An Identity-Based Motivation Perspective On How Students Make Sense of Difficulty At School
Methods: In two experiments we tested our prediction that low-income and minority children interpret difficulty in school as meaning that academic futures are not possible for “people like me” and invest less effort in school work unless an alternative interpretation of difficulty as importance is accessible at the moment of judgment. In Study 1, participants were Yemeni and Yemeni American 4th to 8th graders in a remedial school program (N= 56). We contrasted content of possible-self responses and math task performance among children randomized to one of two conditions. In the control children were not provided an interpretation of their difficulty in school, in the experimental condition children were provided an interpretation of difficulty in school as meaning that school success is important to them. In Study 2, participants were 7th and 8th graders in a school near Detroit Michigan, comprised primarily of low income and minority students (N = 129). Study 2 compared performance on a math task across a control group (no interpretation of difficulty in school provided) with two experimental groups, where children were subtly provided an accessible interpretation of difficulty in school as meaning that doing well in school is either an important or impossible goal.
Results: Children randomly assigned to consider difficulty in school as reflecting the importance of school (versus a control condition in which no interpretation of difficulty is cued) report more academic future identities and strategies to work on them (Study 1) and perform better at a math task (Studies 1-2). The undermining effect of no interpretation of difficulty parallels that of interpreting difficulty as meaning that school success is impossible (Study 2).
Conclusions and Implications: Overall, we found evidence that while low-income minority youth experience a chronic interpretation of difficulty at school as impossibility, if context frames difficulty as importance then these students will use this interpretation and effort on academic tasks increases. Our results are particularly important for policies and interventions targeting low-income and minority children because we demonstrate that if an alternative interpretation of difficulty is not provided, these children proceed as if provided with an interpretation of difficulty as impossibility. This interpretation of difficulty is malleable, and we need to create contexts that support an interpretation of difficulty as importance.