Digital game aims to motivate students
Identity-based motivation helps students see their difficulties with school as signs that schoolwork is important, which in turn can improve academic performance, according to USC Dornsife researchers.

Digital game aims to motivate students

A Department of Education grant awarded to psychologist Daphna Oyserman will help turn a research-based program into a tool that boosts school children’s academic success.
ByEmily Gersema

A USC professor’s program to motivate children to achieve success in school and at work will soon be translated into a digital game to help more students succeed academically.

USC Dean’s Professor of Psychology Daphna Oyserman is an expert on the influence of children’s self-identity on their behavior and who they envision themselves becoming. A five-year, $2.7 million “Investing in Innovation” grant from the U.S. Department of Education will enable Oyserman to work with the education nonprofit McREL International, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and educational game developer Filament Games to develop and test a digital game for the “Identity-Based Motivation Journey to Academic Success” project.

The South Central Colorado Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which serves students from minority and low-income homes, will also participate.

Portrait Right

USC Dean’s Professor of Psychology Daphna Oyserman.

The researchers and game studio will develop the digital platform and track students who use the game and compare their outcomes to those of other students who use other educational platforms developed by Filament Games.

How to harness motivation

The project will involve an estimated 1,600 students across grades 7 to 11, representing 12 school districts with varying school sizes. Researchers will monitor changes in student grade-point averages.

“We are excited about figuring out how to harness student motivation to improve success by taking the time to develop and innovate and then carefully test the conditions in which our innovation works,” said Oyserman, who co-directs the USC Dornsife Mind and Society Center. “Our short-term goal is to improve academic outcomes. In the long run, the project should create a larger cohort of students ready for the next step — college and beyond.”

Oyserman’s research documents that “identity-based motivation,” or IBM, is key to improving academic outcomes by guiding students to interpret their experienced difficulties with school as signifying that schoolwork is important. This helps a student feel closer to his or her future or possible self and makes their current choices feel more relevant. Effects of this approach are equally strong for students in well-off and low-income families, Oyserman said.

Described in her book, Pathways to Success (Oxford University Press, 2015), Oyserman’s IBM program has been tested in Detroit and Chicago. Singapore and school districts in southeast England also have adopted it. More schools likely will adopt the program after the digital platform is developed, said Oyserman, who holds a joint appointment at the USC Rossier School of Education and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

The grant was awarded through the Education Department’s “i3” competition to support development and expansion of research-based programs that can transform the academic trajectory of students, educators and their schools.