In last week’s blog, we began to examine why the innate curiosity that children possess goes away as students move through the educational system. By the time many students get to middle school, their intrinsic motivation has decreased or even evaporated. I frequently get calls from perplexed parents looking to light a motivational spark in their children. This is easier said than done, as something inside the student will have to change in order for motivation to change. In fact, the harder parents push, the more pushback they will likely receive from their children.

One frequent complaint that many students make about school is that, “I’ll never use any of this information again in my life. It is meaningless.” Now, as adults, we may have a different perspective about the utility of classes, both in terms of the foundation of knowledge they create as well as the practical applications that may not be readily apparent while in the midst of a class. I know that a philosophy course that I took in college seemed pointless to me at the time was at the time pointless to me. Years later, two of the guiding principles of my life can be traced back to that class, a class that seemed meaningless to me at the time.

Recently, Dr. Chris Hulleman (James Madison University) and my graduate school advisor, Dr. Judith Harackiewicz (University of Wisconsin-Madison) published a paper in the journal Science, one of the most prestigious journals across all fields of scientific research. This paper provides students, teachers, and parents with a simple and ingenious tool to boost student interest and performance. Hulleman and Harackiewicz had students in 9th grade science classes about their expectations for success in their science class. Students were then randomly assigned to one of two conditions:

1)    Control condition: Students wrote a brief essay summarizing the material they were covering in science class

2)    Experimental condition: Students wrote about the value and usefulness of the material they were covering in class, and how it might relate to their own life.

Thus, in both conditions, students wrote about material that was related to what they were covering in class, but in the experimental condition, what they wrote about focused on how the material could be useful. The researchers collected the students’ essays every three to four weeks for one semester. At the end of the semester, students were asked about their interest in science and their desire to take more science-related classes. In addition, student grades in the class were measured.

Students in the experimental condition who had low expectations for success and wrote about the value of science class reported higher levels of interest and actually performed better in the science class than students in the control group who had low expectations for success but simply summarized the material from the course. Interestingly, there was no difference in interest or performance for students who had high expectations for success in the class. In addition, interest in science predicted a desire to take more science classes in the future.

This research study by Drs. Hulleman and Harackiewicz illustrates the value in asking students to be thoughtful about the practical application of course material. This may be particularly helpful for students who are frustrated and lack confidence, and in those classes where the utility of the material is not readily apparent to students. Thus, parents and teachers may be advised to encourage students to be thoughtful about these applications.

Interest and performance are two outcomes that educational researchers continually aim to maximize. This study provides one solution that can be used by schools everywhere: it is cost-effective, can be done quickly, and is effective. Rarely do educational interventions possess all three of these qualities, yet this simple intervention may be able to spark motivation. For parents and teachers concerned about student motivation, Hulleman and Harackiewicz’ research provides an elegant and effective tool for enhancing student interest and performance.

Below is a full citation for their paper:

Hulleman, C. S., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2009). Making education relevant: Increasing interest and performance in high school science classes. Science, 326, 1410-1412.

About the Author

John Tauer Ph.D.

John Tauer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and Head Men's Basketball Coach at the University of St. Thomas. He is also the author of Why Less is More for WOSPs: How to be the Best Sports Parent you can Be

You are reading

Goal Posts

WOSPs, Fear, and Unstructured Play

Finding a balance of fear and exploration by allowing more unstructured play.

WOSPs, Unstructured Play, and Intrinsic Motivation

Why Children Need a Balance of Structured and Unstructured Play

WOSPs, the Amalfi Coast, and Unstructured Play in Children

Organized Sports Has Killed Unstructured Play in Children