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“Is Math for Me?”: Effects of Math Course Sequence and Ethnic Context on Math Motivation


This dissertation investigated whether math course sequence from 8th to 9th grade influenced 9th grade math motivation, defined as perceived competence in math, sense of belonging in math, importance of math, and math anxiety. Two competing hypotheses were proposed suggesting that a more accelerated math curriculum (Algebra 1 in 8th grade versus 9th grade), would either protect student motivation or lessen it. The second overarching goal of this dissertation was to examine the independent and interacting role of two distinct measures of ethnic context on math motivation: (1) the perceived number of same ethnic peers in math; and (2) the incongruence between the perceived number of same ethnic peers in math class versus school. It was anticipated that students would report higher sense of belonging when they perceived more same ethnic peers in math class and when they perceived more same ethnic peers in math compared to the school. Data from this dissertation came from a larger longitudinal study of ethnically diverse youth (n = 4,385) who were recruited from 26 middle schools starting in the 6th grade and then followed into the 152 high schools to which they transitioned.

Results showed that students who took Algebra for the first time in the 9th grade showed lower math motivation compared to students who took Algebra in 8th grade and transitioned to a higher level math course. Additionally, perceiving more same ethnic peers in math class (and in math class relative to the school) was related to greater sense of belonging in math. The role that perceived number of same ethnic peers played on math motivation also depended on students’ ethnic background and the type of math course sequence they were in. For most ethnic groups (e.g., White, Black, and Latino students), perceiving more same ethnic peers in math class buffered math motivation in a more advanced math course sequence; alternatively, for other ethnic groups (e.g., Asian students), more perceived same ethnic peers was more important in a lower level math sequence. Policy implications regarding both the consequences of math course intensification and ethnic segregation in schools were discussed.

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