The Secret Key to Successful Science Education: What To Know About Student Interest

Let me start by stating the obvious. Interest is really important when it comes to being engaged and learning just about anything. Nowhere is this more obvious then in science education. For a lot of U.S. students, high school science classes are experienced as a blur of useless information and confusing terminology that has little connection with their daily life or personal goals. Though students’ motivation and engagement in school generally declines across disciplines as they proceed through grades, the decline is steepest for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. And it does not get better in college.

Although about a third of new college students indicate they are interested in pursuing a degree in STEM, only about half of those students complete degrees in STEM disciplines. This is a problem because there continues to be an ever increasing demand for STEM professionals that has not been matched with students pursuing STEM careers.

So, how do we create a diverse workforce of people with expertise in STEM fields? Interest is the not-so-secret key to solving these problems. But, how does interest really function to support student learning in the high school science classroom every day, especially for students from groups who are typically underrepresented in STEM careers? What can high school science teachers do to support interest and engagement every day in class?

My colleagues and I studied this in a recent research project funded by the William T. Grant Foundation. Our research confirmed that interest is a powerful predictor of students’ engagement in the science classroom. In our investigation, we asked over 200 students in 43 high school science classrooms from a wide range of courses (biology, chemistry, physics, anatomy, environmental science, to name a few) to report on their experiences in science class every class session for a six week instructional unit. We asked these students about their interest, motivation, and engagement during class each class day.

What we found was that on days that students were interested during science class, they reported increasing how hard they worked, attentiveness in class, participation, thinking about strategies they could use to learn, and ways they could elicit their teachers to support their motivation. All behaviors that typically lead to more and better learning.

In addition, interest seemed to be particularly important for some groups of students who are typically underrepresented in STEM fields. Specifically, relative to white and Asian students, black and Hispanic/Latino students experienced a greater increase in the extent to which they thought about strategies they could use to learn in their science classes on class days they felt interested.

Unfortunately, we also found that students’ interest, attentiveness, and working hard in science class declined even across this short six week instructional unit. So, how can teachers’ support this motivation and engagement during science class? Our study addressed this by asking students to report on their perceptions of their teachers’ practices during science class. We focused on a small set of practices linked with supporting students’ autonomy, given past research suggesting that environments that allow students to feel like they are free to engage in the learning behaviors that are asked of them would provide a good foundation for motivation during class.

We found that on days that students perceived their teachers to use practices that enhanced their autonomy, students’ engagement, interest, and value for the day’s activities increased since the last class. These practices included activities that were structured around students’ existing interests and preferences, rationales about why the course activities were important, useful, or relevant to real life, opportunities for student questions, and opportunities for making choices in class.

But, on days that students reported that they perceived their teachers to use controlling practices, the extent to which students simply pretended to work, had negative emotions in class, and were motivated in class merely to get some reward or avoid punishment increased since the last class session. Examples of controlling practices included using messages that imply only teacher ways of doing things were acceptable, suppressing students’ attempts to express their perspectives, or relying on what students thought to be boring, meaningless busywork.

You might think this means that teachers should never use this second group of controlling practices. You’d be right that we would not recommend them. But, our results suggested that teachers don’t need to worry too much if they use one of those practices once in a while. We found that students’ daily interest and value driven motivation for activities in science class remained unaffected by those controlling practices as long as they were accompanied by autonomy supportive ones too. Even more surprising, autonomy supportive practices had even greater power to predict increases in motivation driven by interest and value on days when they were contrasted with controlling practices.

Our study made it clear that interest relates to what students do in the class every day and there is a lot teachers can do to influence that interest and engagement during class. However, we also found that all these factors worked together in the classroom. Students’ interest predicted what teachers were perceived to do on subsequent class days. Male science students in particular reported that their teachers supported their motivation to a greater extent by giving them more choices on days following those when they were most interested. This highlight that students participate in the design of the classroom environment, influencing the quality of motivation support they receive from teachers. Even with this hopeful finding, we note that this was only true for male students and not the female students who might benefit most from a cycle in which their own interest triggers teachers’ to use practices that supports their motivation in science class all the more. Still, this finding also points to one possible reason female students are less engaged in STEM – they don’t perceive their teachers to be responsive to whatever interest they do have for science.

Taken together, interest is clearly critical to science education and solving the problems we face for increasing participation in STEM, perhaps especially for students who have been traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. Teachers who support students’ autonomy in class will go far towards activating interest and engagement in class among all students and help bring about a sustainable cycle of student motivation and engagement.