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Can challenging classes also be enjoyed?

Abstract

Because enjoyment of academics increases intrinsic motivation, it also has the potential to facilitate learning. However, an optimal learning environment is not only enjoyable but also challenges students to fully use and improve their skills. We examined the relationships between challenge and enjoyment in fifth-grade mathematics classrooms. Results indicate that provision of choice positively affects enjoyment, and interest in the material mediates the relationship between challenge and enjoyment. Thus, challenging learning environments can also be enjoyable, provided the material fits students' interests and goals.

Introduction

Students are motivated to seek activities which they find enjoyable. Their environment has the capacity to affect enjoyment and, thus, intrinsic motivation to learn. When students enjoy academics and the academic environment, they are intrinsically motivated to learn. Intrinsic motivation leads to both higher levels of learning and creativity. Understanding and implementing elements necessary to create environments that will enhance students' enjoyment in the classroom will also produce higher quality educational experiences. Because the primary goal of our education system is to teach and inspire a desire for learning in our youth, then determining the best environments for doing so should be of the utmost importance to educators.

Csikszentmihalyi (2000) postulates that it is through the study of enjoyment that one gains a true understanding of intrinsic motivation. He observes that when people find pleasure in an activity or behavior, they will choose to engage in that activity or behavior merely to experience pleasure; no further reward is required. When educators are able to create the conditions necessary for students to enjoy their experiences in the classroom, then students seek to learn and produce quality work for the pleasure that they gain from the experience (Glasser, 1993). Enjoyment not only produces a higher level of learning but also higher levels of creativity and quality work (Renzulli, 1994). Therefore, if one seeks to affect intrinsic motivation in the student population, then one must also seek to understand the conditions necessary for enjoyment in academics.

Of the many aspects of intrinsic motivation, choice, challenge, and interest are three of the most researched. For example, Ryan and Deci (2000) found that choice enhances intrinsic motivation because it permits a greater sense of independence. This is important because when students are allowed choices in the classroom they tend to feel more personally involved and take greater responsibility for their part in the educational process (Gentry & Springer, 2002). However, this only holds true when the activities provided them are intrinsically interesting (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Most people prefer to engage in interesting rather than non-interesting activities. Whether or not there is potential reward or goal attainment, students will engage in interesting tasks because they enjoy them (Deci & Ryan, 1991). Because interest is central to motivation, understanding students' interests and determining how to create an interesting environment can improve quality of learning (Deci & Ryan, 1985).

Environments most conducive to learning are not only interesting but also provide optimal challenges (Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, & Whalen, 1993; Vygotsky, 1978). Optimal challenges are ideally matched to students' skill levels. As skill levels increase, the challenges must also increase to facilitate continued learning. Optimally challenging environments can also be intrinsically motivating. For example, Csikszentmihalyi and colleagues have found that experiences defined by high challenge and high skill provide the potential for positive affect, a loss of time awareness, and complete engagement. If challenge is too high or too low (i.e. not matched to skill levels), then an experience could be defined as anxiety-inducing or boring/relaxing. It seems, then, that optimally challenging experiences hold the potential for enjoyment and can encourage intrinsic motivation. However, just because a situation is optimally challenging does not mean that it will be experienced positively. The experience must also be valued or fit one's interest (Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1988; Csikszentmihalyi et al., 1993; see also Eccles, et al., 1983; Wigfield & Eccles, 2000). Similarly, Expectancy-Value Theory postulates that task difficulty (as related to expectancy of success) must also be met with value (or interest) to positively influence students' academic decisions and motivation. It is under this condition that the situation can be most positively experienced and enjoyed.

Present Research

In order to assess student attitudes relevant to school success and achievement, Gentry & Gable (2001), designed an instrument, My Class Activities, based on the study of gifted students, and since used and validated with non-gifted students (Gentry, Rizza, & Owen, 2002; Gentry & Springer, 2002). The instrument measures student perceptions of choice, challenge, interest, and enjoyment in the classroom.

The purpose of this study was to investigate the relationship between interest, choice, challenge, and enjoyment in regular education classrooms. We sought to determine if level of enjoyment can be predicted by the remaining dimensions. Further, the relationship between interest and challenge was explored. We contend that the relationship between challenging learning environments and motivation is not direct, but is mediated by interest in the task (as suggested by Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1988; Csikszentmihalyi et al., 1993; and Eecles et al., 1983). Challenging tasks that are relevant to students' interests will be more enjoyable than challenging tasks that are not relevant to students' interests. We specifically examined mathematics classes because they are frequently considered highly challenging (Shernoff, Knauth, & Makris, 2000) and highly valued (Wolters & Pintrich, 1998) by students.

Methods

Participants and Instruments. 243 fifth-grade students in two elementary schools in a Southern state were sampled (72 male, 107 female, 64 withheld gender). Of these, 125 were White, 47 were African American, 2 were Asian, 2 were American Indian, 3 responded other, and 59 did not respond.

The My Class Activities survey (Gentry & Gable, 2001, see also Gentry, Gable, & Springer, 2000 for additional psychometric properties of the survey) is a 31-item, 5-point Likert scale, from l=never to 5 = always, measuring students' challenge (9 items), choice (7 items), interest (8 items) and enjoyment (7 items). It was adapted for use specifically in math class for this study. For example, the phrase "my class" was replaced with "math class." Sample items for each scale include: challenge, "The activities I do in math class are challenging," "I find the work in math class demanding;" choice, "I can choose to work in a group," "I can choose my own projects;" interest, "What I learn in math class is interesting to me," "Math class has helped me explore my interests;" and enjoyment, "I look forward to math class," "The teacher makes learning fun."

Method. Teachers were mailed surveys for each student. They were asked to administer the surveys to each student immediately following math class on a given day and were given detailed directions to read to the whole class. All surveys were completed during the same week, and on the same date within each school. Classes within school were covering the same topics at that time. There were no reliable differences between schools, so data was collapsed across school for all analyses. Students were asked not to put their names on the surveys. When students completed the surveys, the teacher collected them in an envelope, immediately sealed it and mailed it back to the researcher. All surveys were completed in April prior to administration of any standardized tests.

Results

Multiple regression was used to test whether a student's level of interest, ability to choose, and level of challenge in a classroom setting is predictive of the level of enjoyment in academic tasks. Mean scores on the scales were computed for each student and used for the analyses (See Table 1 for descriptive statistics and relationships). Two cases in which more than two items had no response were omitted from the analyses resulting in a final N = 241. See issue website http://rapidintellect.com/AEQweb/sum2005.htm

The procedures suggested by Baron and Kenny (1986) were employed to test the hypothesized mediational model. The direct paths from challenge to interest [path a, t value (239) equaled 10.71] and challenge to enjoyment [path c, the t value (239) equaled 9.55] were significant, as well as the path from interest to enjoyment, controlling for challenge [path b, the t value (238) equaled 19.64, for all the p value was less than .01]. Additionally, when interest was included in the model, the direct path from Challenge to Enjoyment was no longer significant, [beta was equal to 0.08, the t value (238) was equal to 1.22, and therefore the p value was equal to .22, see Figure 1]. The Goodman I test was also significant (the z-score was equal to 9.63, this was significant at a p value of .001), providing a more direct test of the mediation. See issue website http://rapidintellect.com/AEQweb/sum2005.htm

We also predicted that choice would influence enjoyment, so it was added to the final model predicting enjoyment. Overall, interest was the most important predictor of enjoyment (beta was equal to 0.77, this was significant at a p value of .001), followed by choice (beta was equal to 0.11; this was significant at a p value of .01). The full model accounted for 73.3% of the variance in enjoyment.

Discussion

The results of this study demonstrated a positive relationship between students' perceptions of interest, challenge, choice and enjoyment in performing academic tasks. Specifically, as suggested by Csikszentmihalyi (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi et al., 1993) and Eccles et al. (1983), challenge and interest were predictive of enjoyment. Although they suggested that task difficulty and expectancy of success have a direct link to motivation as does task value/interest, the present research suggests the model is more complex, involving mediation. It should be noted that our measures are slightly different: challenge as opposed to task difficulty, and interest rather than strictly task value. Future research should explore this connection in other domains and with other measures of task value and challenge. Of the three independent variables, interest was found to be the most important predictor of enjoyment; if children find a task interesting, they are likely to also enjoy it. Choice was also found to be a significant predictor of enjoyment, although less important than interest. The power of choice as a predictor of enjoyment may rely upon the personality characteristics of the student; some students may prefer greater levels of autonomy than do others.

Some could argue that the categories for interest and enjoyment measure the same constructs; however, it is important to remember that, while interesting activities are almost always enjoyable, people derive enjoyment or pleasure from experiences that they do not find interesting (e.g., relaxing, watching television, see Kubey & Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Further, Gentry and Gable (2001, Gentry, Rizza, & Gable, 2001) have routinely found that the two scales form unique factors. The level of relatedness between the two is a measure of the importance of providing interest to increase enjoyment, and therefore, intrinsic motivation in students. These results can be directly translated to classroom practices. To help promote choice, teachers can minimize external controls, allow students to set goals and encourage them to engage in activities of their own choosing (Benware & Deci, 1984; Deci & Ryan, 1985). Optimal challenge can be maintained through awareness of students' abilities and provision of activities that students are able to accomplish with reasonable effort (Brophy, 1999). As students' skills improve, teachers should increase the difficulty of tasks. It is not enough that tasks are optimally challenging, but that they are also interesting. Applying math to real-life problems can enhance enjoyment (Middleton, 1995) and stimulate situational interest (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). Teachers can also emphasize the importance of a topic by pressing students to explain and justify their answers (Stipek et al., 1998). Specifically, teachers can emphasize the relevance of tasks to life outside the classroom by encouraging students to form meaningful conceptual relationships rather than focusing solely on procedures or algorithms (Kazemi & Stipek, 2001). With these ideas, challenging classes can also be made enjoyable.

In sum, these results support the conclusion that challenging classes can also be enjoyed. Choice, challenge and interest are all important dimensions of intrinsic motivation, insomuch as enjoyable activities are intrinsically motivating. Based on this study, if learning environments are to be challenging, then providing an interesting learning environment to students is of the utmost importance. In such a way, the environment will be conducive not only to learning and achievement, but also to intrinsic motivation to learn.

Conclusion

The present research investigated the relationships between students' levels of interest, choice and challenge within the context of the classroom and level of enjoyment in academics. In particular, the study sought to determine if students enjoy classes that they fined challenging. Results of the study demonstrated that as levels of choice and interest in tasks increase so do levels of enjoyment however, challenging tasks are only enjoyed when they are in interesting as well. These findings provide a model for future research in which additional student and environmental influences on enjoyment of academics can be examined; these may include personality, school, and teacher influences.

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Amy Schweinle, University of South Dakota

Sharon L. Nelson, University of South Dakota

Schweinle, PhD is assistant professor of Educational Psychology and Nelson, M.A., is Ph.D. candidate of School Psychology
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Author:Nelson, Sharon L.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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