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When Girls Gradually Lose Interest in Learning and Achievement – and Boys Care Even Less

A decreasing interest in expanding their own skill sets is evident in all students between grades five and nine. In this period, the students also become less inclined to demonstrate competence and cover up incompetencies. Yet, these declines are stronger in boys than in girls, a study reveals. The findings have been published in the journal “Learning and Individual Differences“. The study was conducted by researchers from the German Institute for International Educational Research (Deutsches Institut für Internationale Pädagogische Forschung – DIPF) and the University of Kassel.

“We aim to contribute to a better understanding of the development of achievement motivation of girls and boys“, Désirée Theis from DIPF explains the aim of the study which she conducted together with Professor Dr. Natalie Fischer from the University of Kassel. The researchers investigated how strongly students are committed to pursuing certain achievement goals from grades five to nine. Three categories of such goals can be identified. Mastery goals represent the students‘ interest in expanding their own competencies and their own knowledge. This attitude facilitates particularly deep learning. Performance goals, on the other hand, determine the students‘ motivation to perform well in comparison to their peers (performance-approach goals) respectively their motivation to avoid demonstrating incompetence (performance-avoidance goals). Until now, little is known about the development of these goals in middle school and respective sex differences. The recently published study addresses this gap.

Data were collected from 2005 until 2009 in the context of the longitudinal “Study on the Development of All-day Schools” (StEG) funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the European Social Fund. Standardised questionnaires were used to assess the students’ achievement goals. The questionnaires were completed by 6,853 students in grades five, seven and nine. Latent growth curve models and latent change score models were used to analyse changes of the achievement goals over this period of time.

The findings demonstrate a significant decline of achievement goals in all students throughout middle school. However, there are significant differences between boys and girls. In grade 5, girls show a higher level of mastery goals. Moreover, there is a stronger decline of these achievement goals over time in boys. Both sexes initially show a similar level of performance goals, and a similar decline is notable by grade 7. At this point, however, scores stabilise for the girls, while boys further lose interest in demonstrating competence and hiding incompetencies. As Désirée Theis summarises: “Our findings suggest that the decline of interest in learning and achievement is stronger in boys than in girls throughout middle school.“

Theis reasons that learning environments do not seem to meet the male students' needs. Other results of StEG show that autonomy and participation in school seem to be more important for boys than for girls. “After grade 7, girls seem to have gotten used to the new learning environment at middle school and pay more attention to their desire to be noticed for mastery by teachers, parents and peers.” Theis points out that the findings might serve to explain why girls do better than boys in middle school in Germany. Several studies have, for example, provided evidence for the high positive correlation between mastery goals and academic achievement. Further analyses are, however, needed to draw concrete conclusions, e.g. based on a differentiation of achievement goals in different subject areas such as reading and mathematics. It would then be important to investigate the correlation with instructional variables, to find out how boys and girls might be motivated in the long run.

Original publication:
Theis, D. & Fischer, N. (2017). Sex differences in the development of achievement goals in middle school. Learning and Individual Differences,(57), 170-177. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.lindif.2017.05.006


Study: Désirée Theis, DIPF, 49 (0)69 24708-109,
Press: Philip Stirm, DIPF, +49 (0)69 24708-123, , www.dipf.de/en/

About DIPF:

The German Institute for International Educational Research (DIPF) based in Frankfurt am Main and Berlin delivers empirical educational research, digital infrastructure and targeted knowledge transfer, thus contributing to coping with challenges in education. Knowledge for education is processed and documented by the Leibniz Institute to support science, politics and practice in education – to the benefit of society.

About the University of Kassel:

The University of Kassel has ca. 25,000 students and an exceptionally broad profile spanning the competence areas of nature, technology, culture, and society. Around one fifth of the student population are enroled in teacher education courses. Besides offering a high number of training workshops, the University demonstrates particular strength in teacher education owing to a close linkage with educational research, a focal research domain in Kassel.

last modified Oct 11, 2017