The Problem of Decreasing Student Motivation

Table of Content

This study will focus on the problem of decreasing student motivation towards the life sciences within the urban school district. Student engagement and motivation will be promoted through the integration of service learning projects into the curriculum. The success of the community service component of the course will be identified through the observations and data that are received through an action research study that is implemented at an urban high school.

Community service projects that are relevant to the course content foster student experiences that make scientific concepts more meaningful and relevant. When a student feels a personal connection to the subject, levels of motivation will naturally increase as well as a responsibility to comprehend the subject matter at a deeper level. The results of this study did indicate that active participation and intrinsic learning were indeed an outcome of a curriculum based service-learning project.

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Not only were motivation levels elevated but academic performance also increased. In a society that is experiencing a decline in scientific literacy, this study demonstrated the usefulness of community service projects as a useful tool for delivering science content in a meaningful manner to the student body of an urban school. There are many obstacles within the urban school district that prevent educators from creating a meaningful learning experience for students in the science classroom.

The environment of the urban community alone makes it difficult for students to find relevance or make connections to the ecological content of the biology course. How does an educator motivate a student to understand the importance of recycling lawn clippings when the majority of them have only played on concrete? There are also many cultural barriers such as ESL constraints and differing values towards science that make it hard for an educator to present the content in a way that allows for students to personally connect to it.

According to Andrew Furco in his contribution to the annual Growing to Greatness report, “if students do not connect with the subject matter or engage themselves in the learning process, they are unlikely to achieve” (2007). Finally, there are many factors from outside the classroom that can further conflict with student motivation. Students that are faced with hunger, depression, or poor family and peer relationships show a decline in motivation and their ability to focus and concentrate on mental tasks (Woodward and Ferguson 2000).

While these issues exist in all communities they are more prevalent in urban communities further increasing the gap of academic achievement between these students and those from more rural communities. Students in an urban society often only see the world through the lens of the neighborhoods that they live in, the social networks they have formed, and the norms they are accustomed to. Service learning will provide the necessary opportunities for students to be exposed to new environments that will broaden their horizons and view of the world (Furco 2007).

The underlying educational philosophy that promotes service learning can be traced back to John Dewy and Jean Piaget. Both of these philosophers believe that true learning can only occur when students are actively involved and when a clear purpose is defined (Billig 2000). Integrating community projects into discipline specific subject matter gives students an opportunity to apply abstract science concepts to ordinary social situations. Even if students do not seek a science related career, it is important to increase their scientific literacy so they can feel more connected to society as a whole.

According to the National Commission on Youth, this connection is necessary to bridge the gap between youth and adulthood (1980). Science plays such a major role n social advancement that it is necessary for young adults to really understand these concepts in order for them to be able to apply them to their professional as well as their personal lives. One of the major goals for science educators is not necessarily to produce young scientists, but to produce well-rounded individuals whom can use their knowledge of science to better their life decisions as well society as a whole.

Service learning requires that students use the knowledge they learn in the science classroom in order to help solve social dilemmas. Two social needs in the urban community, which include the need for youth reform as well as education reform, sparked an interest in the integration of a community service component to education during the 1980’s (Billig 2000). With this growing trend towards service learning integration, the need to define the term and standardize the necessary components of successful service learning projects has become the motivation for many service-learning studies.

According to Billig there is general consensus that the major components of service learning include,“ active participation, thoughtfully organized experiences, focus on community needs and school/community organization, academic curriculum integration, structured time for reflection, opportunities for application of skills and knowledge, extended learning opportunities, and development of a sense of caring for others”(2000). It is important to distinguish service learning from other types of community service programs or internships. Service learning is defined as an educational tool not a program.

Service learning must be aligned with a specific learning goal as the main objective. The key idea that emerges from the collaboration of different studies is that equal weight must be given to the importance of the learning objectives as well as the service that is being provided in order for the academic goals to be reached. The government supported the interest and integration of service when President George Bush passed the National and Community Service Act of 1990. Political leaders from both major political parties have endorsed the ideals behind a community service component to learning.

Initially service learning was integrated at the collegiate level but as research continued the need for integration at the high school level became apparent In order to combat this disconnection of students at the high school level, many states have established service learning goals for its’ curriculum. In 1993 Maryland went as far to enact a service requirement of 75 hours in order to receive a high school diploma (Markus 1993). Billig indicates that a report from the National Center for Educational Statistics in 1999 stated that nearly half of all high schools organized some form of service learning for their students.

Although the general consensus has supported the integration of community service as a necessary educational component, the movement has still been met with opposition. Some felt that requiring students to perform community service was contradictory to the altruistic nature of service. At the introduction of the service requirement in Maryland in 1993, many school administrators and staff opposed the imposition of costs and administrative tasks related to the service programs (Markus 1993).

Many believe that while service learning is an admirable gesture, there has not been any significant data to support the claim that it raises academic achievement. A study done in 1991 revealed that the only gains from service learning rarely results in higher test scores or general knowledge (Conrad and Heidin). Since many still fear that service learning will divert attention away from teaching the curriculum, it is necessary to continue to study the affects that service learning has on student motivation as well as academic advancement.

Although there have been many studies that have shown positive results towards the integration of service-learning, the need to focus on the application of this educational tool in an inner city school district still remains. With the growing concern for the learning gap that exists for urban youth, more focus has been placed on student performance on standardized tests. I have observed and experienced as an educator within this district for six years an apprehensive approach towards student centered active learning. Many teachers fear that if they rely on a more student centered approach that curricular standards will not be met.

The observations that I have made in the classroom have shown that this teacher center approach to learning has failed to foster an environment where students feel a personal connection and interest in the sciences. Successful integration of service learning as an educational tool will be observed when student participation in class increases as well as performance on class exams. Student responses to questioning regarding science concepts will not only express an understanding of the content but also a reflection of social implications related to the topic.

Students will also be actively involved in utilizing their scientific knowledge and skills to help solve social problems that exist nationally and internationally as well as in their community. With this study I will focus on answering three major questions regarding the integration of service learning in the high school science classroom: (1) Does service learning increase student motivation towards learning the science curriculum? (2) Is academic understanding a direct result of participation in a service-learning project? (3) What components of the service-learning project are most important and meaningful to the students?

As more data is collected to help formulate answers to these questions, the validity of this approach as an educational tool will emerge. Conceptual Insight Service learning has been used as a tool for engaging students with science content for some time now. Many studies agree that significant improvements in academic scores have not been a direct result of their projects. In a study done with a general biology class in 2008 data showed that there was slight difference in exam averages between a group of students that was involved in the service-learning project compared to a group of students that did not participate in the project.

The difference in test averages was approximately 2% higher in the group of students that participated in the service-learning project (Felzien and Salem 2008). However the study did reflect that 89% of the students involved in the service learning reported a positive response in regards to personal development (Felzien and Salem 2008). Although a significant difference in academic success was not a direct outcome of this particular study, it does not rule this as a tool for academic gains.

Responses from student reflections in regards to the project improvements reveal that students felt they should have had more time with the community group (Felzien and Salem 2008). This project in particular was a brief initial experience for this group of students. If the integration of this as a curricular tool over a sustained period of time with repeated experiences and interactions were to be evaluated an overall greater gain in academic scores might emerge. This study clearly illustrates the need for more research in order to substantiate this teaching method as a tool that can be used in order to produce higher exam scores.

Another study done by Jensen and Burr in 2006 outlined a service-learning project with a technology class. The integration of this project was based on the “just-in-time” knowledge-transfer system. This theory claims that if students receive information as it is needed when performing tasks, then they will be able to retain what they have learned longer (Berglund 2004), Students that took part in this project were taught skills as they were needed to complete the project. The results of this case study showed that 79% were able to master lab skills, which was the main learning objectives (Jensen and Burr 2006).

By the instructor delivering instruction at the highest point of motivation students were able to retain the information and master the skills. This clearly demonstrates the usefulness of this as a tool to meet learning objectives and disseminate information to students without the traditional lecture format. Utilizing a five point Likert scale to survey the students pre-instruction and post-instruction it was revealed that students felt more confident in the mastery of using laboratory tools and machines (Jensen and Burr 2006). Motivation was measured by class observations.

Increased motivation was demonstrated if the student was on task during the class activities as well as if they were willing to spend extra time after class to work on the project. During class observations 92% of the class was on task during the project (Jensen and Burr 2006). Jensen and Burr found the service learning project as an effective tool that helped to engage students who would not have normally participated (2006). With the mastery of lab skills such an integral part of the science curriculum, the service-learning project lends itself to creating an experience by which the just-in-time method can be implemented.

Another study that was published by Lemus, Bishop, and Walters in the summer of 2010 also was able to establish increased motivation towards science with high school students after participating in the QuickSCience challenge. The QuickSCience program is a challenge that has a community service component. This study was unique because it not only collected data from the student perspective but the teacher perspective as well. It really highlights an important ideal that teacher satisfaction with a particular teaching method is key to the proper implementation of it.

This study revealed that teachers felt that the service learning project offered quality interactions with their students, increased engagement with underrepresented students, and deeper interactions with high ability students (Lemus, Bishop, Walters 2010). By improving the teacher-student relationship service learning strengthens the learning environment, which will increase academic scores. Utilizing the ATLAS interview analyzer, this study was able to categorize student responses into nine themes.

Students reflected upon the category associated with an increase in science knowledge during their interview twice as much as categories associated with developing stewardship or working with other students (Lemus, Bishop, Walters 2010). This statistic demonstrates that these service-learning projects are not just feel-good or fluffy student activities but are in fact a quality tool in increasing student academic success. School Environment City Prep (fictional name) is a high school located within an urban community of New York City.

Students within this school come from several cultural backgrounds within the West Indian demographic. The majority of the students come from a low socioeconomic background. Based on the NYC student rating, the academic levels of the students are predominantly 1 and 2 for math, English, and science. Approximately 20% of the students are level one ESL students whom have just emigrated from Haiti. The school atmosphere has been consistently improving over the past four years. NYC has rated the school with a grade of A for the prior three years.

While achievement has been high within the science department of this school in regards to student passing rates on state assessments, teacher observations have been that students are not intrinsically motivated in the topics of Biology and Earth Science. Students are not motivated to work outside regular class time on science projects or competitions. Many students do not display a desire to seek careers within the science fields unless they relate to the medical field. The general perception of science topics is that it is for scientists and that it is not relevant to their own realities.

The classroom that this action research study will be carried out with is a ninth grade Biology class. The class consists of seven female students and fifteen male students. The female students tend to sit together and often display signs of disinterest in the topics being covered. Often they are socializing during science activities. On several occasions they have even begun painting their nails during class activities. In general it is very difficult to generate class discussions that relate to the science content. Aside from a few students class motivation is low as well as exam scores.

One challenge with integrating a service-learning project within the class will be to have students generate their own ideas as they relate to the learning objectives of the course. The other challenge will be to put together a cooperative group of students whom have volunteered to take part in the project. Since motivation is low, there are not man students willing to do extra work outside of the classroom. Pilot Study The pilot study took place during the beginning two weeks of the second marking period of the fall semester. The learning objectives at this time dealt with a unit on Biochemistry.

During this time students became familiar with important life compounds such as carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids. They were able to identify their structures as well as the important functions they served for the maintenance of life. This topic led into a lesson on nutrition, which discussed how these important life compounds could be maintained in order to keep the body functioning properly. In order to facilitate the service-learning project I adhered to the Essential Elements of Service Learning Standards that were developed by the Alliance for Service Learning in Educational Reform (Billig 2000).

Since this was the first time I had initiated this type of project I decided to guide the project. Students were given an option between working in the service learning group or working individually on a research essay. Students were informed that this project would require them to stay after school on several occasions to complete the project. The group that volunteered to participate consisted of four female students. The objective of the project was for the students to develop a lesson as well as an interactive activity that they would teach to a sixth grade class about nutrition.

The learning objective is that the students would gain a deeper understanding if the content by switching into the role of teacher. Once the objective was presented to them they had to work together to determine how they would present the information to the sixth grade class. I provided the group with a rubric in order for them to use as an outline for their project. I used the project rubric, observations, interviews, and student reflection papers in order to assess their knowledge of the content, their levels of motivations, which aspects of the project proved most meaningful to them.

The data was collected informally through teacher observation of the students as they worked on the project as well as in the classroom. Students were asked to write a reflection essay at the end of the project. The reflection essay gave insight into student motivation as well as aspects of the project that they found most meaningful. Furthermore, scores on a unit exam were compared to the rest of the class in order to reflect upon their ability to retain the information learned from the project.

The service project that the students designed contained several components that allowed for them to demonstrate their content knowledge as well as their motivation. They created a Power Point presentation as well as a worksheet for the students, which they would complete with the class on the first day. They would return to the class on a second day to complete an activity with the class, which would consist of them showing the class how to make healthy snacks that would supply the necessary life compounds.

They created a cookbook, which included the recipes for the class as well as the scientific concepts conveyed in their lesson. The project took approximately two weeks to plan and execute. At the end of the activity I met with the group during lunch in order to discuss the experience. We used this time to celebrate and reflect upon the successful components as well as some of the unsuccessful components of the project. The students also used this time to read aloud some aspects of their reflection essays that they had completed. Findings

At the completion of the project the informal interviews, observations, and project rubric was assessed in order to determine if any gains in motivation or content knowledge took place. The interview at the project celebration gave students an opportunity to express the aspects of the project that they enjoyed the most and what aspects they felt could be improved. In order to assess content knowledge, I evaluated the Power Point presentation as well as the handout that the group had made for their lesson. I also observed them as they taught the lesson to the sixth grade class of students.

I found that the presentation demonstrated a clear understanding of the learning objectives. Each member displayed confidence in their knowledge of nutrition and compounds as they gave their presentation. As the sixth grade students were completing the worksheet the group had generated they were able to walk around and answer questions that the sixth grade class had. I also averaged the unit exam scores of the four students and compared them to the average grade for the rest of the class that did not participate. The project group of students had an average of 87% while the class average was approximately 84%.

After analyzing the short answer questions on the exam I found that the project group was able to provide more in depth responses to the questions. Answers reflected the relationships that the abstract content had with their life experiences. In order to assess motivation I made class observations as well as informal conversations with the group. During the course of the two weeks I observed a significant difference in class participation and independent learning. The four group members were able to identify their own learning goals and utilize different sources to gain access to that information.

The group asked on several occasions if they could spend their lunch period in the classroom in order to complete aspects of their project. The group took responsibility of their project by reaching out to the service recipients on their own. They were able to contact and arrange appropriate times to meet with the class and the teacher that they would be visiting. I also was able to document that during the time frame of the project that the group members completed all other class assignments on time. This group showed a significant improvement in homework completion at this time.

The group reported positive feelings in their reflection papers in regards to increasing their confidence with the course content. All of the students in the group claimed that they would be interested in participating in this type of project again. In order to identify the components of the service-learning project that meant the most to the students I reviewed and analyzed their refection papers. I evaluated their responses to the project based on nine categories generated by an ATLAS analysis from the Lemus, Bishop, and Walters study in 2010.

As I read the reflection essays of each student I recorded the number of responses that were relevant to each thematic area. The results are outlined in Figure 1 below. Table 1: Analysis of Reflection Paper The reflection papers that the students in the project group completed indicated the components of the project that influenced the students the most. The results show that most of the responses indicated that the project made them feel more aware of their community. A lot of the students said in their responses that this project made them feel like they were helpful to other members of their community.

The analysis also indicates that the students really felt that this project helped them gain knowledge about the science content it was associated with. They said that by having to teach the material to younger students they became more confident in their knowledge of the subject. Conclusion Although the data collection was limited due to a small sample size, the results clearly indicate positive outcomes towards academic goals from this type of service-learning project. It appears that disseminating science content through service learning project helps students retain the information in a more meaningful manner.

Students not only remembered the content but they were able to apply it to real life situations. Students were able to provide more in depth answers to the short answer questions than the students who were given the information in a more traditional manner. The group of students was able to perform better on exams as well as homework assignments. I feel that of this method was used more readily with a group of students academic achievement would emerge at a higher marginal difference.

There seems to be a clear connection between a student’s motivation and participation in this type of service learning project. Classroom observations showed that this group of students was participating more in class activity as well as extracurricular activities outside of the set class period. The group was very motivated to have a good presentation and activity that would be fun for the sixth grade class. The students wanted to learn the content so they could provide a benefit to the recipient of the service.

There was a need to learn the content for other reasons than just to receive a good grade on a test. With the focus taken off their own personal needs they were able to acquire information and skills in a more organic manner. Finally, I used the reflection papers and informal interviews to establish the aspects of the project that meant the most to the students as well as the aspects that they felt could be improved. The participants seemed to mention the interactions they had with the service recipients often. They were most impacted by the fieldwork aspect of the project.

In future projects I will try to facilitate a more extensive interaction between the students and their service target. Another component of the service learning experience that needs to be addressed is student choice. Although the students enjoyed working with the younger students, they expressed a desire to work outside of the school atmosphere. They expressed some of their ideas of other community projects that they could become a part of. I asked the group to write down these ideas and propose how they could be integrated into our course curriculum.

In the next phase of this study I will allow students to generate their own project ideas in order to analyze if this factor could be the key component to increasing motivation. In conclusion the outcome of this study is positive in nature. Integrating service learning projects into the course curriculum does in fact increase student motivation to learn the content as well as create a classroom atmosphere that promotes academic success. Further analysis as service learning as a curricular tool will reveal the components of these projects that are directly linked to student success.

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