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Fully Motivated – Potsdam Researchers Study Motivation in Class

Charlott Rubach and Rebecca Lazarides. Photo: Karla Fritze.

Charlott Rubach and Rebecca Lazarides. Photo: Karla Fritze.

Over a period of 18 months, Rebecca Lazarides and Charlott Rubach surveyed more than 1,000 students at 14 secondary schools in Berlin. The study covered a wide variety of districts, including Hohenschönhausen, Steglitz, Kreuzberg, Schöneberg, Wedding, and Köpenick as well as types of schools: gymnasiums (where students prepare for university entrance) and integrated secondary schools (where students may either graduate with a school leaving certificate after 10 years of schooling or stay on to prepare for university entrance). The questionnaire-based survey included not only youths, but also their parents and teachers. The objective of the study was to find out how motivated students are in class and how their teachers, the quality of teaching, and the willingness of their parents to cooperate impact this motivation. Math classes were a special focus.

“I’m willing to give up my free time to do math.” Few parents are likely to hear this from their children or so it would seem. But Lazarides and Rubach found out otherwise in their study. They asked 9th-11th graders whether this kind of statement was true. “Our impression was that most school students are curious and motivated,” says Lazarides, Junior Professor of School Education at the University of Potsdam. “For the majority of school students – and teachers – learning and teaching are fun.”

When it comes to math classes, however, girls still tend to be less interested in the subject and develop less joy of learning for it. “Unfortunately, the gender gap has yet to disappear,” Lazarides says. It continues later in life: Fewer women choose science courses at university than men and pursue careers in the often well-paid “MINT” professions (the German acronym for mathematics, informatics, sciences and engineering). Lazarides and Rubach believe that this development starts in the classroom. Teachers face the challenge of generating enthusiasm for science among girls and boys alike.

Lazarides and Rubach are particularly interested in motivational development: When do students want to learn for its own sake of their own initiative and come to enjoy learning? When are they motivated not only by better grades or doing better than their peers? An interest in learning can be fostered by teachers who respond to the individual needs of students in heterogeneous classes. The researchers also found that references to everyday life have particularly positive effects on the motivation to learn. “Teachers who start a lesson with an example from everyday life have better chances of motivating their students.”

The researchers have chosen their topic for a good reason: “Motivation directs our actions,” Lazarides knows. “It drives our decisions.” It is, therefore, a key factor in doing well in school, Rubach adds. And teachers have an enormous influence on the motivation of their class. “Enthusiastic teachers who enjoy teaching and are aware of their abilities have a positive influence on their students,” the researchers were able to demonstrate. “‘Teacher motivation matters’ is one of the principal findings of our study.”

For 18 months, the researchers travelled to schools in Berlin 

Making phone calls was one of the researchers’ primary activities when starting to prepare their survey in the summer of 2015. At that time, Lazarides and Rubach were working at Technische Universität Berlin with a small team of student assistants and visiting students supporting them. Many secondary schools in Berlin were contacted: first, the school administration, who then asked the teaching staff if they were interested in participating. As it happened, many teachers wanted to find out more about the motivation of their students – and also about their teaching.

Next, the researchers had to obtain the consent of the 15 to 16 year olds and their parents. The team then visited the participating classes and brought many questionnaires with them. The researchers introduced themselves and their project and gave the respondents 30 minutes to fill out the survey – anonymized, of course. The student questionnaires focused on school- and math-related interests, convictions, and activities as well as career plans. Teachers were asked, above all, to rate their own motivation and enthusiasm. What is particularly interesting here is that the teachers’ responses largely corresponded with those of the students. Teachers who rated themselves as motivated were also described by students as good teachers. 

The researchers plan to compare urban and rural schools

“For us, it was very important to have a balance of Berlin schools in the survey to ensure a representative sample,” Lazarides explains. “We were particularly interested in the social diversity of children and their families.” Berlin is comparatively socioeconomic diverse, with many students having a “migration background”. “Young teachers often face very diverse class compositions, also with regard to social background.” Not all of them are well prepared for this. Our study also demonstrates that especially students who are in such heterogeneous classes appreciate teachers who assist them individually.

Lazarides and her team would like nothing better than to compare the results of schools in a city with those of schools in the countryside in a large-scale project. “We would like to extend the survey to the state of Brandenburg and have successfully applied for funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG),” Lazarides explains. “It will be great to have an opportunity to compare these two different regions.” To this end, they cooperate with Ulrich Schiefele, who is Professor of Pedagogic Psychology at the University Potsdam. 

Parental interest affects their children’s learning behavior

In her dissertation, PhD student Rubach focuses on how parents influence their children’s motivation. “If parents value school, this rubs off on their children,” Rubach says. In this context, she speaks of “role convictions”. If parents show interest in school achievements and, for instance, ask the teacher how they could assist their children with their homework, this will positively affect the students’ willingness to learn. However, the contact needs to be in person, not just through email. Parent-teacher conferences as well as meetings in which teachers compare their own assessments with those of the students and their parents are important tools in cultivating such contacts. Whether parents come to school only when problems occur or whether they show a general interest in the education of their children also has to do with the offers made by schools. “Each school has a different culture when it comes to opportunities for cooperation between teachers and parents,” Rubach explains.

The special feature of this study is that the researchers looked at the entire chain of motivational development: teacher motivation and how it influences teaching, how teachers and parents’ attitudes influence the interests of students, and how all these factors can impact career choices and what they choose to study later. “We assume that the motivational profile of youths shapes them right into adulthood,” Lazarides says. So teaching frequently impacts students’ journey through life – well beyond school.

The Project

The project “MOVE – Motivation of Youths at School” lasted from 2015 to 2017. In the framework of the project, a team of researchers interviewed more than 1,000 school students, their parents, and teachers about their school- and math-related interests, convictions, and career plans. The objective was to determine which teaching- and family-related factors influence the learning processes and career choices of 15 to 16 year olds attending secondary school. The team has applied for funding to do a follow-up project at schools in Berlin and Brandenburg.

The Researchers

Prof. Dr. Rebecca Lazarides studied educational science at Freie Universität Berlin. She has been Junior Professor of School Education at the University of Potsdam with a focus on school development and the development of teaching since 2016.
Contact: rebecca.lazarides@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Charlott Rubach studied educational science at the University of Rostock. She has been a research assistant in the working group for school pedagogy at the University of Potsdam since 2016.
Contact: rubach@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Text: Jana Scholz
Translation: Monika Wilke
Published Online by: Alina Grünky
Contact to the online editorial office: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de