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Understanding Student Motivation and Affect in Middle School Mathematics Classrooms: Links with Algebra Course Placement and Achievement


Math course placement is a source of continued discrepancy in the United States. Over the past few decades policy initiatives have catalyzed revisions on how and when students are placed into their first Algebra course. Concerns over equity in access and the national goal of fostering a competent STEM workforce have motivated efforts to place more students into Algebra earlier. Students who are not selected into Algebra by the eighth grade, for example, face a blocked pathway to advanced math learning among other outcomes. Thus, efforts have predominantly focused on increasing Algebra course placement in eighth grade, a developmentally sensitive time that carries weight in shaping adolescent students’ beliefs, feelings, and goals for mathematics. While an extensive body of research has taken advantage of changing Algebra course placement policies to examine effects on a variety of student outcomes, research has yet to examine how course placement influences students’ motivation for mathematics and general states of affect (achievement emotions) in mathematics classrooms.

This dissertation seeks to initiate our understanding of how math course placement relates to students’ beliefs and feelings about mathematics by examining student reports of beliefs, goals, and achievement emotions within their mathematics classrooms during middle school. The studies presented here forth aim to make a unique contribution to this literature by examining the relation between middle school math course placement and students’ motivation for mathematics and affect in middle school mathematics classrooms—and further, relating changes in each to subsequent mathematics achievement. To my knowledge, these studies are the first to reveal information about Algebra course placement and students’ motivation and affect as research to date has examined the effects, influences, and associations of Algebra course placement on student cognitive and achievement outcomes.

The first study examines the changes in students’ goals, expectancy, and value for mathematics for students placed in eighth grade Algebra relative to peers placed in lower-level courses. This study extends analyses to examine whether the changes in students’ beliefs and goals in eighth grade relate to changes in achievement. The second part of this dissertation examines student-centered achievement emotions and affect as it surfaces within math classrooms. Achievement emotions and affect carries a significant contribution to the development of motivation and subsequent learning and experiences. For example, a student’s experience will inform anticipated emotions for future engagements, which will have an influence on that students’ motivation by affecting the choice of activities that he or she chooses to engage in. In Study 2 I examine changes in students’ achievement emotions (specifically, anxiety) and general states of positive or negative affect for students placed in eighth grade Algebra relative to peers placed in lower-level courses. In this study, as well as the third study, positive affect is characterized as students reporting feeling excited, interested, enthusiastic, and/or happy in their mathematics class. Negative affect is characterized by students’ reports of feeling irritated, bored, and/or exhausted in their mathematics class. The third study examines the association between students’ self-rated achievement emotions and affect and mathematics achievement as measured by a state standardized exam.

The three studies in this dissertation aim to make a first contribution in the area of math course placement and adolescent motivation for mathematics by relaying information about how math course placement and changes in beliefs, goals, and affect contributes to the changes in students’ motivation for mathematics and achievement. The results will provide policy-relevant information that is specifically needed at this time of nascent course placement policy changes that are occurring in light of the recently adopted Common Core State Standards. As schools revise course placement and course taking trajectories, information about influences on the cultivation of students’ beliefs and feelings about mathematics carry meaningful utility in light of goals to prepare all students to succeed in an increasingly competitive global economy.

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