Maine survey of 17,000 students finds motivation low, expectations high; ninth grade is pivotal year

Girlfriends going to schoolA survey of 17,000 6th-12th grade students from 97 Maine schools finds that students are confident in their abilities and have high expectations for doing well in life, but show little motivation to solve complex problems and to persist in meeting goals that are difficult to achieve.

The survey, designed to assist schools in their efforts to motivate students, also found that ninth graders are at highest risk for losing interest or dropping out academically and socially, say researchers from the National Center for Student Aspirations (NCSA) at the University of Maine in Orono. Ninth graders have the lowest grade point averages and the least amount of self-confidence, researchers report.

They also feel less supported by teachers, make less effort and are less optimistic about their future than younger and older students. “The voices of ninth graders, particularly the boys, send a strong message about the need for greater instructional and emotional support as these young students make the huge shift to high school,” says Carla Ritchie, co-director of the NCSA in a press release on the survey results.

The 2005 Students Speak II Survey is part of the Maine Aspirations Benchmarking Initiative, a multi-phase project aimed at helping schools support high aspirations and achievement among their students. The survey is designed to assist schools in measuring the effectiveness of their efforts and programs to raise student aspirations by surveying students on the three “constructs of aspriation.” These three constructs have been identified in research as important to student goal setting and attainment, academic achievement and success:

Social supports — Do school personnel provide emotional support and recognition?

Intrinsic motivation — Do students have the internal desire to attain academic goals and do they make efforts to reach those goals?

Self-efficacy — Do students have confidence in their ability to accomplish tasks, make decisions and achieve goals?

“None of the federal and state laws currently influencing teaching and learning in schools can affect the most important factors — the dispositions, beliefs and motivation that our students have about learning, their own capabilities and their futures” — says Walter Harris, director of the Center for Research and Evaluation (CRE), which analyzes the surveys and prepares reports for participating schools. The Students Speak II survey is available free of charge to Maine schools through June 2006, and is available to schools in other states for a fee. Survey results and survey questions can be viewed at the NCSA’s website at (

Sense of efficacy high

Students’ sense of efficacy in Maine survey responses is high. Ninety percent of girls and 84% of boys believe they will finish high school and be ready to do well in life. Seventy-four percent of girls and 73% of boys express confidence in their academic ability, and 85% of girls and 78% of boys believe they can do whatever they set their mind to accomplish. Eighty-eight percent of girls and 76% of boys expect to go to college, and 77% say they need to go to college to get a good job.

However, many of these same grade 6-12 students seemingly lack the motivation and persistence to take on new and complex learning and to work toward stated goals. The survey results on the intrinsic motivation category were more sobering. While the survey reflects that students are interested in learning, the willingness to do the required work seems to be lacking, according to Ritchie.

For instance, 84% of girls and 70% of boys say they come to class prepared, and 80% of girls and 65% of boys do their homework. However, the researchers point out that only 63%, with little difference between boys and girls, seek solutions to complex problems, and just 48% double check their work before handing it in. About 20% say they will change their goals if they discover they are too difficult.

Overall, students agree that teachers recognize individual strengths and successes and believe in their potential. For example, 73% of girls and 63% of boys say their teachers tell them when they do a good job and try their best. A similar percentage says their teachers believe students can succeed. But teachers aren’t as proactive when it comes to emotional support, according to student perceptions. Only 53% — 63% girls and 44% boys — say there is at least one teacher who makes them feel better when they are sad or upset. “As educators, we need to teach kids how to reach out and encourage all school personnel to be proactive in responding to students’ emotional, as well as instructional needs.” says Ritchie, co-director of the NCSA.

The researchers also see a message for schools on building instruction upon prior knowledge. While 73% of students are eager to learn new things, 34% would prefer to do projects on something they already know rather than having to learn something new.

Students Speak II: My Education and My Future Survey Data from Spring 2005 National Center for Student Aspirations College of Education and Human Development The University of Maine Orono, Maine www.student

Published in ERN March 2006 Volume 19 Number 3

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