A common belief in the United States is that anyone can succeed through hard work and motivation. This is often used in educational settings to suggest that student success is based on “how much they want it” or “how much work they put in.” Although most education scholars know this to not be the whole truth, motivation is still believed to play an important role in one’s academic success. But what if motivation does not translate into achievement to the same degree for every student? Or rather, as we explore in three studies, what if motivation does not "pay off" equitably for all students?
In psychological and educational sciences, there is a long-established finding that students from racially minoritized backgrounds—Black, Latinx, and Indigenous (BLI)—are assigned lower grades relative to their white, Asian, and Asian American counterparts in mathematics (e.g., Reardon et al., 2008). These disparities have been the center of a plethora of research and policy aimed at increasing students’ equitable learning outcomes. Among these efforts, many researchers, practitioners, and policymakers have focused on bolstering BLI students’ academic motivation which has yielded important findings (Yeager et al., 2019; Harackiewicz et al., 2016). Research suggests, however, that even when BLI students are just as motivated to succeed in mathematics as their non-BLI peers, they will still receive lower course grades (Shernoff & Schmidt, 2008). This “inequitable motivational payoff” may be a result of structural barriers to student success, and not students themselves. Indeed, BLI students’ motivational tendencies do not exist in a vacuum, but exist within educational settings that are structured by racism and systems of power that regularly impose barriers on their academic success (e.g., Baker & Cotto, 2020; Walton & Cohen, 2007). We hypothesize that motivation will not pay off equitably for BLI students, and investigate this prediction across three studies with roughly 8,000 racially diverse high school and college students
We administered common psychological measures of students’ motivation to test whether similar levels of motivation pay off equitably across racial backgrounds. Specifically, we measured the extent to which students have confidence they can succeed in math, the extent to which they believed math was useful, the extent to which they felt math was meaningful to them personally, their perceptions of the barriers of engaging in math, and the degree to which they believed their ability in math could grow and was not instead a fixed trait (i.e., growth mindset). Rather than simply looking at whether each of these individual measures was correlated with students’ math grades, students’ holistic “profiles” of motivation and their relation to achievement were examined.
A Person-Centered Analysis of Motivation
In each study, we conducted a Latent Profile Analysis to identify underlying patterns of motivation among the students in each sample based on their responses to the measures of motivation. Students were then “grouped” into the motivational profile that best characterized their responses to the measures. There were four or five underlying patterns of motivation identified in each study. For example, in Study 1, five latent motivation profiles were identified, such as a “Low Motivation Profile” that captured students who were not confident they could succeed in math, did not find math interesting, and thought that there were many drawbacks to engaging in math. The analysis revealed a “Mixed Motivation Profile” characterized by clearly being invested in succeeding in math but also believing that there were drawbacks to engaging with math and believing that they were not able to grow their math skills. A majority of students in Study 1 (n = 804) were characterized by higher motivational profiles, indicating that almost three-quarters of the sample was highly motivated to succeed in math.
Students’ grades were predicted from whether they were BLI within each motivational profile in multi-level regressions that nested students within schools (Studies 1 and 2) or teachers (Study 3). Put simply, these models tell us whether BLI students received different grades than their non-BLI peers who had similar levels and patterns of motivation. In nine of the thirteen motivational profiles identified across the studies, BLI students received significantly lower grades than their non-BLI peers, controlling for students’ prior academic achievement and socioeconomic status. Even when BLI and non-BLI students had statistically similar patterns and levels of motivation, BLI students still received grades that were 9% lower than their non-BLI peers on average.
What helps to explain inequitable motivational payoff?
In Study 3, we used Structural Equation Modeling (SEM) to examine a variety of potential factors that could help explain these relationships. Using this technique, a model was developed that allowed us to simultaneously test whether a variety of factors within students, their parents, or their teachers might help explain the inequitable motivational payoff identified across the three studies. A total of 11 potential mediators were included, such as a) how many hours students spent on homework, b) how far their teachers expected them to get in school, and c) how far their parents wanted their child to get in school. The others are depicted in the figure below. Teachers’ expectations for how far their students could get in school was the only factor that helped explain the negative relationships between students’ BLI background and their mathematics achievement within the motivational profiles. In other words, teachers held lower expectations for how far their BLI students could get in school relative to their non-BLI students within the high, medium, and low motivational profiles. This was in turn related to BLI students receiving lower grades than their similarly motivated non-BLI peers. Perhaps equally importantly, none of the student- or parent-level factors explained the negative relationships between BLI background and grade within each motivational profile. For example, it was not the case that motivation does not pay off equitably for BLI students because they put less effort into school than their non-BLI peers, or because their parents were less invested in their academic success. Together, the results indicate that biases embedded in students' academic contexts, not issues within BLI students themselves or their parents, helped explain the disparity in student grades, despite being similarly motivated.
In this paper, we test the assumption that motivation translates to academic success similarly for students across racial backgrounds. BLI students are, like other students, motivated to varying degrees to succeed in school. Although it was the case that higher levels of motivation were indeed linked to higher grades for BLI students, our studies clearly highlight that motivation is a necessary but insufficient tool for promoting educational equity. This study poses important questions for scientists interested in reducing educational disparities that exist between BLI and non-BLI students. In particular, how do the contexts—educators in this case—of students’ academic experiences contribute to ongoing educational disparities, and what barriers might exist for some students that do not exist for others? This research does not point to educators as the root cause of these inequities, instead it merely points researchers and practitioners to widen the scope of analysis and intervention to the breadth of factors contributing to educational inequity. This research expands the discussion of motivation beyond the individual student and provides new avenues to explore student support and achievement and provides empirical support to calls to explore parallel contextual factors to advance educational equity.
Baker, B., & Cotto Jr, R. (2020). The under-funding of Latinx-serving school districts. Phi Delta Kappan, 101(6), 40-46.
Harackiewicz, J. M., Canning, E. A., Tibbetts, Y., Priniski, S. J., & Hyde, J. S. (2016). Closing achievement gaps with a utility-value intervention: Disentangling race and social class. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111(5), 745-765.
Reardon, S. F., Cimpian, J., & Weathers, E. S. (2015). Patterns and trends in racial/ ethnic and socioeconomic academic achievement gaps. In H. F. Ladd & M. E. Goertz (Eds.), Handbook of research in education finance and policy (2nd ed., pp. 491– 509). Routledge.
Shernoff, D. J., & Schmidt, J. A. (2008). Further evidence of an engagement–achievement paradox among US high school students. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 37(5), 564-580.
Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(1), 82–96.
Yeager, D. S., Hanselman, P., Walton, G. M., Murray, J. S., Crosnoe, R., Muller, C., ... & Dweck, C. S. (2019). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature, 573(7774), 364-369.