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Are Students Motivated to Achieve in Order to Stand Out and Fit In?

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There has been an increasing sentiment in the United States that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields are the key to being serious competitors in the global world. In order for our nation to excel in these areas, we need to begin at the most basic level: getting students interested in and motivated to study STEM fields in the first place.

Previous research shows that students are more likely to participate in a particular subject when they feel it is an important pursuit. But what would make a student believe that STEM studies have importance to them personally?

According to a recent study in Contemporary Educational Psychology, the answer may lie in a student’s social needs. In theory, students are driven to fulfill two needs among their peers: differentiation (the need to stand out) and assimilation (the need to fit in). These two concepts may seem paradoxical; perhaps a better description would be that differentiation is standing out in ways that show your uniqueness, whereas assimilation is fitting in by expressing the commonalities you share with others.

The research in question sought to show that students place greater importance on STEM classroom tasks and assignments that help them satiate one or both of these needs. Furthermore, it hypothesizes that students will place even more importance on tasks that help them achieve assimilation if the classroom atmosphere has a performance goal structure, wherein a sense of competition encourages students to perform better. Proof of this phenomenon could greatly influence how teachers can structure their classes in a way that fosters motivation.

At the study’s outset, the researcher first spoke to a focus group consisting of 21 junior and senior students from a classroom at a STEM-focused high school. Consulting this group allowed him to put together a list of easily-understood situations that displayed varying levels of differentiation and assimilation for students. Afterwards, 106 students enrolled in mathematics classes at the school were surveyed. They were presented with a list of 18 classroom-related tasks and asked to rate each of the tasks on importance, how well the tasks would help students to stand out, and how well the tasks would help them to fit in, all on seven-point Likert-type scales. Students were further questioned on how well their class resembled a mastery goal structure (emphasizing ability development) and how well it resembled a performance goal structure (emphasizing demonstration of ability), as well as how important differentiation and assimilation were to them.

Gray found that the evidence supported his claim. Tasks that students thought would help them differentiate and/or assimilate were viewed as more important, although it would appear that differentiation is more important to students than assimilation. Furthermore, students placed slightly more importance on tasks that would help them assimilate if they felt a performance goal structure in the classroom.

Based on this research, teachers may find it worthwhile to consider what tasks their students in particular find socially rewarding in terms of differentiation and assimilation. Researchers should recognize the importance of studying the importance of academic tasks within a class, as opposed to only examining the importance a student places on a subject area in general.

By Satpreet Singh, Preservice Teacher, NC State University

Gray, D. L.  (2014). Understanding STEM-focused high school students’ perceptions of task importance: The role of “standing out” and “fitting in” in mathematics class. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 39, 29-41. doi: 10.1016/j.cedpsych.2013.12.001