Despite the growing demand for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) skills across many professions, fewer students in the U.S. and around the world are opting to pursue degrees and careers in these fields. The University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and the University of Tuebingen in Germany have partnered together to examine the issue from an international perspective, with the objective of better understanding this phenomenon and identifying interventions that potentially effect students’ interest in STEM subjects, specifically mathematics.
Ulrich Trautwein and Benjamin Nagengast, professors in the Center for Educational Science and Psychology at the University of Tuebingen, first initiated the collaboration with Chris Hulleman, a research professor at the Curry School of Education working at the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning’s (CASTL) in Fall 2012. Trautwein and Nagengast’s team was in the planning stages of the Motivation in Mathematics (MoMa) project, an on-going study centered on a large-scale intervention implemented with about 2000 students across eighty-two 9th grade classrooms in southwestern Germany.
The intervention targeted students’ perceptions of math, particularly their views of math’s usefulness and their own math abilities, with the expectation that improving students’ beliefs in these areas would in turn increase the students’ motivation and potentially their academic performance.
While developing the intervention, the MoMA lab planned a working meeting to bring together a small group of motivation researchers from Europe, Australia, and the United States.
“The idea of the meeting was to engage in collaboration on research projects,” explained Brigitte Schreier, a pre-doctoral student at the University of Tuebingen working on the MoMa project.
“Our team wanted to learn more about what was going on internationally in this research field and also discuss the many different theories on student motivation and engagement, the available means of effectively measuring motivational behaviors and outcomes, and the effects previous intervention studies had on student motivation.”
Hulleman was among the attendees due to his extensive research on student motivation in STEM disciplines, and specifically his work on students’ perceived value of STEM coursework.
“We were able to take some of the ideas that had been used and tested in these other countries and translate them into our education system for the MoMa intervention,” Schreier said.
“More particularly, we modeled parts of our intervention off of the work Chris and Judy Harackiewicz from the University of Wisconsin-Madison had done on students’ motivation. During the meeting in Tuebingen, they gave us valuable feedback on the design of the MoMa project and information about their general experiences while working with students.”
Taking what they learned, the MoMa team refined their intervention, which consisted of a brief interactive presentation describing the importance of students’ effort and self-concept for math achievement, as well as the utility of mathematical knowledge in different areas of life. Students were also asked to complete in-class writing tasks reflecting on the value and applicability of math in their personal lives and maintain a homework log for several weeks following the intervention.
Like other STEM motivation interventions, preliminary analyses suggest this simple approach seemed to positively influence students’ perceptions of math, with students’ beliefs about their own math competency and the overall value of math increasing or staying the same over the school year. This is despite the generally observed trend in which high school students’ motivation in math waned as the school year progressed.
Schreier was specifically interested in understanding which types of students benefitted most from the intervention, so she decided to contact Hulleman to see if they could work together during the analytic phase of her research.
“Chris is the expert on interventions aimed at improving students’ views on the usefulness and value of STEM subjects,” Schreier said, “He is knowledgeable about analyzing interaction effects and an expert on measuring student responsiveness in this kind of study.”
Additionally, Schreier sought out the opportunity to continue to foster the cross-university partnership initiated in 2012. “I wanted the chance to collaborate with other international institutions that were doing similar work and gain insight into how they conduct and discuss their research studies.”
Hulleman was equally excited about working with Schreier and the potential to gain better insight into the commonalities in STEM motivation that exist across countries. He offered to host Schreier at CASTL’s Foundations of Cognition and Learning (FOCAL) lab.
“I was thrilled when Brigitte contacted me and expressed interest in furthering the collaboration we started in 2012 at the meeting in Germany,” said Hulleman. “It’s always flattering when someone thinks enough of your work to replicate it, and the Tuebingen group went beyond what we did in our study and added new elements. Hosting Brigitte at CASTL was a great opportunity to work together on data analysis and conceptual issues that could set the foundation for a much deeper collaboration in the future.”
During her two-month stay, Schreier was able to work with Hulleman, further analyzing data from the MoMa intervention, and also garnering feedback from other researchers at CASTL.
“Most of my research stay was dedicated to analyzing student responsiveness in the MoMa project,” said Schreier. “Our preliminary results helped us to outline a manuscript that will hopefully result in a joint publication in the future.”
In addition to writing a manuscript on student responsiveness in MoMa together, Schreier and Hulleman have plans to combine datasets from Germany and the United States that will inform and improve future motivation interventions.
“Chris and his colleagues at the FOCAL lab also plan to adapt and modify parts of the writing tasks and questionnaire items used in MoMa to apply them to an American sample of students,” said Schreier.
Specifically, Jeff Kosovich, a Ph.D. student in CASTL, has been working with Brigitte to translate some of the MoMa intervention materials to use with community college math students.
Hulleman, Kosovich’s advisor, explained, “Jeff went to Brigitte’s first presentation about the MoMa project about a week after she arrived at U.Va. He immediately saw a connection with the utility value intervention project we are conducting in community college developmental mathematics courses. He worked with Brigitte to translate some of the intervention materials into English, and we plan to pilot them with a sample of US students this summer. It’s a great example of how time and personal connections are a great driver for sharing ideas, generating new ones, and furthering collaboration.”
Schreier added, “Such international collaboration is absolutely essential to generalize findings from intervention research on motivation.”
As a result of the recent work at U.Va., Hulleman plans to pursue additional funding for the collaboration with Professor Trautwein in Tuebingen.
“We hope to continue this project into the future so that we can accelerate our learning by comparing results across both of our countries,” said Hulleman.
“Hopefully, by working together and thinking through the drivers of student motivation and learning internationally, our collaboration will spark new ideas and insights that we wouldn’t have if we only focused on our local contexts.”