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  • Writer's pictureAnna Widlund

Short- and long-term changes in adolescents' motivational beliefs

Students’ perceptions of their competence and value beliefs are key predictors of their educational aspirations and choices, and performance. Yet, during lower secondary education, when adolescents are in the process of making important decisions about their future, students’ motivation tends to decline on average. In two of our recent studies, we approached  both individual differences and the development of lower secondary students’ motivational beliefs from two different perspectives.

How does mathematics and language motivation co-develop across early adolescence?

In the first paper (Widlund, Niemivirta et al., 2024) we studied whether individual differences exist in the long-term development (from Grades 7–9) of students’ (N = 612) self-concept and interest in two domains: mathematics and language (L1), while accounting for both performance and gender differences.

We found a clear differentiation in girls’ motivational beliefs across domains.

The findings revealed that the long-term development of self-concept and interest in math and L1 was rather homogenous across lower secondary education: while students showed varying initial levels of math and L1 motivation as they entered 7th grade, their motivation seemed to decline over time. When gender and performance was accounted for, we found a clear differentiation in girls’ motivational beliefs across domains, favoring the L1 domain. Girls’ L1 self-concept and interest were significantly higher than in math, whereas boys’ levels of math and L1 motivation were rather similar (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Gendered trajectories of mathematics and language self-concept and interest
Figure 1. Gendered trajectories of mathematics and language self-concept and interest (boys to the left and girls to the right)

Girl with a book
Photo by Cottonbro studio on Pexels

We also found some interesting negative developmental relations across domains: seventh-grade mathematics self-concept was negatively related to students’ L1 self-concept development, and vice versa. For boys, their initial level of math interest was also negatively related to their L1 interest development, whereas for girls, the opposite relation was found: higher initial interest in L1 in seventh grade was related to more negative development in math interest across lower secondary school. Coupled with prevailing gender stereotypes, this may be harmful in some cases. It could unnecessarily hinder some from engaging in and aspiring for math-related educational and career alternatives, despite having high performance in math. This is something that should be considered in schools while supporting students’ motivation and goal-setting, and while planning future interventions to support students’ motivational beliefs.

Exploring individual differences in mathematics motivation

In the second paper (Widlund, Tuominen et al., 2024), we took a slightly different approach while looking into various, positively and negatively valenced dimensions of mathematics motivation. Here, we investigated what kinds of math motivation profiles (self-concept, interest, attainment- and utility value, emotional-, effort-, and opportunity cost) could be identified among ninth-graders (N = 508), how stable such profiles are within the last year of comprehensive education, and how short-term changes in such profiles relate to both emotional (study exhaustion, depressive symptoms) and educational (performance, educational aspirations) outcomes.

30% of students seemed highly motivated, performed well, and did not perceive studying to be emotionally costly.

The findings from this study highlight the multifaceted nature of students’ motivation, as we identified four distinct math motivation profiles among students (Figure 2). About 30% of students seemed highly motivated, performed well, and did not perceive studying to be emotionally costly (Positively ambitious). Another group of students showed the opposite patterns (Maladaptive): low motivation and performance, and high levels of costs, study exhaustion, and depressive symptoms. The third profile (Struggling ambitious) represented students who despite their positive math values and high performance and aspirations also struggled emotionally: they reported elevated math-related costs, study exhaustion, and depressive symptoms. Lastly, the fourth group (Indifferent) were students who had rather low interest in math, low aspirations, and relatively low performance, but still did not report very high emotional distress.

Figure 2. Ninth-graders’ motivational profiles in mathematics
Figure 2. Ninth-graders’ motivational profiles in mathematics

Changes in students’ math motivation were systematically related to their well-being.

The majority of students remained in the same profile but, still, 20% of students experienced either positive or negative changes in their motivation across the school year. Interestingly, we found that changes in students’ math motivation were systematically related to their well-being (study exhaustion and depressive symptoms), but not to their math performance or aspirations. Thus, linking domain-specific motivational beliefs to more domain-general well-being seems important: students’ general life perceptions, school experiences, and emotional perceptions of specific subjects are highly interrelated: achievement striving requires investing both time and effort, implying that there always is some subjective cost in play, for example, in terms of how much studying requires giving up other valued alternatives and how much exhaustion or negative emotions are associated with it.

High performance and motivation does not always coincide with low costs and positive well-being

Taken together, these findings inform us that students, irrespective of their self-concept and value beliefs, can be receptive to experiencing negative costs of engaging with math and, also, experience changes in their motivation that may relate to their emotional distress and well-being. However, despite differences in the overall levels of motivation, many seem to struggle with their motivation when entering lower secondary school, a time period that also coincides with entering adolescence and puberty. While the negative trends seem to, for the most part, stabilize over the lower secondary school years, even short-term changes may occur within a semester. Schools provide an important developmental context for adolescents’ motivation and well-being, and therefore, schools may both hinder or provide opportunities for positive or negative changes to take place. Being aware of the inter- and intraindividual differences that exist in students’ motivation, helps to better identify students with different types of challenges, and implement individualized support for their various needs.

Our articles are open access and you can read them from here:

Widlund, A., Niemivirta, M., Tuominen, H., & Korhonen, J. (2024). Growth trajectories of self-concept and interest in mathematics and language – Individual differences and cross-domain relations. Learning and Instruction, 91, 101882. 

Widlund, A., Tuominen, H., & Korhonen, J. (2024). Motivational profiles in mathematics – Stability and links with educational and emotional outcomes. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 76, 102256. 


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