Date of Award


Degree Name

EdD Doctor of Education

Dissertation Committee

Leif Fearn, EdD; Nancy Farnan, PhD; Robert L. Infantino, EdD


academic achievement, academic choices, adolescents, education, families & family life, friendships, middle schools, middle school students, motivation, relevance, school contexts, social choices, teachers


The purpose of this study was to explore whether or not a connection exists between students' school contexts and their academic and social choices by listening to the voices of first year middle school students. The intent of this study was to provide teachers with a way to reconceptualize adolescents as learners. Research suggests that there are two distinct approaches to the study of motivation. Some researchers believe that motivation can be externally enacted through exams, assessments, and other accountability measures. Other researchers believe that motivation is internally generated through the relationships students build, through their beliefs about learning, and through their past successes and failures. Both approaches dominate discussions on student motivation and achievement. This work represented students' voices in order to explore which approach to motivation led to a better understanding of students' reactions to middle school that, in turn, will allow teachers to create instructional contexts that encourage genuine engagement and academic achievement. The study accomplished its purpose by surveying, interviewing, and observing students in their first year of middle school and analyzing what they said influenced their decisions to engage in or to disengage from school learning experiences. Data analysis identified themes that ran through the students' responses. By highlighting the voices of young adolescents, this study found that external factors influence internal motivation to achieve but cannot alone sustain it. Young adolescents wanted to be academically challenged by their teachers, but they also needed their coursework to be relevant to their immediate interests and needs. Being told that school was a preparation for some distant future was not a sufficient reason to work diligently. Students in this study relied heavily on their network of friends and family as they adjusted to their new school contexts, and teachers also influenced motivation through their teaching practices, interactions with students, and expectations for student success or failure.

Document Type

Dissertation: Open Access