Motivation Matters: Cultivating Curiosity in Middle School Students

May 3, 2024
Ema Keyes and Marlene Leipold

The Decline of Curiosity in Middle School

Children are inherently curious (Sobel, Letourneau, 2018). Once a child learns the question word “why”, the never-ending loop of asking it begins. Why is the sky blue? Why is fire hot? Why do we eat food? This begs the question of why it is, that once the same kids enter school, this innate curiosity dwindles drastically. More often than not, learning suddenly becomes an annoying duty rather than a joyful activity. Recent studies show that in today’s educational landscape, student motivation has been declining over the years (Cohen et al., 2023). The reason for this decline is poorly understood, but it might be attributed to the reduction in curiosity. Curiosity is a fundamental concept in motivation and is defined as the intrinsic motivation to learn (Grigorescu, 2020). It is often understood as a motive to reduce the negative feelings that accompany uncertainty and aids in closing information gaps. (The Oxford Handbook of Human Motivation, n.d.). Curiosity leads to seeking knowledge and is the most powerful motivator towards learning (Sobel, Letourneau, 2018). Being intrinsically motivated to learn is the most effective way for students to acquire knowledge, as being curious activates two important brain regions: The hippocampus and the nucleus accumbens. The hippocampus’s primary functions involve memory and learning, whereas the nucleus accumbens - often called the brain’s reward center - bridges motivation and action (Gruber et al., 2014). Hence, it is crucial to intrinsically motivate students to learn.

What is Intrinsic Motivation?

In contrast to extrinsic motivation, which is stimulated by outside rewards such as grades, intrinsic motivation entails doing an activity because it is interesting and enjoyable. Extrinsically motivated students often feel highly controlled, and the pressure to perform well makes their behavior dependent on the positive or negative consequences (Barell, 2003). However, conventional education systems now motivate students through grades and achievement. These external factors undermine a learner’s inherent need for autonomy, as described in the Self-Determination Theory. This theoretical framework describes intrinsic motivation and posits that individuals are most motivated and inclined toward learning when their fundamental needs of autonomy, relatedness, and competence are satisfied. As defined within this framework, autonomy pertains to the perception of having choices and willingly engaging in specific behaviors (Ntoumanis et al., 2020). Relatedness is the second core need, characterized by the desire for interpersonal connection and a sense of belonging (Ntoumanis et al., 2020). Finally, the Self-Determination Theory describes competence as the third core need, which entails pursuing mastery and efficacy within an activity (Ntoumanis et al., 2020). 

Understanding the Drop in Motivation

The transition from childhood to adolescence marks a critical period in educational development, particularly during the middle school years (ages 11-13). Research by Eccles et al. (1993) highlights a concerning trend during this phase: a decline in student motivation and interest in learning. This decline is closely associated with several factors inherent to the secondary education environment, including increased pressure to perform well in exams, reduced perceived closeness between students and teachers, and a general escalation in academic difficulty (Ryan & Patrick, 2001).

In response to this challenge, after-school programs targeting this age group, particularly those focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects, have been developed and researched to foster sustained interest and motivation in learning. These programs have shown promise in mitigating the decline in student motivation typically observed during this "high-risk" period. For instance, a study by Grolnick et al. (2007) evaluated the impact of an afterschool club, named "The Investigator’s Club," designed around the principles of Self-Determination Theory, which posits that increasing feelings of autonomy, competence, and relatedness can enhance motivation. This study found that participants of the afterschool club exhibited a shift from external to more autonomous motivation in learning, in stark contrast to a control group, indicating a positive influence on intrinsic motivation.

The concept of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation is further explored in research by Farrell and Dweck (1985), which builds on Dweck's identification of two types of achievement goals: learning goals, aimed at enhancing competence, and performance goals, focused on being judged positively on competence. This research demonstrated that emphasizing performance goals can lead to a phenomenon known as "learned helplessness," particularly among students who perceive their abilities as low. These students often give up when faced with challenges, attributing their failures to a lack of ability. In contrast, when learning goals are emphasized, students' beliefs about their abilities do not impede their achievement behaviors. These students are more likely to engage in persistent problem-solving efforts, regardless of the task's difficulty or their initial failures, highlighting the importance of fostering a learning-oriented mindset to support educational resilience and success.

Together, these studies underscore the critical role of educational strategies and interventions prioritizing intrinsic motivation and learning goals over performance metrics, particularly during the pivotal middle school years. By supporting students' autonomy, competence, and relatedness and by emphasizing the value of learning and improvement over performance, educators can help counteract the trend of declining motivation and engagement, laying the groundwork for a lifetime of curiosity and learning.

Reimagining Education with Curiosity Clubs

In conclusion, the design of our Curiosity Clubs intricately aligns with the core tenets of Self-Determination Theory to foster motivation and enhance the educational experience for middle school students. By granting students the autonomy to choose their projects, we empower them with a sense of ownership over their learning journey. This autonomy is complemented by structured opportunities for peer collaboration, which builds a supportive community and deepens their sense of relatedness and belonging. Additionally, we prioritize the development of competence through the recognition of intrinsic accomplishments rather than external assessments. These foundational elements are crucial for cultivating a lasting curiosity and a vibrant enthusiasm for learning among adolescents, ensuring that motivation in educational settings evolves from being merely extrinsic to profoundly intrinsic. Through these efforts, we are committed to transforming the landscape of middle school education by making curiosity a central pillar of student engagement and success. 


Barell, J. (2003). Developing more curious minds. ASCD.

Cohen, D. R., Lewis, C., Eddy, C. L., Henry, L., Hodgson, C., L. Huang, F., ... & Herman, K. C. (2023). In-school and out-of-school suspension: Behavioral and psychological outcomes in a predominately black sample of middle school students. School psychology review, 52(1), 1-14.

Eccles, J. S., Wigfield, A., Midgley, C., Reuman, D., Iver, D. M., & Feldlaufer, H. (1993). Negative effects of traditional middle schools on students' motivation. The elementary school journal, 93(5), 553-574.

Farrell, E. W. (1985). The role of motivational processes in transfer of learning. Harvard University.

Grigorescu, D. (2020, January 1). Curiosity, intrinsic motivation and the pleasure of knowledge. | Journal of Educational Sciences & Psychology | EBSCOhost.

Grolnick, W. S., Farkas, M. S., Sohmer, R., Michaels, S., & Valsiner, J. (2007). Facilitating motivation in young adolescents: Effects of an after-school program. Journal of applied developmental psychology, 28(4), 332-344.

Gruber, M. J., Gelman, B. D., & Ranganath, C. (2014). States of curiosity modulate hippocampus-dependent learning via the dopaminergic circuit. Neuron, 84(2), 486-496.

Ryan, A. M., & Patrick, H. (2001). The classroom social environment and changes in adolescents’ motivation and engagement during middle school. American educational research journal, 38(2), 437-460.

Sobel, D. M., & Letourneau, S. M. (2018). Curiosity, exploration, and children’s understanding of learning. Active learning from infancy to childhood: Social motivation, cognition, and linguistic mechanisms, 57-74.

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