Once again students have returned from summer holidays back to school and started their academic years. Some of them (including my daughter, by the way) are starting off their sixth, that is, the final year in elementary school and, thus, approaching the transition to lower secondary school (grades 7–9). Studying young people’s motivation and well-being in school is, in my view, always relevant, but could it be especially important across such an educational transition period in early adolescence.
Yes, it seems so. Previous studies show that an overall negative change in academic motivation takes place during early adolescence and that this decline is most pronounced during educational transitions. Also, negative changes have been seen in adolescent students’ school-related well-being. That is to say, educational transitions can indeed pose a risk for adolescents’ academic motivation and well-being.
In our recent study (Tuominen, Niemivirta, Lonka, & Salmela-Aro, 2020), we looked precisely into this by investigating 1) what kinds of motivational profiles can be found among sixth- and seventh-graders, 2) how do these profiles change across the transition from elementary to lower secondary school, and 3) how they are linked to well-being, in this case, school engagement (how engaged a student is in schoolwork) and school burnout (how exhausted, cynical, or inadequate a student feels in relation to school demands).
Differently motivated students
Four different motivational profiles were identified. Indifferent students seemed to be in many respects “prototypical” students, who seek to do what is expected in school (to learn and perform), but still wish to minimize the effort. Success-oriented students were spurred by multiple goals; they strived for getting good grades and outperforming their peers besides gaining new knowledge. In turn, mastery-oriented students’ focus was mainly on learning and understanding, although doing well in school was also important for them. Lastly, the small group of avoidance-oriented students exhibited a rather unfavorable motivational profile as their principal aim was to avoid school-related work altogether.
Substantial stability in motivation but negative changes for some
Regarding stability of motivational profiles, the results showed that as much as 75% of the students held identical profiles over time. In other words, motivational profiles are rather stable among early adolescent students – even across an educational transition from elementary to lower secondary school. However, it is important to note that some students did report a change in their orientation and that of those, the majority moved from more to less favorable profiles (e.g., from success-oriented to indifferent and from indifferent to avoidance-oriented).
Motivation matters for well-being
Students who stayed in the mastery-oriented group across the transition displayed the most adaptive pattern of motivation, academic achievement, and well-being. Interestingly, the success-oriented students were highly engaged and succeeded in school but, at the same time, they expressed higher risk for burnout compared to their mastery-oriented peers. The avoidance-oriented students displayed the most inferior academic achievement and well-being. Even so, it would also seem important to pay attention to the large group of indifferent students, whose motivational mindset is not optimal either.
What happens to motivation across a transition?
Although many students exhibit a stable, favourable motivational profile over time, and few might even display positive changes in their motivation across educational transitions, it is alarming that a small group of early adolescent students displays stable avoidance orientation, and that of those students who demonstrate a change, the majority move to less favorable profiles. This finding is in line with the observed decline in motivation during early adolescence and across educational transitions. The negative shift detected might reflect both the changes associated with the transition itself (e.g., possibly increased emphasis on grades and competition) and the simultaneous changes and challenges characteristic of early adolescence.
Combined, a quarter of students are either stably avoidance-oriented or experience some sort of negative change in their school-related motivation across this particular transition in Finland. This finding has important practical implications, because it points to the need for teachers to identify these students and try to support their engagement. Further, regarding school burnout, it is important for both teachers and us parents to note that when a student is clearly performance-driven and focuses on social comparison and competition, this psychological mind-set might surely lead to success at school but it is likely also accompanied with emotional vulnerability for experiencing school-related pressure, stress, and exhaustion.
Our article is open access and you can read it from here: Tuominen, H., Niemivirta, M., Lonka, K., & Salmela-Aro, K. (2020). Motivation across a transition: Changes in achievement goal orientations and academic well-being from elementary to secondary school. Learning and Individual Differences, 79, 101854. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lindif.2020.101854
Collegium Researcher, Turku Institute for Advanced Studies & Department of Teacher Education, University of Turku
University Lecturer, Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Helsinki