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A Study of Hope

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If you believe that intrinsic motivation is a prerequisite for success in school, then you should check out a research effort spearheaded by Mark Van Ryzin, a teaching assistant at the University of Minnesota's College of Education and Human Development.

The effort is called the Hope Study and it aims to determine whether motivation to learn increases when schools give students more autonomy, a greater sense of belonging, and more opportunities to pursue individual goals.

The study is relatively small, with about 40 schools participating this school year. But that number was just three schools in 2004 when the study was started. The vast majority of the participants are secondary charter schools, not regular district schools.

In an email interview with Motivation Matters, Mark said regular district schools tend to shy away from the project for two reasons: the large amount of assessment in those schools tends to make them wary of taking on additional assessment; and the ideas represented in the Hope Study are not all that familiar to most teachers and administrators in regular district schools because motivational and developmental psychology are not a big part of traditional teacher or administrator preparation programs.

The Hope Study, Mark said, was informed by a theory from educational psychology research known as "stage-environment fit theory," which posits that student motivation and engagement will be higher when the learning environment matches students' developmental needs.

"We have found that schools that support student developmental needs (i.e. autonomy, belongingness) can promote growth in student hope from semester to semester and year over year," he said. "In other words, these schools can actually spur the development of something in students, over and above actual academic learning, that can benefit them throughout their lifepsan.

"When we have more control over our own lives, and stronger networks of support, we feel more empowered, take more interest in our work, and take more ownership of our results. [But] the standard large comprehensive high school can actually undermine student autonomy by adhering to a set curriculum that provides very little opportunity for student input."

Keep an eye on this study because it is getting some traction.

Starting next fall, Mark said the Hope Study will become an official part of the Coalition of Essential Schools online survey system, making it available to all of the coalition's schools.

In addition, Mark said he will be making a presentation about the Hope Study at an American Educational Research Association conference this spring in Chicago; and he has co-authored a paper about the study for Phi Delta Kappan that will be published in a 2007 issue of the academic journal.

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This focus on intrinsic motivation reminds me of how central this idea is to learning success for students in the High/Scope Educational approach. I'll look forward to hearing more on Van Ryzin's research!

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