Increasing student interest in STEM: A multi-tiered approach

*Although normally focuses on legal topics, this article is being published in our new “Special Edition” category. We hope parents and teachers currently homeschooling students due to the global pandemic caused by COVID-19 find the research provided here useful. 

By: Trey Ross, M.Ed., Esq.; Jared Blankenship, M.Ed.; and Jermaine Ross, M.Ed.


Research on the psychology of student motivation was examined. To increase student interest in studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), the authors—current or former educators of urban students—learned that a focus on mastery is very important to fostering a greater interest in STEM. The authors also discovered evidence which supports research on the positive and negative impact peer friendships can have on a learner’s motivation to study STEM. Various research-based techniques were used by the authors. These methods helped to improve student competency and fostered a greater interest in the study of STEM among underrepresented groups.

Keywords: student motivation, STEM, mastery, influence of friends

Increasing student interest in STEM: A multi-tiered approach

“Ha! This is so cool!” At some point, Pictures from my camera June 2008 187we have all heard a child utter those words. Often, the previously mentioned phrase—or a similar positive expression—is exclaimed after some interesting conundrum has become crystal clear to the learner. Such positive experiences can increase both student confidence and student interest in a subject (Footnote 1)(Blustein et al., 2012). As math teachers, we know first-hand that student motivation and student confidence often harmonize when the learner understands both the value of the skill being taught and the sincerity of the teacher’s unrelenting support.

Still, schools across the United States have trouble preparing and motivating students to fill future roles in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) occupations. Because our nation’s scientists will continue to play a large part in helping to make the US a global leader, the fact that only about 16 percent of seniors in U.S. high schools are competent in mathematics and attracted to STEM careers is a national problem that must be addressed (“Science, Technology, Engineering and Math,” n.d.). Further, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (n.d.) believes that a lack of motivation is one of the factors which contributed to the US being ranked 27th out of the 34 countries which participated in the international exam known as the Programme for International Student Assessment in 2012.

That said, education leaders may find that there are a number of ways to foster greater student interest in STEM subjects. Research related to student motivation points to several strategies of which school leaders should be aware. For example, according to Ames and Archer (1988), emphasizing mastery over normative comparisons is an important step toward increasing a student’s motivation to learn a subject. Also, to promote the pursuit of STEM skills—especially among underrepresented groups—work by Robnett and Leaper (2012) suggests that schools should cultivate supportive peer networks which allow for long-term peer encouragement; we will call them “STEM Circles”.

Emphasize Mastery

 To increase student confidence and ignite an intrinsic motivation to learn in STEM courses, all stakeholders should communicate a single message: Mastery is the most important goal (Ames & Archer, 1988). When a student accepts that it is all right to work on a topic until he understands it—and that the rate at which he understands it relative to his peers is unimportant— he begins to accept that he can be successful in that subject if he exerts enough effort (Ames & Archer, 1988). This realization is a significant step toward easing the learner’s anxiety and encourages greater participation in STEM subjects. The Ames and Archer (1988) study provides evidence that students find courses more enjoyable, are more likely to take on challenging tasks, and may even be able to overcome issues with low confidence when we effectively communicate—that is, students believe our message—that mastery is the most important goal.

In our experience, instructional leaders can promote a school-wide emphasis on mastery by  (1) influencing what is communicated in the classroom, (2) using “Flipped Classroom” methods to extend learning time, and (3) making use of mastery modules. Each approach will be discussed below.

Influencing What is Communicated in the Classroom

Typically, school leaders are able to exercise guidance on whether mastery is emphasized in the classroom. Leaders should start by assessing the expectations of teachers through a conversation about practices and by monitoring what actually goes on in teachers’ classrooms.

Without proper leadership, many teachers will unwittingly communicate that performance is more important than mastery. Teachers who grade student work, evaluate student projects, and provide learners with feedback on a daily basis often develop the “students get one shot at the assignment” motto. As a result, it is not uncommon for the rhythm of a course to take patterns such as the following: Introduction of a Topic A, instruction on Topic A, assessment of student understanding of Topic A, provide students with feedback on their level of mastery of Topic A, and then introduce Topic B regardless of whether masses of students failed to demonstrate a satisfactory level of mastery. Because of the teacher’s interest in covering as many of the standards outlined in the curriculum as possible, educators of both STEM and non-STEM subjects mistakenly feel that this is the best approach to take.

Moreover, teachers who adopt the method mentioned above are not emphasizing the saliency of mastery since the primary focus is on how well students performed. As evidence, student grades are overtly or covertly compared to others within the group, and teachers and students accept that only a small number of learners will receive high grades. As a result, some students will believe that the teacher is disinterested in whether they actually learn the information or not. Thus, the message frequently communicated to the student is as follows: Your grade in the course—as opposed to real mastery—is all that matters.

However, as previously mentioned, educators need to communicate the importance of mastery and minimize any potential ambiguity. We have found that the safest way to communicate the importance of mastery is to avoid discussions about the grades of other students, and provide learners with recognition for participation and effort.

Using Flipped Classroom Methods to Extend Learning Time

Mastery should be emphasized in other ways as well. To start, students should be given extended time to work on assignments until the teacher determines that the learner has actually reached a requisite level of mastery. One way to achieve this is by using a Flipped Classroom method.

Flipped Classroom models have mixed origins but the style we used can be attributed to the work of Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams (Tucker, 2012). Rather than reteach lessons to students who missed class due to absences, Bergmann and Sams recorded and annotated lessons, and posted them online for students to view (Tucker, 2012). However, students who were not absent found the videos beneficial as well since they could be used to assist the learners in achieving mastery (Tucker, 2012).

While working with Thurgood Marshall High School (Footnote 1), an urban school in the US, we found that using the above mentioned version of a Flipped Classroom was effective in assisting calculus students master the subject. Like Bergmann and Sams, we recorded and annotated tutorial videos and posted them online for our students to view outside of class. If a student were absent or struggling with a topic, he reviewed the video at home and returned to class to ask follow-up questions and receive additional practice. Students and parents loved the online videos, and the tutorials enabled us to help learners achieve mastery in a time-efficient manner.

Mastery Projects

In addition, student projects are another type of assignment which is a good fit for programs that emphasize mastery. We call them “mastery projects” but they are in essence tasks which allow teachers—or students—to place standards into neat packages and give the learners a chance to work independently to analyze the issues, develop a plan of attack, and make attempts to explore what actually works. With the support of a teacher, a learner who completes a mastery project can ask questions and develop skills without the anxiety of becoming embarrassed by failed efforts. In addition, mastery projects give students an opportunity to gain hands-on experience solving real-world STEM problems—a skill U.S. students historically struggle with on the Programme for International Student Assessment (Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development, n.d.).

Also, mastery projects are crucial since, as educators, we must provide opportunities for students to see how interesting and valuable STEM can be. Some students from underrepresented groups (e.g., students who attend urban schools) will need to view STEM skills as valuable before becoming motivated to learn STEM topics (Robnett & Leaper, 2012). Research by Bluestein et al. (2012) suggests that educators can help increase the level at which urban learners value STEM—and possibly encourage learners to consider a STEM career—through engaging students in relevant and interesting real-life experiences outside of the regular school period.

Consistent with research by Ames and Archer (1988), we were able to increase student interest, and possibly improved the way urban students valued STEM, with the use of mastery projects. For example, while working with Thurgood Marshall High School, we asked students to formulate a real-world math project based on a particular curricular standard. Students were asked to explore any topic they found interesting. To emphasize that mastery was the most important goal, the learners were also made aware that they would receive teacher support. We provided guidance and answered questions online through a website known as Edmodo—a site which provides a virtual platform for teachers and students to connect. While the project was assigned to the students over their winter break, the students knew that they would receive additional time to work on the project, if needed.

As a result of our work, student competency in mathematics—and probably how much they valued it—improved. To start, they demonstrated mastery of the curriculum standard1 by developing answers to amazing self-made projects such as investigations of the correlation between fast-food restaurant proximity and public school performance. In addition, through working on a topic for which they had a natural curiosity, students got a chance to witness how valuable math skills can be.

Addressing teacher concerns.  When a school adopts a mastery approach, we have found that educational leaders should expect some teachers to become apprehensive. One reason for their unease may be that many teachers believe a student’s grade should be based on how well he performs on his first and only attempt at an assessment. In the minds of such teachers, giving the student a grade after multiple attempts misrepresents the learner’s actual ability. However, leaders must communicate that while we sometimes have to sort and rank students, as K-12 educators, our ultimate goal is to increase student achievement and encourage a love of learning.

Cultivate “STEM Circles”

We have also found that actively forming and leading education-focused student groups helps learners build important networks of peer motivators. With that in mind, administrators, teachers, and parents should actively promote the creation of like-minded STEM communities within each school. Whether one calls such a community a “STEM Circle”, a “STEM Club”, or uses a Facebook-style “STEM Group”, the goal should be to link students with others who share an interest in STEM. Research by Robnett and Leaper (2012) provides evidence that the level of importance a friendship group places on a subject or career can influence how students value that particular subject or career. As mentioned before, the value students place on STEM skills and STEM careers has an impact on the level of interest students have in STEM (Robnett & Leaper, 2012). So, by giving students an opportunity to develop meaningful friendships with individuals who share their ambitions, schools take an important step toward increasing participation in STEM.


 For example, while working with Medgar Evers High School (Footnote 2), an urban school in the American South, we held weekly education-focused meetings with 11th Graders. The meetings were always 30 minutes long and structured so that students were able to socialize and engage in

fun learning activities. The activities included SAT question and answer competitions, career interest surveys and discussions, academic performance chats, and brief interactive videos or PowerPoint presentations. None of the activities were ever graded but participation was required of all students. While students did not generally form connections with each member of the group, most students were able to form significant friendships with people whom they shared a common interest.

Another example is illustrated by our work with Tych Middle School (Footnote 3), an inner-city school the US. At this middle school, we offered an after-school STEM workshop for all students who were interested. The first session included almost 300 students but within a short period of time, the population decreased to about 50 learners who had a sincere interest in STEM. We then separated the students into three STEM Circles of about 17 learners, and each session included fun and engaging activities. Throughout the program, students developed important friendships with peers as they worked together to build robots, develop websites, and present proposals to address environmental problems.

Like the students at Medgar Evers High School, the learners in our STEM Circles at Tych Middle School were able to identify and befriend peers who shared an interest in STEM. Since such friendships have the potential to endure after the program ended, research by Robnett and Leaper (2012) suggests that the program will help the students maintain their interest in STEM.

Additional Benefits

Such teacher-led groupings also provide educators with an opportunity to serve as mentors to students who may face future hurdles because of their race or gender. For example, during group sessions, teachers can address negative stereotypes and discrimination which could potentially cause learners within underrepresented groups to disidentify with their STEM interests (Robnett & Leaper, 2012). This is important since students from underrepresented groups sometimes feel isolated and discouraged when in classrooms with few other peers of their ethnicity or gender (Blustein et al., 2012). So, an added benefit of cultivating STEM Circles is that they can provide students with information about how to cope with possible dejection while in pursuit of a STEM education (Robnett & Leaper, 2012).


There are a number of ways to foster a greater interest in STEM. Research relevant to the psychology of motivation provides evidence that an effective emphasis on mastery can increase student interest in learning STEM subjects. Likewise, influencing classroom expectations so that educators communicate the importance of mastery, and making use of mastery modules can provide students with necessary tools to adopt an interest in STEM. Finally, since there is evidence that students are influenced by their circle of friends, schools interested in raising greater interest in STEM should consider making use of STEM Circles. Doing so will give students additional opportunities to cultivate important friendships with others who are interested in STEM.


Ames, C., & Archer, J. (1988). Achievement goals in the classroom: Students’ learning strategies and motivation processes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(3), 260-267. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.80.3.260

Blustein, D., Barnett, M., Mark, S., Depot, M, Lovering, M., Lee, Y.,…DeBay, D. (2012).

Examining Urban Students’ Constructions of a STEM/Career Development Intervention Over Time. Journal of Career Development, 40(1), 40-67. doi:10.1177/0894845312441680

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (n.d.). United States: Country Note.

Retrieved from Robnett, R. F., & Leaper, C. (2012). Friendship Groups, Personal Motivation, and Gender in

Relation to High School Students’ STEM Career Interest. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 23(4), 652-664. doi:10.1111/12013

Science, Technology, Engineering and Math: Education for global leadership. (n.d.). Retrieved June 20, 2014, from U.S. Department of Education website:

Tucker, B., (2012). The Flipped Classroom. Education Next, 12(1), 82-83.

1 The Thurgood Marshall High School example is a pseudonym for an urban high school that one of our authors worked with but due to concerns with confidentiality, we chose not to publish the actual name of the school.

2 The Medgar Evers High School example is a pseudonym for a second urban high school that one of our authors

worked with but, like the Thurgood Marshall High School example, we chose not to publish the actual name of the school due to concerns with confidentiality.

3 The Tych Middle School example is a pseudonym for an urban middle school that one of our authors worked with but, like the other schools we worked with, we chose not to publish the actual name of the school for reasons related to confidentiality.



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