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How to Motivate Adolescents in Math and Science: Tips From an Expert

Learning linear equations or the functions of cells, especially if it doesn’t come easily, requires a generous dose of motivation.

But this intangible quality can be difficult to cultivate. There are no clear-cut equations or experiments that teach a student how to be motivated. Instead, teachers should think about creating a motivating environment in their classrooms, said Emily Rosenzweig, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Georgia who studies adolescent motivation in STEM subjects.

Education Week spoke with Rosenzweig about what’s getting in the way of student motivation and what teachers can do about it. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are the big challenges to motivating adolescents in the STEM subjects?

A big one is competence perceptions, like struggling to help students feel like they can learn in STEM, especially if they have certain stereotypes or beliefs.

As students get into middle school, they start to have a big emphasis at the school level on normative comparison with testing and those kinds of things. That makes students hyperaware of how they’re doing relative to others, and they’ll start to feel less capable. So, in terms of STEM, especially because it’s a field that’s often stereotyped as hard, you end up with students who really struggle to feel like they can do it. Then there are other students who just struggle to see the value of the STEM subjects [or] the content as useful. Students will say, “I’m just wasting my time learning about the inside of a cell.”

I think the third big issue is related to perceiving autonomy or ownership over the learning process. Research has shown that as you go into middle school, the middle school environment is much more constricted and has a lot more rules than the elementary school environment on average. And at that same developmental point, students have this increasing need for autonomy—they want to have ownership over what they’re doing, understand why they’re doing it—and that can really clash.

Is it too much to say, well, students just need to figure out how to motivate themselves?

I would argue that the reason why we do anything reflects our motivation. Maybe that will come from, “I don’t enjoy this, but I think it’s useful for me.” Our motivation comes from different sources. You can be motivated because you feel confident, you can be motivated because you feel interested, because you feel like something is easy for you. You can be motivated because you think something’s very meaningful and tied to your identity.

I think it’s fair to tell students, you don’t have to like this, but there are other reasons you might need to do it. But I would also say that educators can do a lot more than they think to help students think of what they’re learning as relevant.

What are some other best practices for motivating students in STEM classes?

Make things relevant. And the reason why is because it can help improve lots of different motivational pieces. If you see something as relevant to you, it will seem more tied to your identity or the things you find personally meaningful and important.

It will help you feel more autonomy because you think you’re engaging with things for a reason. The more you can make STEM content connected to students’ own experiences, their interests, their identities, the better off instructors will be, the more likely these classrooms will foster high-quality motivation for learning.

I think choice is really important, giving students just some level of ownership over the learning process. This is especially important during adolescence just because that is when students have this really strong need for autonomy that research is saying isn’t necessarily being met in the classroom.

What would you say to teachers who think, ‘If I give them autonomy, it’s going to be a circus?’

You can give students choices, but in a structured way. In my assignments at the college level, I have students pick four of eight prompts to write about for an assignment. I choose the prompts, but they get to have some element of choice. It’s not a total free-for-all, it’s just adding some more ownership on the students’ part.

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