Research Matters - to the Science
Adolescents' Motivation, Behavior and Achievement in
by Ann C. Howe, Raleigh, NC
What motivates adolescents to spend their time productively in
science class? Do they believe that increased effort will lead to
higher achievement? Does the teacher believe that? And do adolescents
care about achievement in science anyway? These questions are of
particular importance for minority and low-SES students since it is
sometimes assumed that they do not value success in school and that
they think it's not "cool" to do well. The questions are also
important for girls since we know that the scores of girls on science
achievement tests are generally lower than those of boys but we do
not know why this is so.
In order to study these and related questions my colleagues and I
conducted an investigation designed to find out whether success in
school is valued by students, whether there are race or gender
differences in the value attached to school success, the causes to
which success is attributed and whether placing a high value on
success is positively associated with effort. We also wanted to know
how teachers perceived their students in terms of ability, effort and
other factors and whether students knew how their teachers perceived
The research design of our investigation included a systematic
observational study of 80 students in ten activity-centered eighth
grade science classes in schools with a population of no less than
forty percent of one racial group. The sample was evenly divided
between Caucasian and African Americans and between boys and girls.
Each student was observed for a total of 60 minutes in five-minute
blocks of time. Trained observers recorded the amount of time each
student spent in three categories of behavior: Active Learning,
defined as any behavior, other than reading or writing, directly
related to the assigned activity; Passive Learning, defined as
listening, reading or writing and Non-Attending, defined as any
off-task behavior. We also collected data from school records, from a
questionnaire given to students and from structured interviews in
which teachers were asked questions about each of the target
One group of researchers who have studied motivation have based
their work on the assumption that effort is directed toward goals
that are valued. Therefore, if students value success they will work
to achieve it. Others have focused attention on the factors to which
students attribute their own success or failure. Four factors have
been identified as salient: effort, ability, luck and difficulty of
the task . According to this theory, called attribution theory, the
amount of effort put forth to achieve a goal depends on what one
believes to be the cause of success in achieving the goal. In other
words, a person who values success will do what is necessary to
What We Found
The main findings that emerged when data from observations,
questionnaires and other sources were analyzed are these:
- Mathematics and reading skills are the best predictors of
science achievement at the eighth grade level. Students who lack
these skills are not likely to succeed in science even in
activity-centered classrooms. This was found for all groups.
- Active Learning behavior was the next best predictor of
success in science for all groups. Students did "learn by doing"
in these activity-centered classrooms.
- Boys and girls of both races value success and believe their
parents and teachers value it too. Most of them do care about
achievement in science and want to succeed.
- Neither boys nor girls think high marks in school will improve
their standing with peers. (This will come as no surprise to
- We found only one group, the African American boys, who showed
any indication that valuing success was translated into effective
effort in the classroom. For that group a positive correlation was
found between value of success and Active Learning. Those who
valued success engaged in more Active Learning behaviors. A
positive correlation was also found between belief that teachers
value success and Passive Learning. This suggests that those who
focus on what the teacher values engage in Passive Learning rather
than Active Learning behaviors. We also found, for African
American boys, a negative correlation between teachers' valuing
success and Non-Attending behaviors. We interpret these
correlations to mean that African American boys who valued success
themselves engaged in more Active Learning, those who thought the
teacher valued success engaged in more Passive Learning and those
who believe the teacher values success engage in fewer
- There were gender differences in causal attribution but no
race differences. Girls of both races attributed success to effort
and boys of both races attributed success to ability. We interpret
this to mean that girls think they succeed because they work hard
and boys think they succeed because they are inherently
- Both Caucasian and African American girls tend to attribute
success to effort but engage in more Passive than Active Learning.
The data show that they believe that it takes effort to succeed
but we can only assume that for many of them "effort" means paying
attention to the teacher and learning from the book rather than
active engagement with equipment and experiments.
- Boys of both races attribute success to ability but they do
not attribute lack of success to lack of ability. We have
interpreted this to mean that many boys who do well in science
think it comes natural to them because they are smart, but if they
don't do well they blame it on something outside of themselves
rather than on lack of effort or ability.
- There was no overall difference between boys and girls in the
amount of time spent in task-oriented behavior when we combined
Active and Passive Learning (one definition of "effort") but
teachers perceived that girls worked harder.
- Those who attribute failure to lack of ability do, in fact,
have lower grades (i.e., they have more failure), lower SRA-Math
scores (possibly a sign of lower ability) and engage in less
Active Learning behavior. A similar pattern was found for those
who attribute failure to luck or other external forces. They
engage in fewer Active Learning behaviors, more Non-Attending
behaviors and have lower SRA-Math scores.
- Low achieving students perceived the work as too difficult for
them but the teachers' perceptions were that they either weren't
trying or were low in ability (in which case the work actually was
One of the most interesting findings was the gender difference in
attribution of success. Many interpretations of this are possible but
we suggest the following. Attribution of success in science to
ability is a sign of self confidence that is stronger in boys than in
girls. It is not necessarily related to actual ability and does not
lead to more or less effortful classroom behavior. Interestingly,
those who attribute success to ability do not attribute failure to
lack of ability.
We had expected to find that those who attributed success would
put forth more effort in the form of Active Learning behaviors but
this was not the case. Both attribution of success to effort and to
ease of task are associated with Passive Learning, the traditional
mode of classroom behavior. It appears that these pupils are "trying
hard" by listening to the teacher and working on in-class assignments
- the behaviors that teachers have traditionally encouraged- but this
kind of effort was not associated with success as indicated by final
Several interesting findings emerged from comparisons of the
students' and teachers' ratings of students' ability, effort, and
difficulty of classwork. We found no correlation between the
teacher's estimate of pupil ability and the pupils' perceptions of
the teacher's rating. This may indicate the need for better and more
honest communication on the part of the teacher.
Relation to Other Studies
Several of our findings were similar to those of other
investigators. For instance, one study found that high achieving
children, both boys and girls, attribute success to ability and do
not blame failure on lack of ability. Others have found that girls
are more likely to attribute success to effort and boys are more
likely to attribute success to ability.
The Japanese take a different view of the relation between
achievement, effort and ability than that of most Americans. Ability
there is defined not only as talent or IQ but also as the capacity
for hard work and persistence. It has been suggested that Japanese
homes and schools foster task involvement, focusing attention on the
task to be done, while their counterparts here foster ego
involvement, focusing on oneself and either trying to look smart or
to avoid looking stupid.
What Does This Mean to Teachers?
The most important finding from our study may be that most
youngsters do value success in science and they believe that their
parents and teachers value it also. There is probably nothing more
important in motivating students than to believe that they do
want to succeed.
Another important finding is that it matters if the teacher
recognizes effort. On our student questionnaire there was a statement
"The teacher thinks I try hard." Students who agreed with the
statement engaged in more Active Learning and attributed success to
effort more than those who did not agree with the statement.
Some other ways that teachers may help to motivate their pupils to
put out the effort necessary to succeed are these:
- Have realistic expectations for your students. Expect all to
put forth effort but do not expect all to reach the same
- Encourage effort by rewarding it. Of the four factors (effort,
ability, luck and task difficulty), only effort is under the
student's control. All you can expect is that they do the best
- Try to build the self confidence of girls in your classes.
Encourage them to become actively engaged in laboratory work
rather than watching while the boys handle equipment and perform
- Implement cooperative learning strategies. These strategies
focus attention on accomplishing the task rather than on each
individual student's performance. Students learn to help each
other and to learn from each other.
- Have a heart. Remember that many students come to class
bearing the burdens of poverty, family instability and previous
school failure. Nothing is less motivating than the feeling that
"I can't succeed no matter how hard I try". Make your class an
oasis where all students who put forth real effort can find
Hall, V., Howe, A., Merkel, S.,
& Lederman, N. (1986). Behavior, motivation and achievement in
desegregated junior high school science classes. Journal of
Educational Psychology, 78, 108-115.
Howe, A. (1983). The relation of motivation and teacher perceptions
to effort and achievement in science. In Tamir, P., Hofstein, A.
& Ben-Peretz, M. (Eds.) Preservice and inservice training of
science teachers. (pp.467-474), Philadelphia: Balaban.
Howe, A., Hall, V., Stanback, B. & Seidman, S. (1983). Pupil
behaviors and interactions in desegregated urban junior high school
activity-centered science classrooms. Journal of Educational
Psychology, 75(1), 97-103.
Research Matters - to the Science Teacher
is a publication of NARST