are more successful than those with extrinsic (reward/punishment, performance based} or relative motivational goals. Teachers may not be able to influence goals of politicians or schools, and these are likely to be performance goals for the next few years, but we set the goals for our classrooms, and this may influence our students in their choice of goals. 2) Relationships matter. We can choose to genuinely care about our students, to be supportive (not just about class work), and to learn and use those strategies that motivate them in positive ways. We can listen to our students, and draw on their wisdom. We can also build positive relationships with some of their families and friends. 3) Teachers can make a difference in student self-perceptions about their cognitive abilities. We can set the pace and difficulty of class work and choose strategies so that each child can experience success. We can be clear about what we expect. We can express our appreciation of each child and his work. 4) Teachers can continue learning.


Anderman, Eric M., & Griesinger, Tripp. (1998, March). Motivation and cheating during early adolescence. Journal of Educational Psychology 90. 84-93.

Bouchillon, Wally S. Holmes. (1996). Preparing all learners for tomorrowís work force: Floridaís applied technology curriculum planning companion for the sunshine state standards. Tallahassee, FL: Florida Department of Education.

Graham, Sandra. (1997 Winter). Using attribution theory to understand social and academic motivation in Arican American youth. Educational Psychologist 32. 21-34.

Hootstein, Edward W. (1995, January). Motivational strategies of middle school social studies teachers. Social Education 59. 23-26.

Huang, Shwu-yong L. & Waxman, Hersholt C. (1995 Summer). Motivation and learning-environment differences between Asian-American and white middle school students in mathematics. Journal of Research and Development in Education 28. 208-219.

Instructional performance appraisal system. (1998). LaBelle, FL: Hendry County District School Board.

Ryan, Allison M. & Pintrich, Paul R. (1997, June). "Should I ask forhelp?" The role of motivation and attitudes in adolescentís help seeking in math class. Journal of Educational Psychology 89. 329-341.

Waxman, Hersholt C. & Huang, Shwu-yong L. (1996, Nov/Dec). Motivation and learning environment differences in inner-city middle school students. The Journal of Educational Research 90. 93-102.

Wentzel, Kathryn R. (1998, June). Social relationships and motivation in middle school: the role of parents, teachers, and peers. Journal of Educational Psychology 90 (2), 202-209.

Wentzel, Kathryn R. (1997, September). Student motivation in middle school: the role of perceived pedagogical caring. Journal of Educational Psychology 89, 411-419.