From the Field

Turning Skills and Knowledge into Academic Achievement

Student motivation is essential to school success, but so is academic efficiency, the ability to turn the skills and knowledge a student has learned into better grades and achievement. In a National Bureau of Economic Research paper, researchers Christopher Cotton, Brent R. Hickman, John A. ListJoseph Price and Sutanuka Roy explore how differences in students’ motivation correlate with their academic efficiency. They found high motivation is correlated with later success, but academic efficiency is about three times more important when determining the initial math proficiency of students.

 The team studied students from three different school districts and compared their motivation levels to their academic efficiency across racial, gender, and socioeconomic lines. In terms of race, the researchers found that, while there were gaps in achievement between students of different races, there was no difference in motivation between racial groups.

 When looking at gender, the team found that male students performed better on standardized tests than their female counterparts in high-performing school districts, but not in other districts. They contend that the female students showed higher levels of motivation, while male students tended to have higher academic efficiency.

The authors urge policymakers to rethink their educational interventions, arguing that efforts to motivate students through incentives or information about the returns to education might be misguided since motivation is not the primary barrier limiting their performance.

By Caroline Berner