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Teacher-specific Interests - How they develop and what factors play a role

17. January 2018

Lena Rösler

“The more certain pre-service teachers are about their career choice at the beginning of their studies, the more likely they are to become interested in educational studies domain during their first two years of study.”

There are several reasons why building and maintaining interests is an important goal of teacher education. First, pre-service teachers interested in specific contents of the study program find it easier to acquire appropriate knowledge. In particular, studies have shown that interested learners use more in-depth learning strategies and are more attentive, but also invest more time in learning than less interested learners. Second, initial studies show that professional interest of teachers has a positive effect on the motivation and thus on the learning success of their students. Interested teachers also report a higher level of occupational well-being and more supportive teaching than teachers with lower professional interests. Third, well-developed interests should increase the willingness of a teacher to continue to develop in their profession.

So far, however, few longitudinal empirical studies exist which deal with the development and prerequisites of interests in the first and longest formal training phase – university teacher education.

Motivational orientations such as interests are conceptualized as a component of professional competence in the teaching profession. Referring to competence development models from teacher professionalization research, interests depend on the personal prerequisites, the perceived quality and use of learning opportunities and contextual characteristics. Important context characteristics of university teacher education are the orientation towards a certain school type (primary school, or vocational or academic track schools) and its division into subject, didactic and educational domains.

With this in mind, the dissertation project presented here examined how interests in specific study domains develop during the course of university teacher education. We also examined the role of personal prerequisites at the beginning of the studies (e.g., educational and subject interest, certainty of study choice), perceived learning conditions (autonomy, competence and social relatedness) as well as specific contextual characteristics of the teaching degree program (school type and study domains). The data base is provided by the BMBF-funded project "Panel in Teacher Training Program" (PaLea). Pre-service teachers from 13 universities in Germany were interviewed twice a semester from the beginning to the end of their studies. The three empirical studies used data from the first to the fourth semester. The results of the first study (N = 1169, 75% women) show that students are interested in educational studies domain at a medium level (M = 2.65, 1 = "disagree" to 4 = "completely agree ") at the end of their first semester. Pre-service teachers with higher educational interests at the beginning of their studies are more interested in the educational studies domain, and non-academic track pre-service teachers are slightly less interested in the educational studies domain than their fellow students. Interest on average remains stable from the first to the end of the fourth semester. However, there are also specific patterns depending on the certainty of study choice: the more certain students are at the beginning of their studies, the more likely they are to become interested in educational studies during the first two years of study. Academic-track pre-service teachers’ interest also tends to increase.

The second study (N = 3052, 71% women) examined the role of perceived learning conditions in university courses for the development of study interests. Following assumptions of the Self-Determination Theory, learning conditions that support the experiencing of the basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness should sustain and enhance interests. Study 2 also considered relevant personal prerequisites of the pre-service teachers at the beginning of their studies. When controlling the initial interests, results show that students who perceive their university courses to be supportive of the basic needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness report higher interest in the respective study domain than pre-service teachers who perceive the learning conditions as less supportive. This pattern is evident for both the subject and the educational studies domain. In addition, higher perceived support in one ​​study domain is partly associated with lower interest in the other study domain.

Using a sample of pre-service teachers from academic track programs, the third study (N = 146, 65% women) investigated whether comparative processes between study domains are important for the development of interests. For example, current comparison theories assume that in addition to social (external) comparisons, dimensional (internal) comparisons are important for the formation and development of domain-specific interests. Social comparisons take place when pre-service teachers compare their own achievement in a study domain with the achievement of their fellow students ("How good am I in the subject domain compared to my fellow students? "). If the comparison is positive ("I am better in this study domain than my fellow students"), this should have a positive effect on the interest in the corresponding study domain. By contrast, dimensional comparisons occur when pre-service teachers compare their own achievement in one study domain with their own achievement in another ​​study domain ("How good am I in the subject domain compared to educational studies domain?"). If this comparison is positive ("I am better in the subject domain than in the education studies domain"), we expect a negative effect on the interest in the non-corresponding study domain. Accordingly, dimensional comparison processes lead to a contrasting of domain-specific interests. To date, the processes and consequences of comparison processes have received considerable empirical support, primarily for domain-specific self-concepts in school domains. Findings from Study 3 now indicate that comparison processes are also relevant for interests in study domains in university teacher education.

As expected, achievements had positive effects on interests within the study domains. This can be interpreted as the consequence of social comparisons. We also found evidence for negative cross-domain effects between the study domains. The pre-service teachers thus seem to compare their achievements in the subject domain with their own achievements in the educational sciences domain with consequences for interest in the educational study domain. We found no significant negative effect from achievement in educational study domain on subject interest. The strong interest orientation of academic track pre-service teachers might be one possible explanation, why the achievement feedback in the subject domain predominantly elicits comparison processes. It might be that academic track teacher students compensate for negative achievement feedback in the subject domain by focusing their interest more on the educational studies domain. Overall, the results from the three studies indicate that domain-specific interests of teacher students are relatively stable, but that changes also take place during the course of study. Results indicate that higher certainty of study choice and higher domain-specific initial interests at the beginning of studies are positively associated with the interest development during the course of study. Beyond the personal prerequisites, the perceived learning conditions and contextual conditions such as the aspired future school type and the study of different content domains are important for the development of interests. For a teaching degree program meant to promote interest, this could mean paying additional attention to the support of autonomy and competence experience as well as relatedness in university courses, countering the unilateral interest orientations of non- and academic-track pre-service teachers and more clearly highlighting similarities between the study domains.