Academic motivation of African American students

A pretty African American university woman reading at the parkThe persistent academic underachievement of African American students has continued to perplex researchers. In a recent article in the Harvard Educational Review, Kevin O. Cokley, Southern Illinois University/Carbondale, challenged the conventional thinking that African American students’ anti-intellectual attitude is responsible for their lower academic performance. Cokley reviews research on academic motivation and self-concept and, in a quantitative study of students attending three historically black colleges and one predominantly white university, uses self-determination theory to understand African American students’ motivation and performance. Results show that African American students are intrinsically highly motivated, but their motivation is not related to how they perform academically.

Previous studies attempting to explain racial and ethnic differences in academic achievement have concluded that African American students equate high academic achievement and learning for learning’s sake with “acting white.” This separatist attitude leads them to disassociate themselves from striving to perform. Cokley contends, however, that this research was based on anecdotal information and lacks supportive empirical research. He suggests that the notion that African American students generally do not value high academic achievement is a common misperception that needs to be scientifically studied.

In the current study, Cokley tries to understand the nature of African American students’ motivation and how it influences their self-perception and performance in school. Cokley collected data for this research using self-report questionnaires administered to 687 college students over a three-year period. He examines whether African American students hold negative attitudes toward school and achievement that are not conducive to their advancement.

Academic Self-Concept

Academic self-concept refers to how a student views his or her academic ability in comparison to other students’ ability. Students who think well of themselves are believed to be more motivated to succeed. Measures of academic self-concept reveal that African American students demonstrate high levels of academic self-concept which they maintain in spite of lower academic achievement. Findings do not support the idea that African Americans value academic achievement less than white students or that they attribute failure to factors outside themselves.

Researchers find that African American students at predominantly white schools have poorer adjustment than their peers at predominantly black schools. Using data from the National Study on Black College Students, Cokley reports that college racial composition was the strongest predictor of social involvement and high career aspirations. The strongest predictors of academic achievement were good relationships with faculty, followed by racial composition on campus. Students at predominantly black schools report better student-faculty relationships, more positive self-perceptions and higher GPAs than black students at predominantly white colleges.

Self-Determination Theory

Self-determination theory asserts that motivated behavior can be either internally driven or controlled by outside causes. Students who are more externally motivated experience greater anxiety and a poorer ability to cope with failures. Research suggests that promoting greater self-determination and intrinsic motivation is related to more positive academic and psychological outcomes. Cokley cautions, however, that most of the research on self-determination was carried out with white populations.

His findings in this study reveal significant within-group and between-group differences in academic motivation among African American and white students. African American students attending historically black schools reported higher intrinsic motivation, more positive self-concepts, and greater faculty encouragement than African American students attending predominantly white schools. There were no differences between white and African American students’ perceptions of faculty encouragement at predominantly white schools.

Grade-point average was the strongest predictor of academic self-concept. Students with higher GPAs had higher academic self-concepts, yet, GPA was not related to self-esteem. African American students maintain high self-esteem regardless of GPA. Gender was significantly related to academic motivation; African American females were more intrinsically and extrinsically motivated than males. School type was also significantly related to academic motivation, with African American students attending historically black schools reporting higher intrinsic and extrinsic motivation than those attending predominantly white schools.

Faculty encouragement is key factor

Although there are differences in academic performance, African American students do not lack academic motivation, nor do they suffer lower self-esteem or significantly lower academic self-concept than white students. The intrinsic motivation of African American students appears not to be related to their academic self-concept. The educational environment plays an important role in African American students’ academic motivation. Those who attend predominantly black schools perform better academically and are more intrinsically motivated. The predominantly black environment may contribute to greater academic confidence. However, when the variable of faculty encouragement is added, it proves even more important than racial environment. Cokley urges educators of African American students not to underestimate the power of encouragement.

Cokley calls for more research into the motivation of African American students. Their personal evaluations of themselves are not contingent upon their grades, which appear to be viewed as simply a means to an end. African American students rarely lack confidence in their own ability, regardless of their GPAs. Cokley points out limitations of his research – specifically that there was only one measure of faculty encouragement used, and that school record GPAs of students may be more accurate than the self-reported GPAs used in this study.

“What Do We Know About the Motivation of African American Students? Challenging the ‘Anti-Intellectual’ Myth”, Harvard Educational Review, Volume 73, Number 4, Winter 2003, pp. 524-558.

Published in ERN March 2004 Volume 17 Number 3

One Response to “Academic motivation of African American students”

  1. Joseph Kwiatkowski

    What about the possibility that black students are ‘turned off’ by how many of the concepts they’re being taught, especially in science, were codified, invented, etc., by whites. As an example, what was Isaac Newton? Note how I phrased the question, because the answer I’m looking for is, ‘A white dude from England”. Galileo was a white dude from Italy. Albert Einstein was a Jew from Austria. Rene Descartes, for whom the Cartesian coordinate system is named, was a white dude from France. Charles Darwin was a white dude from England. So was Francis Galton.

    See a trend? Black kids might not be interested in learning concepts developed by non-blacks, although the same factor dioewsn’t seem to bother Asians, does it?


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