Religion and Student Motivation

My former students, Dan Bowen and Albert Cheng, have a new study that was just published in the Journal of Catholic Education on how religious priming may affect student character or non-cognitive skills.  They find that priming students to think about religion increases students’ willingness to delay gratification as well as their political tolerance.  No effects are observed if students are instead primed to think of secular success.  This work suggests that there may be particular benefits from religiously-based education that are more difficult to produce in a secular context.  Abandoning private religious education for secular charter schools may come at a cost to these character skills.

Youngsters from the Cathedral Church of St. John. White House photo by Paul Morse.

These results come from an experiment we conducted at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts (ASMSA), a public boarding school in Hot Springs.  In the experiment we randomly assigned 180 students to one of three conditions.  All students were asked to work on a sentence scramble exercise in which there are ten sets of five words.  Students were asked to look at each set of five words, drop one word, and then make a sentence out of the remaining four words.

In 5 of the sentences one word was altered, changing only five of the 50 words across the three conditions.  One group was primed to think about religion by having the words “worship, preacher, heaven, devotion, and commandments” included in the sentence scramble.  A second group was primed to think about secular equivalents: “honor, leader, success, commitment, and expectations.”  And a third group saw neutral words: “eat, path, man, cabbage, and numerous.”

Prior research had found that students primed in this way to think about religion demonstrated higher levels of self-regulation.  The idea of this experiment was to attempt to replicate those previous findings while exploring whether secular equivalents could produce similar effects.  Several observers have noted that KIPP and other high-achieving charter schools appear to simulate the religious rituals of Catholic schools but replace religious rhetoric with talk of secular success and achievement.  The question this study explores is whether talk of secular achievement appears to be as motivational for students as religious rhetoric.

Dan and Albert find that something is lost when we substitute secular aspirations for religious ones.  Students exposed to the religious priming expressed a stronger feeling of religiosity.  So, the priming worked in getting students to think about religion, even though changing only 5 words out of 50 is very subtle and the students were not consciously aware of the nature of the manipulation.

Students exposed to this religious priming experienced an increase in delayed gratification in that they were more willing to receive $6 the following week as compensation for participating in the study rather than $5 right then.  Students in the religious priming condition were also more likely to express political tolerance on the Sullivan scale, which measures people’s willingness to allow disliked groups to engage in political activities, like holding rallies, having books in the library, or running for office.  But students exposed to the secular success priming were no different from the neutral priming control group in that both were less likely to delay gratification or express political tolerance.

This was a small scale experiment and the effects were observed at p<.1, so there are limits to how confident we should be about the results.  But given that the results are consistent with prior research, we should have some concerns about dropping religious school choice in favor of secular charter schools.  This is especially so given that the No Excuses charter model that has become the darling of ed reformers often comes up short at improving later life outcomes, while private school choice programs seem to fare better at improving high school graduation, college enrollment, and even earnings.

– Jay P. Greene

Jay P. Greene is endowed chair and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.


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