Student engagement may not improve student success, study says

Researcher calls the findings 'the opposite of what you'd expect'

A new study from the Brookings Institution calls into question whether engaged students really do perform better academically, The Atlantic reports.

Student Success insights blog: What can we learn from first year GPA?

Scholar Tom Loveless examined data from U.S. and international assessments from the last 15 years and found that countries known for their students' successes did not always report higher levels of subject enjoyment.

Specifically, increasing students' enjoyment of math did not correlate with better scores on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international test completed by 15-year-olds.

"It's just fascinating—countries that do very well on PISA in mathematics, countries like Finland, Korea, Japan, and Netherlands, they score terribly on this motivation index," says Loveless, adding, "Kids don't look intrinsically motivated at all."

Meanwhile, developing countries such as Tunisia, Thailand, and Indonesia had some of the highest scores of self-motivation to learn math but earned some of the lowest actual math scores.

Related: Gym data shows GPA bump for fitness-inclined students

This may be because students from those countries who take the PISA "may be deeply appreciative of having an opportunity that their parents never had" and therefore are "an unusually motivated group," says Loveless.

The report's findings suggest focusing on academic motivation may not be an effective policy goal. When examining data from several counties released by PISA between 2003 and 2012, he found that as motivation fell, scores actually rose.

"The answer is the opposite of what you'd expect," says Loveless.

A counter trend

However, a recent report from the National Association of State Boards of Education found that within mid- and top-scoring countries, students who reported enjoying math performed better than those who said they dislike the subject (Zinshteyn, The Atlantic, 3/24).

The takeaway: Higher engagement may not always lead to higher grades, according to a new global study.


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