by Kenneth Butler

I am interested in how and why people learn mathematics, and I am committed to making sure all students have access to mathematics that is rich in content and engaging. Unfortunately, too many students believe they are being forced to participate in mathematics, they do not believe they are competent participants in mathematics classrooms, and they do not see success in mathematics as something attained by people who are similar to them.  This lack of the basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness in many current mathematics environments forces some of the brightest students to cede their opportunity to learn and to abandon any aspirations of a career path rich in mathematics. I see this lack of motivation for mathematics as one of the biggest challenges facing educators in the United States today, and it is the impetus for much of my research.

My interest in cognition and the desire to measure motivation led me to consider issues surrounding the measurement of motivational constructs. I developed and provided validity evidence for an abbreviated instrument that measures motivation as framed by self-determination, self-efficacy, achievement goal theory, and expectancy-value.

Research utilizing the MMAI has provided insight into the fluid relationship between gender, achievement goals, and mathematics achievement. I recently explored this relationship when a path analysis provided significant evidence that mastery orientation in males was inversely related to achievement, and that performance orientations in females were directly related to achievement. To reconcile these relationships, I relied on cognitive interviews. Data from these interviews revealed that some students felt they were in a situation where course pacing made it impossible to understand the material being presented. This situation produced anxiety in a mastery oriented male. Alternatively, a performance oriented female stopped trying to understand everything and instead focused solely on her grades. This coping strategy may have explained why performance orientation in females improved achievement. Notice, the quantitative analysis revealed a relationship, but I relied upon qualitative data for interpretation.

Recently, through a collaboration with a colleague I reworked an article associated with improving engagement by adding situational content to word problems with spatial content. This added situational content created a potential for causation and then provided agency to the reader for finding a resolution to conflict. Using path analyses, we revealed that seventh grade females who were better in language arts were more successful at solving mathematical word problems with included situational content. This led to the conclusion that situational content was motivational for some students as it gave them agency and helped them form relationships.

This study aligned with my focus on developing a theoretical framework associated with relatedness in mathematics education, and I am currently reviewing this framework using an ecological model for situational grounding. Constructivist theories on education foster peer-to-peer and student-teacher relationships. Project based instruction and model eliciting activities encourage family and community relationships, and social justice issues and culturally relevant pedagogy provide students a lens to critically view controversial social issues and culture. In this process, I am dedicated to fostering relationships between student interests and mathematical content, because this is the best way to reach students. By encouraging motivation for mathematics, we can improve student engagement in a mathematically rich, logical, and fact based society.