First Advisor

Ellen Skinner

Term of Graduation

Summer 2020

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Applied Psychology






Achievement motivation in adolescence, Academic achievement, Motivation in education



Physical Description

1 online resource (xv, 403 pages)


The middle school years are, in many ways, a key window for students' motivational development. Despite the numerous developmental gains that characterize early adolescence, levels of academic motivation tend to decline as students age, and show steeper drops during the transitions to middle school and to high school. Maintaining high levels of motivation during this period may be particularly important for students from marginalized groups who are at risk for even steeper motivational drops--and for whom academic motivation may be an especially critical resource for later success. Because academic motivation seems to stabilize after middle school, students' later success may hinge upon their maintaining (or recovering) sufficiently high levels of motivation by the end of eighth grade to withstand the transition to high school and carry students through their high school years.

In order for practitioners to intervene in support of such a goal, they would first need to know the patterns and pathways of motivation that typically do (vs. do not) result in students having high motivation levels at the end of eighth grade, and then know whether there are malleable resources that enable students to successfully traverse these motivational pathways. Using academic engagement as a key marker of motivation, academic achievement as an indicator of academic success, and a set of personal and inter-personal resources identified by self-determination theory, the current study seeks to shed light on these patterns of successful motivational development.

Findings from previous longitudinal studies of engagement during middle school offer preliminary information about three kinds of motivational patterns that do (vs. do not) tend to culminate in high levels of engagement in eighth grade. First, findings from studies of normative trajectories of engagement show patterns of declines across middle school such that students do not, on average, end with high levels of engagement. Significant variation in these trajectories, however, suggests that there may be a subset of students who do maintain high levels throughout middle school. Second, findings in several of these studies also showed periods of steeper declines or brief recovery punctuating the otherwise gradual declines in engagement across middle school. These discontinuities could suggest potential key windows of time during which more motivational changes might occur (and at which interventions might be especially impactful). Third, studies of multiple trajectories of engagement have identified sub-groups of students who follow common alternative trajectories of engagement, including those who maintain high levels throughout middle school, those whose trajectories are characterized by even steeper declines, and those who show motivational recovery across middle school. No studies to date, however, have identified personal or interpersonal resources that significantly distinguish sub-groups of students whose engagement levels remain high, show steeper drops, or show recovery over middle school.

Building on this research, this study drew on data from 576 students at a highly-diverse middle school, who were followed for up to six time points from sixth to eighth grade, to address gaps in the current literature regarding patterns of motivational success. To that end, this study used three developmental approaches--examining normative trajectories, time windows, and alternative pathways of student engagement--to identify the pathways by which students do (and do not) reach the end of eighth grade with high levels of engagement and achievement, and to discern the processes by which a set of theoretically-guided personal and interpersonal resources can support those pathways.

Results from analyses of normative trends in engagement showed that some students do reach the end of middle school with high absolute levels of engagement and achievement. Results from analyses of time windows suggested that sixth grade may be a time of instability, carrying both opportunity and vulnerability; seventh grade may be a possible respite from declines and change for recovery; and eighth grade may be a time of steeper declines. The findings on alternative trajectories supported the existence of the hypothesized groups, including a small group who started with positive levels of engagement that then steeply declined, a small group whose levels started low and increased, and a large group of students who were able to avoid the normative declines and maintain high levels of engagement in motivation across middle school.

Moreover, findings showed that the set of six personal and interpersonal resources were significantly associated with the successful navigation of each of these motivational pathways. Multiple resources (often all six) supported each pathway, suggesting the importance of studying motivational supports with methods that allow for consideration of predictors as a system or set as opposed to lone asset. The alternative trajectory groups whose engagement levels showed steeper drops or recovery over middle school were characterized by differences in resource changes over time. The group whose engagement levels remained high across middle school had higher levels of all six resources, suggesting that the full suite of resources--relatedness, competence, autonomy, teacher support, parent support, and peer support--may be necessary for truly successful motivational development in middle school.


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