Setting Higher Expectations: Motivating Middle Graders to Succeed

High Expectations

In accord with the Association for Middle Level Education’s (AMLE) This We Believe tenets (National Middle School Association, 2010), teachers of middle level grades should implement curriculum that is demanding; investigative; available to everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or social class; and significant to the students. In view of that, they should hold ALL their students to high expectations. If teachers demand high expectations from their students and engage them in tasks that interest and involve them, they will promote self-esteem and build students’ confidence and academic performance (Brophy, 2008, 2010).

Tenets of This We Believe addressed:

  • Curriculum is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant.

Student confidence can promote positive attitudes and behaviors that motivate students to tackle challenging learning activities (National Middle School Association, 2003). Drawing on up-to-date information and research studies, particularly, those investigating the effect setting high expectations has on the motivation of middle school students, will be useful and meaningful to middle school teachers and leaders of departments. As teachers gain knowledge of what factors motivate students and how setting high expectations help students stay motivated, they will be better able to create a classroom environment that increases motivation.

The Importance of Setting High Expectations

In 1990, the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) held a national conference on student motivation. The touchstone of the conference was that our nation’s success depends on all students rising to meet the challenge of higher standards of achievement in school (U.S. Department of Education, 1992). Subsequently, the U. S. Department of Education (1995) conducted a study of effective school programs and identified several essential characteristics of successful programs. Among them was setting high expectations for all students. Thus, it is essential for teachers to set high expectations for all their students and expect students to reach these standards. Setting high standards and providing opportunities for students to be successful may be the catalyst needed for increasing student motivation. In fact, setting high expectations may give rise to the Pygmalion Effect, which may change student behavior.

The Pygmalion Effect asserts that students who are expected to perform well usually do so, and students of whom teachers have lower expectations will generally not perform as well. Educational research (Lumsden, 1994, 1999) has also shown that when high expectations and supportive classroom environments are established to achieve these expectations, academic success is evident. Supportive classrooms environments provide students with specific short term goals and challenging, yet achievable tasks. By setting and communicating high performance expectations in supportive environments, teachers can motivate students to engage in their own learning. According to Lumsden (1999), teachers who maintain high expectations and make relevant connections with a curriculum that is worth learning foster a love for learning.


Research on student motivation is abundant (e.g., Alexander, Ryan, & Deci, 2000; Cameron, 2001; Cameron & Pierce, 1994; Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 2001a, 2001b; Kohn, 1994; Meece, Anderman & Anderman, 2006; Wigfield, Guthrie, Tonks, & Perencevich, 2004). Many scholars involved in the educational field have defined the term motivation. Malikow (2007) claimed, “Motivation is more easily defined than understood” (p. 118). He continued, “Knowing the definition of motivation and appreciating its complexity are necessary but insufficient for the work of teaching. Teachers also must explore how these concepts apply to their own motivation [to teach] and that of their students [to learn]” (p. 119).

In education, theorists (e.g., Ryan & Deci, 2000) reference two different types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. According to Ryan and Deci (2000) intrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable, while extrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it leads to an independent outcome. Intrinsic motivation occurs when people are internally motivated to do something because it either brings them pleasure, they think it is important, or they feel that what they are learning is significant to reach a goal or other desired outcome. Students exhibit intrinsic motivation when they have a desire to learn or participate in an activity purely because they need to know more about something (Wilson, 2011). Intrinsic motivation involves the learning of a concept for the sake of learning, purely to gain some knowledge.

Extrinsic motivation, in contrast, comes into play when a student is compelled to do something or participate in an activity because of some type of tangible reward (e.g., money or good grades). Students are extrinsically motivated when they undertake a task purely for the sake of attaining a reward or for avoiding punishment (Dev, 1997).

Researchers (Deci, Koestner & Ryan, 1999; Kohn, 1994) advocated for efforts that relied on increasing intrinsic motivation and noted that these were more successful in motivating students to learn while extrinsic motivation, such as threats and bribes, undermined student learning. On the other hand, other researchers (Cameron, 2001; Cameron & Pierce, 1994) supported the belief that extrinsic motivators were not detrimental to student success and if used properly could enhance student desire to learn and succeed. Some researchers (Cameron & Pierce, 1994; Good & Brophy, 2000; Hidi & Harackiewicz, 2000) reported that students can benefit from both types of motivation and recommend that educators utilize both types to increase student motivation. Cameron (2001) called extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation a “hotbed for debate” (p. 30).

Importance of Motivation

A critical component of middle grades students’ success is motivation. It is often in the middle grades when males and females tend to lose interest in mathematics in great part to motivational factors that include a feeling that the subject is hard, and effort versus reward, that is, motivational reward, does not merit the effort (Ryan & Patrick, 2001). According to Murdock, Anderman, and Hodge (2000), in no other subject is motivation more important than in mathematics. The integration of motivational strategies, for example, using extrinsic motivation to build or facilitate the development of intrinsic motivation is paramount to increasing students’ motivation. Because middle school students’ success can leverage continued success across the content areas (Anderman, Patrick, & Ryan, 2004) and into high school and higher education, motivational strategies are critical in middle school.

An important reason for cultivating motivation in students is that academic proficiency is necessary for full participation in society (Long, Monoi, Harper, Knoblauch, & Murphy, 2007). Low motivation was among a variety of factors found to contribute to the poor performance of U. S. students (National Research Council, 2003). This is particularly important for middle school students because during their middle school years many students disengage in school. When students turn away from school, they are less likely to take courses aligned with preparing them for college, and thus their futures can be profoundly affected (Balfanz, 2007; Sowder, 2000). Research has shown that students who experience academic failure in middle school have a high likelihood of never graduating from high school. Thus, increasing students’ academic motivation during the middle school years is paramount to ensuring they remain on the high school graduation path (Balfanz, 2007; Honig, 1987).

The middle school years are critical for the growth of young adolescents and for the development of their self-esteem and motivation to succeed. They need unique skills to be prepared to face the everyday pressures encountered in today’s society. Middle schools play a significant role during these very important years in an adolescent’s life and can have a positive impact on students’ academic growth and personal development.

Student motivation plays an important role in determining what is learned and when learning takes place, thus, being able to motivate and engage learners is of vital importance for any teacher. Students come to school with differing levels of motivation to learn, and not all students will be motivated in the same ways at the same time (Hayenga & Corpus, 2010; Kohn, 1994; Meyer, McClure, Walkey, Weir, & McKenzie, 2009). Some possess high levels and others have very low levels of motivation. In fact, each student has his or her own innate individual level of motivation. Students also have their own special and particular way of understanding or interpreting their personal motivational drive. Furthermore, students’ individual motivation is rooted deeply and influenced by earlier life experiences—both positive and negative (Clark, 2003; Lumsden, 1994).

Hence, it is imperative that teachers become familiar with what motivates each student and how to enhance the motivational level of their students. However, educating every child has proven to be a challenge for both novice and experienced teachers. Teachers of middle school face an even greater challenge because these students in general are not internally motivated to learn (Anderman & Midgley, 1998). Perhaps in the past, students could more easily be motivated to learn but “contemporary society presents remarkably different challenges from those educators faced just a few decades ago” (Caskey et al., 2010, p. 1). Therefore, lighting the learning spark becomes more challenging today. This challenge is more evident in today’s classrooms because teachers compete with television, video games, and other technology media, that may offer what Friedman (2006) referred to as “instant gratification” (p. 386) that children are exposed to at a very early age. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act may also present teachers with other challenges.

With the implementation of the NCLB Act, teachers must reach all students regardless of their lack of motivation or interest in learning. Anderman and Midgley (1998) asserted that as students transition from elementary to middle school, their motivation to be active participants in the learning process diminishes. Brewster and Fager (2000) added “the older students get, the less likely they are to take risks and engage themselves fully in activities at which they are not sure they will succeed” (p. 6). However, all is not lost; Lumsden (1994) and Dev (1997) concurred that teachers can affect students’ motivation and unmotivated students can become motivated when placed in a positive learning environment that provides engaging and relevant tasks. Motivational teaching strategies help teachers create this environment for students.

According to educational researchers (Huitt, 2001; Stipek, 1988), assortments of teaching strategies are available to teachers. Many of these strategies may increase students’ motivation to engage in classroom learning tasks. For example, teachers can provide real-world tasks customized to the student interests, provide engaging activities, set high expectations, use rubrics that evaluate students holistically, and engage students as stakeholders in instructional design by providing them with academic choices.

A critical element in any educational setting but particularly important in middle school grades is the search for more effective methods for motivating students. Middle graders have both psychological and intellectual needs that teachers must help them meet to raise their motivational level. They must “feel connected, effective, and energetic” (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 65). Additionally, Huetinck and Munshin (2008) noted, “…incorporating contexts from students’ personal experiences adds interest to the course of study” (p. 51). Middle grade students have needs, as all students do. Thus providing students with challenging learning experiences that make real-world connections is paramount to student involvement in classroom activities.

Summary of the Research

Teachers face struggles in educating all students including those that come to school uninterested, unmotivated, and expecting to “breeze” through school with minimum effort on their part. Additionally, motivation is the single most important resource for any student. Hence, educators must realize it is important for student success.

Teachers of young adolescents in the middle school must look at the impact that motivation has on their students and must address the issue. However, just as important as addressing the issue of low motivation found in many students, teachers must look for teaching strategies and pedagogy that increases student motivation and recognize the importance of setting high expectations to help increase it.

Motivation is critical and seems particularly important for teachers, especially in order to engage students. Thus, it is important for teachers to realize the underlying benefits of understanding the theory of motivation and its application (Malikow, 2007) for engaging students. Furrer and Skinner (2003) revealed that how closely students relate to their peers, teachers, and parents, each distinctively add to students’ engagement. Additionally, it is important that teachers understand they “can and do affect students’ level of engagement in learning” (Brewster & Fager, 2000, p. 25) by expecting students to perform at high standards. Setting high expectations is a critical step in motivating students to perform at their highest potential ensuring motivation and success.

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Annotated References

Assor, A., Kaplan, H., Kanat-Maymon, & Yaniv, R. G. (2005). Directly controlling teacher behaviors as predictors of poor motivation and engagement in girls and boys: The role of anger and anxiety. Learning and Instruction, 15, 397–413.

Many students are placed in classrooms where the teacher exhibits Direct Controlling Teacher Behavior (DCTB). The authors investigated the effects of DCTB and its effect on student motivation for both girls and boys. In this article, the authors hypothesized that students would experience anger and anxiety if placed in classrooms where teachers were “directly controlling,” or exhibiting DCTB and “not letting children work at their preferred pace, continually giving directives to children, or not allowing children to voice opinions that differ from those expressed by the teacher” (p. 398). They also asserted that these restrictions would affect student involvement on tasks, their academic success, and ultimately their motivational orientations. Furthermore, DCTB would hinder extrinsic motivation, undermining engagement in academic activities. Three hundred nineteen fourth and fifth graders and their teachers were studied. Results showed that there were negative correlations between DCTB and student achievement in class. The findings can also be applied to middle and high schools, thus DCTB has negative effects on motivation of middle school age students as well.

Brewster, C., & Fager, J. (2000). Increasing student engagement and motivation: From time-on-task to homework. Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. Retrieved from

In this article, the authors explicitly illustrated for educators and parents research pertaining to motivation of students including some strategies for teachers to implement for enhancing student motivation. It also provided an extensive list of class activities that engaged students at the classroom, school, and district levels. The issues of homework were also presented with tips for using homework as an effective teaching tool and provided tips on how schools could develop a homework policy. Additionally, descriptions of three schools that have made excellent strides in engaging students in their own learning utilizing the suggestions made by the authors were provided.

Sowder, J. T. (2000). Mathematics in the middle grades: Linking research and practice. Plenary Address. National Conference on Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment in the Middle Grades: Linking Research and Practice. Washington, DC. Retrieved from

This plenary address given by Sowder discussed research dealing with three critical issues regarding middle school: mathematics curriculum in the middle school, instruction and the classroom environment, and implications for linking research to practice. Sowder took each of the three issues and expanded on them. In the section about mathematics curriculum in the middle school, Sowder referenced the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Principles and Standards for Mathematics (2000), the evaluation of middle school textbooks, the preparation of teachers, and the major areas of change in the middle school as reflected in the study of number and number relations, reasoning power, and the study of algebra. She also examined curriculum as a whole.

In addressing instruction and the classroom environment in the middle schools, Sowder made references to problem solving, motivation, and tracking by ability. Problem solving was emphasized as the most important element in a mathematics classroom and teachers (NCTM, 2000) as well as parents should understand the value of problem solving. Of equal importance was motivating students, thus, Sowder included five statements that influenced motivation of students according to a review done by Middleton and Spanias (1999, 2000). Also included was a study done by Linchevshi and Kutscher (1998) regarding tracking into ability groups in which results showed that students grouped in heterogeneous, mixed ability groups did better than students grouped by ability. Lastly, Sowder hypothsized reasons for the disconnect between research and practice and emphasized the important link that must exist between research and teaching.

List of Recommended Resources

Cleary, T. J., & Chen, P. P. (2009). Self-regulation, motivation, and math achievement in middle school: Variations across grade level and math context! Journal of School Psychology, 47, 291–314. doi:10.1016/j.jsp.2009.04.002

Gehlbach, H., & Roeser, R. W. (2002). The middle way to motivating middle school students by avoiding false dichotomies. Middle School Journal, 33(3), 39–46.

Hootstein, E. W. (1994). Motivating middle school students to learn. Middle School Journal, 25(5), 31–34.

Jansen, B. (2007). Motivating middle schoolers: Grades 5–8. Library Media Connection, 25(6), 28–29.

Manzo, K. K. (2008). Motivating students in the middle years. Education Week, 27(28), 22–25.

Rich, N. (2005). Motivating at-risk middle school students to positive classroom performance. ERS Spectrum, 23(2), 23–31.

Song, H. D. (2005). Motivating ill-structured problem solving in a web-based peer-group learning environment: A learning-goal perspective. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 33(4), 351–367.


Elsa Cantú Ruiz is an assistant professor of middle and secondary level education and curriculum and instruction in the Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching Department at University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). Her research interests include academic motivation of Latina/o students in mathematics classrooms and teachers’ efficacy.

This research summary was approved by the AMLE Board of Trustees, April 2012.