Motivation & Engagement in STEM Education

The unprecedented circumstances of the past two years have highlighted the need to better understand and support learner motivation and engagement in STEM education, particularly for underserved, underrepresented, and at-risk student populations. In this month’s Spotlight, we highlight three projects that are currently researching approaches and learning environments that are designed to motivate and engage students in science, computer science, and software engineering, along with information on the larger body of research, innovations, and instrumentation in the DRK-12 portfolio and other related resources.

In this Spotlight:

Featured Projects

IoT Logo

Internet of Things Pedagogical Ecosystem for Integrated Computer Science and Software Engineering Education for Grades 9-12

PI: Pramod Abichandani | Co-PI: Prateek Shekhar
STEM Disciplines: Computer Science (CS), Software Engineering (SE), Internet of Things (IoT)
Grade(s): 9-12
Target Audience: Students and instructors involved in the CS/SE/IoT learning process

Description: With continued advancement in science and technology comes the need to educate K-12 students in emerging technologies to better prepare them for future academic and professional pursuits. This project aims to develop, implement, and evaluate an Internet of Things (IoT) based educational curriculum and technology that provides grade 9-12 students with Computer Science (CS) and Software Engineering (SE) education. The proposed IoT pedagogical ecosystem features an innovative approach to bringing CS and SE education to grades 9-12 by immersing students in the technical challenges of building web-connected, physical computing systems. This project will focus on identifying critical elements for effective instructional design for CS and SE education by understanding student and teacher motivation. A key innovation of this effort will be the low-cost, IoT-hardware kits for project-based learning to create a hands-on experience in the classroom. The curriculum will involve real-world projects inspired by the National Academy of Engineering grand challenges that have direct applications in the industry (e.g., urban infrastructure, wearable technology, connected vehicles, connected health, and cybersecurity).

Instrumentation: Continuous and methodical assessment via rubrics and focus groups are being used for data collection on students' CS/SE/IoT knowledge and skills, teamwork skills, and overall engagement. For the technical assessment, various well-established CS/SE/IoT rubrics are being used. For teamwork, we are using CATME. For overall engagement, we are using the Student Response to Instructional Practices (StRIP) Survey developed by Nguyen et al. (2016).

Rigorous quantitative statistical analysis (parametric and non-parametric) and qualitative methods (first cycle and second cycle coding) are being used to analyze the data.

Key Opportunity/Challenge: We see an opportunity to shine light on the gaps in the current education system and contribute to the evolution of CS/SE education by 1) identifying the skills that instructors need to teach the technical topics of IoT and training them accordingly, 2) using low-cost, IoT-hardware kits for project-based learning to create a hands-on experience in the classroom, and 3) creating curricular modules that can be easily integrated within existing STEM/CS/AP CSA/Engineering classes. This research has the potential to advance the field of CS education by contributing to the definition of computing literacy and education, forming the basis for subsequent research on learning approaches for CS/SE education for grades 9-12, and supplying an open-source, hands-on and project-based curriculum on preparing future generations capable of participating in CS/AI development. 


PBI Global Logo

Supporting Students' Science Content Knowledge Through Project-based Inquiry (PBI) Global 

PI: Hiller Spires | Co-PI: Erin Krupa
STEM Disciplines: Interdisciplinary
Grade(s): Middle and secondary
Target Audience: Researchers and practitioners interested in interdisciplinary, globally-relevant inquiry-to-action

Description: PBI Global responds to the need for research-informed, field-tested, and iteratively developed inquiry learning cycles that engage students and educators in analyzing and finding solutions for globally relevant, interdisciplinary STEM challenges. The Supporting Students’ Science Content Knowledge through Project-Based Inquiry (PBI) Global project focuses on developing 9th grade students’ physical, biological, and environmental science content knowledge and science and engineering practices, as well as their interdisciplinary understandings, through the topic of global water and sanitation. We investigated factors influencing student motivation and engagement, as well as teacher attitudes toward inquiry-based pedagogies. The project uses a Design-Based Research (DBR) (Cobb, et al., 2003) approach to develop and refine instructional materials and teacher professional development for the existing interdisciplinary PBI Global Initiative. A mixed-methods research design explores the effects of the classroom implementation on student and teacher outcomes. The project builds on the existing PBI Global process to develop new curriculum materials to effectively and efficiently provide teachers and students with diverse, complex, and impactful inquiry opportunities.

Instrumentation: In this study, we are interested in the effects of PBI Global on classroom-level engagement. To measure classroom-level engagement and to provide actionable feedback for researchers in improving the PBI Global curriculum, we are utilizing Jones’ (2017) MUSIC Model of Motivation, which measures motivation related to classroom instruction, to survey students and assess their self-reports of recognized factors that influence motivation and engagement: eMpowerment, Usefulness, Success, Interest, and Caring.

Key Opportunity/Challenge: The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated a shift in many places to remote and hybrid learning settings. These learning environments require researchers and practitioners to pivot our conceptualization of what learner engagement is and what it could be in this new learning ecology. These environments also underscore the need to connect with learners to better understand what motivates them to learn and to leverage that during instruction, accordingly.


TPL LogoTeacher Professional Learning to Support Student Motivational Competencies During Science Instruction

PIs: Christopher Harris, Lisa Linnenbrink-GarciaGwen Marchand | Co-PIs: Jennifer Schmidt
STEM Disciplines: Physical Science (but applicable to other disciplines)
Grade(s): Middle school
Target Audience: Science teachers

Description: We are working with 7th grade science teachers to co-design a professional learning (PL) experience for middle school science teachers to develop their knowledge and use of instructional supports for student motivation and engagement in their NGSS-aligned science classrooms. The PL is based on five Motivation Design Principles (MDPs) – Belonging, Confidence, Learning Orientation, Autonomy, and Relevance – which are synthesized from decades of research on how to support student motivation. In the PL, teachers learn each of the MDPs through concrete examples and illustrations and then apply them to their own lesson plans. Project-developed tools support teachers through the implementation of the MDPs in their own classrooms. Materials and tools were developed through an iterative feedback cycle in which participating teachers used the materials and provided feedback. Through this collaborative co-design process, we developed a toolkit with concrete examples of how to apply each MDP in numerous contexts, including instruction focused on each science and engineering practice from the Next Generation Science Standards; a library of videos illustrating real-world application of each MDP; quick-reference tools to use when planning; and a web-based interactive version of the toolkit.

Instrumentation: We have developed three survey instruments to measure student motivation and engagement that are composed of existing scales adapted for the project as well as project-developed scales. The pre- and post-surveys are administered to students before and after a unit of instruction in which their teacher implemented what they learned in the PL. The pre-survey measures student motivation and other related constructs. The post-survey contains the same scales as the pre-survey as well as several measures of students’ perceptions of their teacher’s support for student motivation. The third instrument is an end-of-class report, which is a short survey administered to students at the end of 6-12 lessons during the focal unit of instruction. This instrument measures students’ engagement, motivation, perceptions of the lesson, and perceptions of their teacher’s support for student motivation. The project-developed scales are primarily aimed at measuring students’ perceptions of their teacher’s support for student motivation. We developed these scales after piloting already-developed scales in the first round of implementation. These existing scales did not have good psychometric properties in our sample population and did not separate well from several other constructs on the survey instruments. We have just completed data collection using the project-developed scales and do not have any results to report at this point.

The table below describes the scales used in each instrument and the source of that scale.

Scale Pre Post End-of-Class
Autonomy Need Satisfaction X X   Chen et al., 2015
Belonging Need Satisfaction X X   Furrer & Skinner, 2003
Perceived Competence X X   Midgley et al., 2000
Interest Value X X   Conley, 2012
Attainment Value X X X Conley, 2012
Utility Value X X X Conley, 2012
Effort Cost X X   Perez et al., 2014 and Kosovich et al., 2015
Psychological Cost X X   Flake et al., 2015
Extrinsic Motivation X X   Vansteenkiste et al., 2009
Mastery Goal Orientation X X   Midgley et al., 2000
Performance-Approach Goal Orientation X X   Midgley et al., 2000
Performance-Avoidance Goal Orientation X X   Midgley et al., 2000
Effort Attribution X X   Project-Developed
Support for Belonging Among Students   X X Project-Developed
Support for Belonging with Teacher   X X Project-Developed
Support for Confidence - Calibration   X X Project-Developed
Support for Confidence - Clarity   X X Project-Developed
Support for Confidence - Feedback   X   Project-Developed
Support for Confidence - Monitoring   X X Project-Developed
Support for Confidence - Support   X   Project-Developed
Support for Learning Orientation -
Teacher Mastery Goal Support
  X X Midgley et al., 2000
Teacher Performance-Approach   X X Ryan & Patrick, 2001
Support for Autonomy - Provision of Choice   X X Patall et al., 2018
Support for Relevance -
Consideration for Student Interest
  X X Patall et al., 2018
Support for Relevance -
Rationales Identifying Usefulness,
Importance, and Relevance of Activity
  X X Patall et al., 2018
Behavioral Engagement   X X Schmidt, Rosenberg & Beymer, 2018
Cognitive Engagement   X X Fredricks et al., 2016
Emotional Engagement   X X Schmidt, Rosenberg & Beymer, 2018
Perceived Learning     X Middleton & Mdgley, 1997
Perceived Challenge/Skill     X Fredricks et al., 2016

Methodology: We use design-based research (Design Based Research Collective, 2003), a framework developed as a means to carry out formative research on educational designs with the explicit aim of refining those designs through multiple iterations (Collins, et al., 2004). Drawing on knowledge of teacher change and learning (Guskey, 2002, 2014), we designed an initial professional learning experience centered on the five Motivation Design Principles synthesized by Linnenbrink-Garcia et al. (2016). We then engaged in iterative processes of implementation, data collection, analysis, feedback, and revision in response to the emerging needs of our teachers and their students. Data collected from teachers include pre- and post-PL surveys, videos of classroom practice, lesson reflections, self-assessments of student engagement, and interviews and focus groups. Data collected from students include pre- and post-surveys, end-of-class reports, and an assessment of scientific knowledge-in-use. Our analytic approach includes observational analysis of videos, thematic analysis of teacher surveys and interviews, and statistical modeling of the student data.

Key Opportunity/Challenge: One challenge for supporting learner motivation and engagement is that many educators view motivation as a unitary, static characteristic of students when it is actually multi-faceted and context-dependent. At the same time, researchers struggle to translate motivational theories into useful, approachable practices that teachers can employ in the classroom. A translational, co-design approach to supporting and studying student motivation in classrooms involving both researchers and educators helps to address these underlying challenges. Our project makes a unique contribution to motivation scholarship by investigating the implementation challenges and successes that teachers experience when trying to support student motivation.


Additional DRK-12 Research

We invite you to explore a sample of the other recently awarded and active work that focuses on student motivation and engagement in the DRK-12 portfolio.

CADRE's collection of DRK-12 Research and Products also offers a number of resources that address motivation, engagement, and/or other student attitudes and beliefs.


In 2012, CADRE partners at Abt Associates produced a Compendium of Research Instruments for STEM Education measuring student outcomes, following a review of instruments, constructs, and methods used to study student outcomes within the DR-K12 portfolio since 2008. It includes assessments measuring variables in the psychosocial domain, including motivation, attitudes, and emotional aspects. 

Student Assessments for Outcomes Within the Psychosocial Domain

This compendium of measures is Part 2 of a two part series to provide insight into the measurement tools available to generate efficacy and effectiveness evidence, as well as understand processes relevant to teaching and learning (see Part 1 on teacher outcome assessments).

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