Monday, May 26, 2008

Adolescents motivation

What Motivates Adolescents, especially Eighth Graders to Learn?

By: Analicia K. Springer
EDCI 6304 Learning and Cognition
School of Education
University of Texas at Brownsville
Spring 2008

This Paper was presented at the 2nd Conference of Elementary Secondary Teaching & Learning (CESTL) in April, 2008, Brownsville, Texas. Correspondence concerning this article should be directly addressed to Analicia K. Springer at


Teaching at the middle school level can be challenging. It becomes more challenging when the students are not motivated to learn. During early adolescence (ages 10-14), young people experience multiple life changes such as puberty, the transition to middle school, role changes at home, at school, and relationships with friends (Roeser, Strobel, & Quihuis, 2002). These “biopsychosocial” transitions during this period, according to Roeser et al. (2002) can have an impact on students’ motivation with the school. According to Udban and Schoenfelder (2006), motivation difference is not just caused by the individual differences that reside within the individuals themselves, but a combination of and an interaction between the individual and situational characteristics (e.g., context, school environment).

Understanding the causes behind adolescents’ motivation is very important to educators because the adolescent stage is the stepping stone between elementary and high school. Knowing what motivates the students can help the teachers better understand the students and help them become more autonomous and responsible learners. This research intends to address the topic of middle school students’ motivation by exploring the different types of motivation and the causes behind it with specific focus on eighth grade students.

Literature Review

Definition of Motivation

Motivation can be described as behaviors that illustrate interest, enthusiasm, appreciation, or dedication. Motivation in general, is the process that plays a major role in an individual’s choice of and continued engagement in particular activities (Gredler, 2005). According to Urdan and Schoenfelder (2006), teachers describe students who simply lack motivation and often attribute these motivational deficiencies to causes that are beyond their control such as poor parenting or weak personality characteristics. Also, teachers often see individuals as semi-autonomous beings with stable personalities that are resistant to environmental influences (Urdan & Schoenfelder, 2006).

According to Urdan & Schoenfelder (2006), there are three different types of motivation among students: intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, and amotivation. Intrinsic or autonomous motivation means that a student shows self-determination, curiosity, challenge, and effort. Extrinsic or controlled motivation involves external incentives for the student to do well such as rewards and punishments. Amotivation means that the student lacks both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Why does amotivation happen? What causes a student to lose both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation? Why are some students motivated while others are not? All these questions are very critical for educators at the middle school level they are often faced with this serious issue: amotivation is very common among middle school students. Extensive research has been conducted on the issues of student motivation. Educational and psychological research has identified several factors that play a role in predicting adolescent motivation such as family background, individual characteristics, and school experience (Eccles & Wigfield, 1985; Eccles & Harold, 1993; Hanson, 1994; Hossler & Stage, 1994). Furthermore, parental level of education, parental educational expectations and encouragement, school climate, and teachers’ educational expectations and support, transition from elementary to middle school can all have an affect on motivation.

Parents and Motivation

Several studies have shown that parents play a key role in shaping students’ achievement motivation and parental involvement has a positive effect in adolescent achievement. First, it is believed that there is a positive correlation between parents’ education level and their involvement level with the school work (Maya, 2001). In general, the higher the parents’ educational levels are, the more they will be involved with their children’s school work (Maya, 2001).

Second, there is a strong relationship between parental involvement in schools and their children’s motivation and academic achievement. The parental involvement relates positively to students’ achievement, motivation, and perceptions of competence.

Third, parental expectations and support also seem to be related to students’ motivation. When parents provide enough encouragement and realistic expectations for their children, the children tend to perform better with their school work (reference?). Last, the quality of the parent-child and parent-school relationship also influences adolescents’ motivation and school success (Neofotistos, 1995).

School Factors and Motivation

Schools also affect adolescent motivation through many factors such as the school environment, classroom environment, and the teachers. The school environment may hinder or support motivation when pertaining to adolescents in middle school (Esposito, 1999). Teachers affect student motivation in the classroom because of the support and expectations they have for the student. Classroom also influences students motivation through many factors such as safety, sense of belonging, and peer support in the classroom Goodenow (1993).

Creating a safe and comfortable leanring environment and establishing a sense of belonging and support among the students is believed to be strongly associated with motivation Goodenow (1993). A lack of sense of belonging may lead to a sense of isolation in school or class and could eventually result in school failure (Goodenow, 1993).

The last and perhaps most important factor regarding school factors and motivation is teacher care. Teacher care has a direct effect on student attitudes towards academic and social goal pursuits. A teacher who is perceived by students as caring is more able to motivate the students compared to those who are perceived as authoritative (Urdan & Schoenfelder, 2006). Teachers support is also a positive predictor of motivation in school and social responsibility. Students who perceive teachers as harsh and cold are found to consistently show poor social behavior and low expectations in themselves, and achieve lower academically compared to their peers.

Individual and Motivation

The individual also plays a very important role in his own motivation in terms of their goals, expectations, self-confidence, and interests. When a task is not perceived as important by the student, amotivation may result. Also, students’ beliefs about their success on specific tasks, their competence, and the desire associated with participation in the tasks all influence their willingness to engage and the amount of effort to put in the tasks.

Students themselves also influence their motivation depending on their learning goals. Learning goals can be divided into two categories: mastery goal and performance goal. If a student feels that they can learn or have the ability to learn, and they desire to become a master in the area, then it is called master-oriented learning goal. Students with mastery learning are more motivated to learn and are more likely too work harder in the classroom. Some researchers suggest that educators should attempt to nurture mastery goal in students in the classroom (Ames, 1992). Performance goal refers to the fact that the main purpose of some students’ learning is not to become a master in the specific learning task but to perform well in front of others, to impress others, or to be better than others. Researchers have argued that performance goal creates superficial learning in students. Therefore, educators and schools should de-emphasize performance goal which focuses on social comparison or competition and leads to avoidance of deep learning and negative effects of achievement motivation.

Educators need to assign students to appropriately challenging and meaningful academic work, evaluate students in a manner that emphasizes and rewards improvement and growth in themselves, and provide students with more choice and autonomy in the classroom (Urdan & Schoenfelder, 2006).

Peers and Motivation

Peer interactions and relationship in school also affect motivation.. Students in middle school grades value peer relationship and popularity among the peers more than their academic achievement and academic success (Urdan & Schoenfelder, 2006) and middle school students tend to be more influenced by their peers (Neofotistos, 1995). Peers can undermine, enhance, or have little effect on motivation and achievement depending on the academic and motivational orientation of peers with whom the students wish to socialize (Urdan & Schoenfelder, 2006).

Peer support motivates children to cooperate, be socially responsible and follow classroom rules. Students’ attitudes towards the classroom can vary depending on the attitudes of their friends. Students also tend to associate with peers who have the same motivational characteristics. According to Urdan and Schoenfelder (2006), students’ intrinsic value of education, enjoyment of school, and friends’ attitudes about school become more similar over time.

Some students choose friends who value education which results in high academic motivation, while some students choose friends who devalue education which leads to low academic motivation (Phalen, Davidson, & Cao, 2002). Phalen et al. (2002) studied a group of students who valued their social relationships with friends above other things. They found that in those classes where the students were allowed to interact with their friends, they were highly motivated and achieved at high levels. On the contrary, when they were in the classes where talking with friends was not encouraged or allowed, these students failed miserably.

These findings demonstrate the importance of peers on academic motivation. Teachers should provide opportunities for students to work in cooperative groups in the classroom to fulfill their relatedness and connection needs. Teachers can also allow students to complete assignments with friends. When teachers focus only on independent work and do not provide opportunities for students to work together, students’ needs for relatedness are not fulfilled and some students will feel forced to choose between academic achievement and social needs.

Middle-High School Transition and Motivation

The last factor that affects middle school students is the transition from middle school to high school. It is a crucial point where students experience intense growth, as well as a new found identity and individualism. Many students in middle school experience confusion and little motivation towards school. This is a result of new physical and mental changes, along with confusing environment of middle school. Middle school teachers need to maintain a stable learning environment in which the students are able to learn.


In conclusion, the above literature shows that many factors affect motivation in adolescents. Those factors include parents, teachers, the students themselves, school and classroom environment, and the transition from middle school to high school. These factors tend to affect the middle grades the most because they are not depending on their parents solely as in elementary, and they have not yet become independent persons as in high school. Teachers need to take these multiple factors into consideration when dealing with unmotivated adolescent students.


Research Question

What are the factors that motivate middle school students especially 8th graders to learn?

Research Site

The research site was in Los Fresnos, Texas at Resaca Middle School in an eighth grade American History classroom.

Research Participants

This research studied 108 eighth grade students. There were 49 females and 59 males. The population consisted of 104 Hispanics, 5 white, and 1 African American student. The teacher was the researcher and has taught for a total of 16 years, with 6 out of those years teaching American History.

Data Collections

The purpose of the study was to find out what motivated the students to learn. Research methods used for this study included surveys, classroom observations, and interviews. The students were first given a survey consisting of five questions about what motivated them to learn in school (see Appendix A for the Student Survey Questions). A total of six classroom observations (one hour each time) were conducted by the researcher to observe what kind of activities or factors in the classroom motivated the students to learn. In addition to the classroom observations, two individual interviews were also conducted with two teachers to obtain their views on what teachers could do to motivate their students (see Appendix B for Teacher Interview Questions). These interviews were conducted with one science teacher and one reading teacher, both were eighth grade teachers.


Through conducting the classroom observations, interviews, and surveys, this study found students’ motivation was influenced by several important factors: parents, instructional format, and teacher support.

Parents and Motivation

This research found that parents were the biggest motivator for the students to learn. For example, according to the results of the students’ survey, 56.4% (61 out of 108 students surveyed) reported that their parents influenced them most when asked who motivated them. 26.8% of students chose both parents and friends as someone who motivated them the most. These results coincide with the literature review that stated that parents play a big role in the motivation of their children, while peers tend to also play a major role.

Instructional Format and Motivation

This study also found that the instructional format a teacher uses had a strong effect on students’ motivation. Overwhelmingly, cooperative groups motivated the students to learn the most. 39.8% of students preferred group activities to independent work. The teacher used different activities during each observation including independent work, pair work, and group work.

During the class observation, I observed that when students worked independently, they did not look very excited but a bit sluggish although they still completed their work. However, when the students worked in pairs, they seemed a little more excited and cooperative. When they were allowed to work in groups of four or five, they liked it. I noticed that the students smiled more, paid more attention, were more motivated, and participated more when they were doing group activities. These finding also coincide with the literature review which shows that cooperative learning is the best way to motivate students due to their need to socialize with peers at this age.

Also, both teachers interview mentioned that instructional activities play an important role in students’ motivation. For example, both teachers pointed out that the instructional activities in the classroom should be enjoyable. The science teacher interviewed believed that hands-on activities were the most motivation activity for this age group.

Teacher Support and Motivation

This study also found that teacher support plays an important role in students’ motivation. 42.2% of students felt that teachers played a big role in their motivation. This also agrees with the literature review which states that teacher caring and expectations were very important to students. However, what kind of support a teacher should provide the students, the two interviewed teachers differed with their opinion. One teacher felt that teachers should provide rewards to those students who did well, while the other teacher felt that praise should be enough. Still, both teachers felt that it was possible to motivate all students. When asked what strategies could be used to motivate the reluctant students, they responded with “not to give up” and “each day is a new day.” One of the teachers responded that he uses some of the strategies from the Ron Clark Story


When comparing my findings with the literature review, I find that most of the findings matched with the literature. The literature review and my study also both agreed on the fact that teachers played the biggest role in motivating the students in the classroom. One other major finding was that students were more motivated to work in groups than alone. Finally, the study and literature review answered my hypothesis: Adolescents are motivated by factors in their environment such as parents, peers, classroom climate, and teachers.

Although most of my findings were confirmed by the literature, I did find one differences in my results which conflicts with the literature. The question was about who motivated the middle school students to learn the most. According to the literature review, peers play a bigger role in motivation and parents came in second. However, my study showed that the parents were the biggest motivator and peers were second. This is a very interesting finding and I wonder what causes this discrepancy between our findings.


Based on the findings from this research, teachers need to take all of these factors into consideration when teaching adolescents at the middle grade level. When planning their lessons, they need to make sure they incorporate cooperative learning as much as they can to provide plenty of opportunities for students to work socially. Teachers also need to understand who their students are and where they come from as far as their home environment. Teachers need to get the parents involved in their child’s education as much as possible. Finally, teachers need to show their students that they care about them and provide both social and academic support when needed.


Some limitations of this study are that first of all, only half of the eighth grade population in this school was surveyed. Secondly, the majority of the population of the students was Hispanic and there was not much of diversity in the students who participated in this study.. Finally, the research was conducted by the researcher who was one of the participants (a classroom teacher observed) herself. This could have biased the interpretations and conclusions made by the researcher.

Future Research

For my future research, I would like to focus more on how to get parents more involved in their child’s education in the middle grades, especially with those parents who have little education and low expectations for their children. I would also like to conduct more research to help teachers support their students with their academic motivation and achievement.


Ames, C. (1992). Classroom: Goals, structures, and student motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84. 261-271.

Eccles, J.S., Wigfield, A., & Midley, C., Reuman, P., Macler, D., Feldlaufer, H. (1993). Negative
effects of traditional middle schools on students’ motivation. The Elementary School
, 93. 553-574.

Goodenow, C. (1993). Classroom belonging among early adolescent students: Relationships
to motivation and achievement. Journal of Early Adolescents, 13. 21-43.

Gredler, M. (2005). Learning and Instruction. Theory into Practice. Fifth edition. Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey and Columbus, Ohio.

Legault, L., Green-Demers, I., &Pallietier, L. (2006). Why do high school students lack motivation in the classroom? Trends on understanding of academic amotivation and the role of social support. Journal of Educational Psychology. 2-25.

Maya, C. (2002). Factors Affecting the Achievement Motivation of High School Students in
Maine. A literature review
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Neofotistos, A. (1995). The Lack of Motivation: Early Adolescents in the Transition Years.
Retrieved from:

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Phalen, P., Davidson, A.L., & Cao, H.T. (1991). Students multiple worlds: Negotiating the
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Urdan, T., & Schoenfelder, E. (2006). Classroom effects on student motivation: Goal
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Appendix A

Student Interview Questions

1. Who motivates you the most to learn? Parents, peers, or someone else?
2. What things motivate you the most to learn?
3. Does the classroom climate or the teacher affect your motivation to learn?
4. What types of activities in the classroom motivate you to learn?
5. Do you consider yourself to have intrinsic or extrinsic motivation?

Appendix B

Teacher Interview Questions

1. Why do you teach?
2. What course do you teach and why?
3. What is motivation in your opinion? How do you define it?
4. Who motivated you to learn the most in your life? Why and how?
5. Do you consider yourself to be intrinsically or extrinsically motivated?
6. When motivation is apparent in students, what does it look like?
7. Have you noticed a change in students’ motivation to learn since you started teaching?
8. What activities motivate students in your class to learn and why?
9. What can a teacher do to the classroom climate to facilitate motivation in students?
10. Do you think the course content or subject influences motivation? Why?
11. Can teachers use the media to motivate students to learn? How?
12. Can teachers use technology to motivate students to learn? How?
13. Do you think most students have intrinsic or extrinsic motivation and why?
14. What rewards, if any, do you use to motivate your students?
15. Do you think we should reward our students when they do well? Why?
16. What or how should we reward them?
17. Is it possible, in your opinion, for a teacher to motivate all of his/her students?
18. What strategies can a teacher use to motivate a reluctant student?
19. Is there anything a teacher can do differently to motivate special populations?

To read other articles of this week:

Learning Strategies by Mayra Garcia

Peer Relationships & Learning by Blanca Nuez

Help China EarthQuake!


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