Research Summary

Children's motivation toward science across contexts, manner of interaction, and topic

Factors that Motivate Children in Science

Science Education

Children’s motivation and interest in science often declines as they approach adolescence; this is why understanding the factors that influence children’s motivation in science is critical for fostering continued science engagement. The authors of this paper investigated differences in children’s motivation to study science based on three factors: the context of the learning environment (formal or informal); the manner of the students’ interaction with the material (e.g., textbook learning, hands-on experimentation, or debate); and the topic of science being studied (e.g., biology, earth science, or physics).

The study consisted of 252 fifth and sixth graders who participated in an 89-item online survey. The survey was conducted in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, science classrooms, and also science classrooms and class museum visits happening in the San Francisco Bay Area. The survey was developed through adapting and extending existing surveys on motivation.

The first part of the survey consisted of a list of 35 science topics. These topics were selected from five science domains: astronomy, earth science, biology, engineering, and physical science. Each domain was broken down to seven topics studied under that domain. For example, the astronomy domain was represented by the following topics: planets, space travel, telescopes, distant galaxies, the moon, the sun, and black holes. Using this smaller grain size allowed the authors to more effectively measure if different scientific topics are motivating factors for children to engage in science. Students selected a minimum of two topics they were interested in learning about, plus a favorite topic. There was no maximum; they could choose all 35 topics if they wished. The favorite topic was automatically inserted into some of the questions in the survey to measure the magnitude of motivation.

The next part of the survey asked questions about students’ motivation and preference toward science depending on context, manner of interaction, and topic. Questions integrated these three different factors. For example, the question, “If I started a class project on climate change, I think I could do a really good job,” measured learning in a formal context (a science classroom), a specific manner of interaction (a hands-on project), and a topic (earth science). As for manners of interaction, the author identified three types: (1) consuming new knowledge, such as through reading, studying, or lectures; (2) analyzing, including how children think about material they have already learned; and (3) action, in which there are hands-on activities. Although children often interact with material in all of these ways when doing science, these distinctions were made in order to understand the influences of the specific interactions. Students answered questions using a Likert scale, with the five points on the scale correlating to the following five options: YES!; yes; maybe; no; and NO!

The results of the study suggest science content has a great impact on the motivation and interest of children. Specifically, children demonstrated a keen interest in specific topics, as opposed to traditional domains of science. Topics within the earth science domain, for example, were some of the least favored, although “oceans” (also within the earth science domain) was one of the most popular topics selected. Furthermore, students reported interest in a range of topics that were not categorized by traditional domains, but instead picked topics spanning all five science domains. This highlights the importance of specifying science topics when trying to understand children’s sentiments and engagement in science. These results also suggest that children may be interested in particular opportunities which studying these topics provide, such as using technology, measuring, or working outside.

Context and manner of interaction appeared much less influential in motivating children in science. These are rather surprising results, given that informal and hands-on activities provide more opportunities for autonomy and choice, factors which are known to increase intrinsic motivation. It may be that these children did not have many informal education experiences to draw upon; it may also demonstrate that context and the way in which children interact with science content, in itself, is not enough to motivate them toward science.

The Bottom Line

This study found that students have a strong motivation to study specific topics (e.g., satellites or sharks), which may not correlate to a broad interest in a traditional domain of science (e.g., astronomy or biology). In order to keep students motivated to study science—or possibly any subject—it is critical to ask about and discover the specific topics most interesting to them, and to allow students to explore all the various aspects of those topics. If a student or class is interested in frogs, for example, you could choose that as the focus of study, incorporating a variety of traditional disciplines in the inquiry, such as biology, ecology, water pollution, stories about frogs in literature and film, art, and more. One of the outcomes of this topic-driven approach is a more interdisciplinary method of teaching science.