Judith Marackiewicz and her colleagues took a different approach and sent two glossy brochures and a web-site password to the parents of 81 boys and girls (aged approximately 16) at 108 schools in the Wisconsin area. The first brochure "Making Connections: Helping Your Teen Find Value in School" was delivered when the school pupils were in their 10th grade (aged about 16 years), and the second about six months later.
The researchers were guided by psychological theory that says students are motivated by a mix of factors: their expectations about how well they'll do, how much they think they'll enjoy a subject, and how useful they think it will be to them. The brochures and website particularly targeted the last factor. The materials contained information educating parents about the usefulness of maths and science to their children's careers, and advising them on ways to discuss this with their children. This included ways to personalise the discussion of the subjects, as well showcasing the relevance of the subjects to real-life activities, such as video games and driving.
The intervention had a powerful effect. Compared to 100 students in a control group, the children of targeted parents reported at follow-up that they'd had more discussions with their parents about the value of science and maths courses, and crucially, they also opted to take more of these subjects at high-school (this averaged out as the equivalent of an extra semester of maths or science during the final two years of school). Mothers in the intervention group also reported being more aware of the value of maths and science to their children's careers.
Time and again past research has shown that one of the strongest predictors of children's choice of science and maths is their parents' level of education. This was replicated in the current study, and impressively enough, the influence of the intervention was the same size as this oft-studied parental factor. Targeting parents may be particularly shrewd, the researchers said, since they have a privileged insight into their children's personalities and histories, and are therefore uniquely placed to help them realise the advantages to studying maths, science, technology and and/or engineering (STEM).
"Parents are an untapped resource for promoting STEM motivation," Marackiewicz and her team concluded, "and the results of our study demonstrate that a modest intervention aimed at parents can produce significant changes in their children's academic choices."
Harackiewicz JM, Rozek CS, Hulleman CS, and Hyde JS (2012). Helping Parents to Motivate Adolescents in Mathematics and Science: An Experimental Test of a Utility-Value Intervention. Psychological science PMID: 22760887
Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.