FEd Fall 2001 Newsletter - Motivation and Improvement of Student Performance

Spring 2001



Previous Newsletters

Current Issue

Contact the Editor

Letter to the Editor

Motivation and Improvement of Student Performance

Jeffrey A. Appel, Fermilab

It has become routine to call for improvement in teaching as the road to improved science and mathematics performance by American students. While there is certainly room for improved teacher preparation and familiarity with content, we also need to place some focus on student motivation outside the classroom. Since there is no single way to improve motivation across the full range of K-12 and higher education levels, we should be exploring options and solutions at all levels.

The largest increase in interest in science and mathematics probably occurred in the Sputnik era. At that time, science and mathematics were widely viewed as demonstrably necessary for the national self-interest. We were in a "space race" with the Soviet Union. It was a matter of national defense. Yet, much of what caught the attention of young students must have been seeing that Sputnik beacon of light crossing the clear night sky. And, not just students. Who did not look to see it at least once? America also poured money into a variety of science and mathematics projects - perhaps as quickly as research projects could be devised. There was no issue of whether one could hope to make a career of science. It was a national calling. The future would take care of itself.

Today, many have said that science and mathematics are necessary for our nation's economic security. We are in an economic race with the rest of the world. Yet, we do not have an equivalent of the Sputnik beacon for all to see. And we do not have American programs which excite the young peopleto judge by the declining enrollments of American students in science and mathematics curricula at the higher education levels. We do have science projects which jockey for position with limited funding, even in a time of Federal budget surplus. We do have limited employment opportunities in some of the most attractive basic research fields.

Can we learn something about motivation from the Sputnik era which is relevant to today? Certainly, the situation is different in important ways. There was an environment which fostered interest in science and mathematics then. Some of that broader societal interest must be recaptured if teachers are to succeed in interesting a broader range of students to science and mathematics. Should we not be more aggressive in the support of basic science projects which will capture the interest of all?