W.T. Grant Foundation awards Dr. Koenka $50K grant

Study to focus on the consequences of mathematics course tracking and the role of feedback in shaping mathematics motivation and achievement, particularly among Black middle school students

Headshot of Alison C. Koenka, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Foundations of Education.
Alison C. Koenka, Ph.D.

The William T. Grant Foundation has awarded a VCU School of Education researcher a $50,000 grant that focuses on the consequences of tracking for motivation and achievement among sixth-grade Black middle school students.

The study is entitled “Math Tracking and Motivation in Black Students: Feedback Experiences and Racial Diversity as Levers of Change,” and will be conducted by Alison C. Koenka, Ph.D., principal investigator and assistant professor in the Department of Foundations of Education.

Mathematics course tracking – sometimes referred to as a type of ability grouping – is a widely-used practice in Virginia and many other states, where students, often beginning in the sixth grade, are placed in different levels of math classes based on their perceived level of math ability.

It is well-documented in prior research that Black students are often inequitably and disproportionately tracked into less advanced courses. The literature also reveals little consensus about the consequences of tracking for motivation and achievement, particularly among Black students.

Through a partnership with Richmond Public Schools, this study will contribute needed insight by investigating three questions:

  1. How does mathematics tracking placement predict motivational beliefs and achievement behaviors in sixth grade Black middle school students?
  2. What is the role of students’ perceived feedback experiences in these relations?
  3. How does the impact of tracking vary as a function of racial diversity in math classes?

Koenka said that while a lot of the research focuses on the relationship between math tracking and its motivational consequences, very little delves into the complexities of that relationship.

“We're hoping with this research to lean into that complexity in order to generate applications that are useful and meaningful not only to educators, but more importantly, to the students,” she said.

Koenka said that an important part of the study will be exploring how motivational and feedback experiences within math courses vary based on math track, and how math class-level racial diversity might play a role in those associations.

“Quite often, diversity is talked about in terms of school diversity, but even within very racially diverse schools, there is a stark lack of diversity in courses, especially when they're tracked. We hope that this study can look at how class-level diversity may play a role in how a Black student’s motivational experience may differ, for example, if they're the only Black student in an advanced math class, versus if they're in a much more racially diverse advanced math class,” she said.

Three doctoral students in SOE’s Ph.D. in Education, Concentration in Educational Psychology program will work with Koenka on this study: Korinthia Nicolai, Destini Braxton (who is also a middle school math teacher in Richmond Public Schools), and Maggie Wallace. Koenka will also collaborate on this work with scholars at University of California, Los Angeles (Dr. Sandra Graham), North Carolina State University (Dr. DeLeon Gray), and Sam Houston State University (Dr. Shonn Sheng-Lun Cheng, who is also a former postdoctoral researcher at VCU SOE).

This study is one of many research opportunities being led by SOE faculty in our nine research labs. To learn more about this and other studies exploring academic motivation from elementary school through adulthood, visit our Motivation in Context Lab website, which Koenka co-directs with Dr. Sharon Zumbrunn.