Adolescents' Motivation, Behavior and Achievement in Science

Adolescents' Motivation, Behavior and Achievement in Science


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 them.

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 pupils.

Theoretical Background

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 achieve it.

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 teachers.)
  • 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 Non-Attending behaviors.
  • 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 bright.
  • 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 too difficult).

Further Interpretations

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 grade.

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 goals.
  • 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 they can.
  • 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 the experiments.
  • 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 success.

by Ann C. Howe, Raleigh, NC 


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.