Why policy makers should care about motivating students

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

What’s in it for me? Positive answers to that ubiquitous (and often crass) question may actually make a fundamental difference in how students learn. As this month’s PISA in Focus explains, students who are highly motivated to learn mathematics because they believe it will help them later on score better in mathematics – by the equivalent of half a year of schooling – than students who are not highly motivated.

Most students recognise that learning mathematics is important for their future studies and careers. Indeed, 75% of students agree or strongly agree that making an effort in mathematics is worth it because it will help them in the work that they want to do later on; 78% agree or strongly agree that learning mathematics can improve their career prospects; 66% agree or strongly agree that they need mathematics for what they want to study later on; and 70% agree or strongly agree that learning many things in mathematics will help them get a job.

Results from PISA 2012 show that, on average across OECD countries, the difference in mathematics performance between students who reported higher levels of motivation to learn mathematics and those with lower levels of motivation is 18 score points, or the equivalent of roughly half a year of schooling; in Korea, Norway and Chinese Taipei, the difference is greater than 30 score points. The results also reveal that motivation is particularly strongly associated with performance among the highest-achieving students. On average across OECD countries, the difference in PISA scores associated with instrumental motivation is 21 points among top performers while it is only 11 points among low achievers. In Belgium, France, Hungary and the Slovak Republic, the score difference, related to motivation, between high and low performers is larger than 20 points.

Perhaps surprisingly, students’ motivation is also associated with certain education policies – particularly those related to sorting or grouping students into different schools or programmes, such as general versus vocational programmes. PISA examined different ways of grouping students between schools and found that students’ motivation is lower in those school systems that offer a larger number of distinct education programmes; where larger proportions of students attend vocational or pre-vocational rather than academic programmes; where students are grouped or selected for these programmes at a younger age; where a large proportion of students attends academically selective schools; and where a large proportion of students attends schools that transfer students with low achievement, behavioural problems or special learning needs to another school.

While creating homogeneous student populations through grouping may allow teachers to tailor instruction to the specific needs of each group, selecting and sorting students generally reinforces socio-economic disparities, results in differences in opportunities to learn, and consequently, de-motivates large numbers of students who do not feel they are being given equal opportunities to succeed. Indeed, selecting students in these ways implies that only some students can achieve at high levels, and thus runs the risk of de-motivating the very students who would benefit the most if their parents, their teachers and their schools held high expectations for them. If students can’t find a good answer to the question why should I bother studying? then all of us have failed.

PISA 2012 Findings
Pisa in Focus No. 39: Are grouping and selecting students for different schools related to students’ motivation to learn?
PISA 2012 Results: Ready to Learn: Students’ Engagement, Drive and Self-Beliefs
Photo credit: College math student /@Shutterstock

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