Social Education 59 (1), 1995, pp. 23-26
National Council for the Social Studies
How do I motivate these children? How can I get them to pay attention? How can I help them understand the value of this material? These kinds of questions are a serious concern of social studies teachers. For decades, students at all grade levels from elementary through high school have rated social studies as one of the least liked subjects in the curriculum (Shaughnessy and Haladyna 1985). This student negativism may be especially frustrating for middle school teachers, because research reveals that negative attitudes intensify rapidly as students advance through middle school (Fraser 1981; Yamamoto, Thomas, and Kerns 1969). The identification of effective motivational strategies for middle school students is thus an important problem for research.
The purpose of this study was to identify the strategies that U.S. history teachers at the eighth-grade level use to motivate their students, and to explore why teachers believe these strategies motivate. The eighth-grade level was chosen because its social studies curriculum focuses on U.S. history, a particularly worthwhile subject for research into social studies instruction.
With middle school students, in particular, there is a risk that social studies instruction will seem uninteresting and the subject matter irrelevant. Students react adversely to the passive methods (e.g., teacher-dominated lecture) with which the subject is commonly taught, and express preferences for instructional methods that engage them actively in learning (Schug, Todd, and Beery 1984; Weible and Evans 1984). In addition, students seldom perceive any connection between their own lives and the people and events in history.
In a review of research on relevance, VanSickle (1990) concluded that without perceived linkages and a sense of potential usefulness, students are unmotivated to learn social studies. Although researchers have identified uninteresting instruction and irrelevant subject matter as the major factors that influence students' negative attitudes toward social studies, teachers require more than the mere results of research. They have an immediate need to incorporate motivational strategies into their instruction.
Based primarily on a synthesis of the research, Brophy (1987), Keller (1983), and Wlodkowski (1978) have proposed motivational strategies to be integrated into the instructional process. These strategies seem applicable to classroom teaching, but their recommendations are general. What teachers need is research on what works in real teaching situations in particular subjects at specific grade levels.
A review of the research literature revealed only one study that focused on how social studies teachers motivate their students. Brophy and Merrick (1987) conducted an experiment in which middle school teachers were trained to use motivational strategies. The researchers systematically reviewed the literature on motivation to develop strategies designed to accomplish lesson objectives in more interesting and relevant ways. The use of strategies did not produce the expected improvement in student motivation, due to methodological problems and poor implementation of the experimental treatment. One difficulty often encountered is that teachers are attached to their own strategies and show some resistance to the application of strategies learned in training sessions.
I interviewed eighteen U.S. history teachers at the eighth-grade level and administered questionnaires to sixty of their students, in seven middle schools located in a Pacific Northwest school district. The nine male and nine female teachers had an average of fifteen years of teaching experience and an average of seven years of experience teaching U.S. history at the eighth-grade level.
The research was conducted in a large suburban school district with predominantly white, middle-class neighborhoods. The students were selected at random from the school attendance lists, and consisted of equal numbers of boys and girls. The eighteen teachers were those who were willing to participate (out of a total of twenty-three eligible U.S. history teachers of the selected students).
The research presented here is exploratory. It aims to detect differences in the effectiveness of teaching strategies that could stimulate teachers to attempt new classroom approaches. Hopefully, the research can be replicated in a wider variety of school districts to determine the degree to which its conclusions are generally applicable.
The interview protocol included the following questions:
In order to validate the teachers' reports, the questionnaire administered to students first asked them to corroborate what their teachers had identified as strategies they used to motivate students. Students were informed that teachers often use certain methods to motivate students to learn U.S. history. They were asked if their teacher used each method. 1In fact, the methods listed on the questionnaire were those identified by each student's respective teacher. 2
In addition, students were asked the following questions:
Simulations, which head the list, encapsulate in simplified form the essential elements of real-life, historical situations and present these elements to be dealt with by the students. The following is typical of the highly favorable comments that teachers made about a simulation designed to draw students into colonial life:
The children are actively involved discovering a colony similar to one in New England. The activities resemble experiences similar to those of the pioneers. The children involve their whole selves.
The use of projects also requires the active participation of students. Teachers mentioned that many students are motivated to use their hands to create finished products, such as videos and dioramas. This strategy encourages students to make things that are in some way related to the topic being studied.
The most striking feature of the list of motivational strategies in Table 1 is that the strategies are not rooted in the usual patterns of social studies instruction, namely, textbook-based, large-group, teacher-controlled recitation and lecture. It appears that the teachers' motivational strategies involve activities that supplement conventional instruction.
Do these strategies, in fact, motivate students to learn U. S. history? One way to check the effectiveness of the teachers' use of motivational strategies is to determine whether they correspond to the recommendations of experts as expressed in the literature. Based on an extensive review of the literature, the teachers are using the range of motivational strategies suggested by practitioners in the field (Brophy 1987; Keller 1983; Wlodkowski 1978).
Students' Beliefs about the Teacher's Use of Motivational Strategies
Students were asked to indicate whether their teacher used each method that teachers often used. An analysis of the data revealed that students corroborated each strategy in Table 1. The use of a strategy was considered to be corroborated if 50 percent or more of the students in a classroom identified the same strategy named by their teacher.
Students were next asked to look at the list of strategies identified by their teachers and to identify the single strategy that most motivated them to want to learn U.S. history (Table 2). They identified role-playing characters in simulations (22%) and participating in group discussions (15%) as the best single strategies used by their teachers. The students indicated that they want to exchange ideas with peers and relate ideas to their own experiences during discussions. Interestingly, discussions were not among the leading strategies reported by teachers.
Finally, students were asked, "If you were the teacher in this class, what methods would you use to motivate students to learn?" The most frequently mentioned strategies were the following: acting in dramatic presentations (33%), watching videos and films (18%), and playing games for review (17%). These strategies were also mentioned by many teachers. This correspondence of teacher data and student data provides additional evidence that the strategies motivate students to learn.
Teachers' Beliefs about Why Particular Strategies Are Motivating
The list of motivational strategies in Table 1 provides direct guidelines for teachers. By this I mean a teacher can look at the list and get ideas for teaching social studies. However, the list will not inform them why these strategies are motivating. For teachers to be professionals, they need to know both what is effective and why it is effective. For this reason, I collected data on teachers' implicit theories of student motivation. It is important to know teachers' theories because these theories-not formal scientific theories-guide teachers' classroom practices (Clark and Peterson 1986).
The teachers' main reason for using strategies appears to be to address their students' needs for affiliation, autonomy, and physical activity. For example, some teachers explained that they use projects, games, and cooperative learning to meet the students' need to be social. Almost all teachers who use projects explained that projects encourage students to pursue their own interests and to make choices. Finally, some teachers explained that they use simulations, games, and hands-on activities so that students can be physically active.
Teachers also believe in the importance of using strategies that connect instruction to students' personal experiences. What students learn from an activity is determined largely by their experience, which provides the information that enables them to bring meaning to the historical events they study. We know that personal meaning, or relevance, is inherent in subject matter only to the extent that students have sufficient prior experience that they can relate to it.
If students' prior experiences are inadequate for bringing meaning to new information, teachers can use participatory experiences, such as hands-on activities and projects that require finished products. For example, one teacher assigned students to construct a canoe in the classroom, so they had some experiential basis to relate to Native American culture.
Teachers also believe that providing vicarious experiences (e.g., simulations, novels, videos) is motivating, because they help students to construct vivid mental images of situations that are absent from present experience. For example, one reason that teachers believe simulations are motivating is that they give students the thoughts and feelings of living through an experience. Another possible reason for the motivating effects of simulations is that the role playing enables students to identify with a situation that they might not be willing to consider or examine so extensively through the medium of textbook print and photographs. Similarly, some teachers mentioned that historical novels are motivating, because they provide vivid descriptions and everyday details, and that videos and films motivate students by providing them with clear images to understand the realities of history.
Another finding from the teachers' explanations is their belief that children need opportunities to play. Starting with Dewey (1938), progressive educators have long advocated that school learning activities should be more play-like. In addition, the teachers' beliefs about using strategies to provide students with play and other vicarious experiences has some basis in the theoretical work of Piaget (1951). Early Piagetian work on fantasy and play focused on the cognitive structuring and elaboration that elements of play add to otherwise more mundane and literal tasks. And, when teachers add a play-like quality to learning activities, students have some measure of control over their school learning.
To summarize teachers' beliefs for using certain motivational strategies, I have phrased their beliefs as a set of propositions:
1. Provide activities that help students (a) to perceive realistic representations of historical events and realistic portrayals of historical figures and (b) to visualize clear images and descriptive details of historical events.
2. Provide opportunities for active student participation that include social interaction, hands-on experiences with finished products, and physical movement.
3. Provide opportunities that allow students to perceive a sense of control in their learning activities.
4. Make learning relevant by relating the content to the students' needs, goals, interests, values, and experiences.
In conclusion, the strategies in Table 1 appear to be those that the teachers actually used, and they appear to be effective in motivating students. Nevertheless, research needs to be done to determine the extent to which teachers use the strategies they claim to use. One limitation of the research presented here is the lack of frequency data; even though simulations are the most effective single method used, it is not clear how often teachers use the method. Finally, experimental research should be done to provide a rigorous check of the effects of the motivational strategies. In this respect, direct observation of teachers using motivational strategies in the classroom would enhance the validity of research findings.
1 The word "method" was used rather than the word "strategy," because students at this grade level seem to be more familiar with "method."References
Brophy, Jere. "On Motivating Students." In Talks to Teachers, edited by David. C. Berliner and Barak V. Rosenshine. New York: Random House, Inc., 1987.Brophy, Jere. "Synthesis of Research on Strategies for Motivating Students to Learn." Educational Leadership 45, no. 2 (1987): 40-48.Brophy, Jere, and Mari Merrick. Motivating Students to Learn: An Experiment in Junior High School Social Studies Classes. Research Series No. 183. East Lansing: Michigan State University, Institute for Research on Teaching, 1987.Clark, Christopher M., and Penelope L. Peterson. "Teachers' Thought Processes." In Handbook of Research on Teaching, 3rd edition, edited by Marlin C. Wittrock. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986.Dewey, John. Experience and Education. New York: Collier Books, 1938.Fraser, D. M. "Deterioration in High School Students' Attitudes toward Social Studies." The Social Studies 72 (1981): 65-68.Keller, John. "Motivational Designs of Instruction." In Instructional-Design Theories and Models: An Overview of their Current Status, edited by Charles Reigeluth. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1983.Piaget, Jean. Play, Dreams, and Imitation in Childhood. New York: Norton, 1951.Schug, Mark C., Robert J. Todd, and R. Beery. "Why Kids Don't Like Social Studies." Social Education 48 (1984): 382-387.Shaughnessy, Joan, and Tom M. Haladyna. "Research on Student Attitude toward Social Studies." Social Education 49 (1985): 692-695.VanSickle, Roland L. "The Personal Relevance of the Social Studies." Social Education 54 (1990): 23-27.Weible, Tom, and Charles S. Evans. "Elementary Students' Perceptions of Social Studies." The Social Studies 11/12 (1984): 244-247.Wlodkowski, Raymond J. Motivation and Teaching: A Practical Guide. Washington, DC: National Education Association, 1978.Yamamoto, K., E.C. Thomas, and E.A. Kerns. "School-related Attitudes in Middle-School Age Students." American Educational Research Journal 6 (1969): 191-206.Edward W. Hootstein is an assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of Portland in Oregon. He is a former social studies teacher at the eighth-grade level.
2 The questionnaire read: Listed below are methods and examples that teachers often use to motivate students. Please indicate by writing an X on the line if [insert name of teacher] uses that method.Students:____Play the roles of people such as patriots or loyalists in an event that actually happened or in an imaginary event that could have happened____Read historical novels about events such as the Revolutionary War____Watch videos or films____Do small-group projects that involve displays, models, or skits____Play games to review information