Applied Psychology OPUS

Factors Influencing Academic Motivation in Asian American Adolescents

Eunice Lau

The academic motivation of Asian American adolescents has been a topic of interest for decades, beginning with the classification of Asian Americans as a “model minority” (Tran & Birman, 2010). To this day, researchers continue to study factors that contribute to the academic motivation of American-born Asian American adolescents with immigrant parents in an attempt to explain the high academic achievement levels often acquired by this group (Sue & Okazaki, 2009). Most of the current literature attributes the academic motivation of Asian Americans to positive Asian cultural values such as hard work, ambition, and personal and familial sacrifice (Chao, 2001).

The view that Asian cultural values serve as the primary source of academic motivation is often considered to be a thorough explanation of the factors motivating Asian American adolescents to achieve in school (Sue & Okazaki, 2009; Tran & Birman, 2010). However, the widespread belief fails to acknowledge the roles that personal struggles with cultural identity and societal dynamics play in the academic motivation of this particular group (Sue & Okazaki, 2009; Tran & Birman, 2010). The focus on cultural values does not address marginality, a phenomenon where Asian American adolescents from immigrant families struggle to reconcile Asian cultural beliefs with contrasting American values (Xie & Goyette, 2003). Moreover, the emphasis on cultural values ignores the impact of the model minority stereotype on greater sociopolitical conditions (Xie & Goyette, 2003). The framing of the group’s relative socioeconomic success as a product of cultural values fuels social settings that disregard the racially-biased treatments experienced by Asian Americans and a political climate that overestimates the opportunities given to the group (Sue & Okazaki, 2009; Tran & Birman, 2010; Xie & Goyette, 2003). The societal misconception of Asian Americans as a group of individuals who face no sociopolitical barriers and the reality of racial discrimination and lack of racial representation in certain fields are two important, culturally-powerful experiences that influence the academic motivation of Asian American adolescents (Xie & Goyette, 2003). This paper seeks to examine how these interconnected factors – cultural values, consequences of marginality, model minority stereotype, and obstacles present in the current sociopolitical climate – influence academic motivation for Asian American adolescents.

Asian Cultural Values

The heavy emphasis on cultural beliefs in current literature limits the exploration of other factors influencing academic motivation in Asian American adolescents, but an examination into cultural values is vital to understanding the experiences of the group (Asakawa, 2001; Sue & Okazaki, 2009). Adolescents struggle with marginality due to the contrasting nature of Asian and American beliefs (Xie & Goyette, 2003). Moreover, adolescents live in a society that assumes that the group’s relative economic success – often attributed to its cultural values – is an indication that Asian Americans do not encounter sociopolitical obstacles (Tran & Birman, 2010; Xie & Goyette, 2003). Analyzing cultural values is important to understanding how cultural beliefs serve as a facilitator of other academic motivators and as a source of academic motivation.

Adolescents find motivation to do well in school in and structure their academic goals around cultural values in order to uphold the beliefs shared by members of their cultural community (Lee, 1994; Xie & Goyette, 2003). Classified as interdependent in orientation, Asian cultural beliefs stress personal sacrifice, harmony among family members, and the assumption of a role that fits the group’s dynamics and overall goals (Chao, 2001; Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Xie & Goyette, 2003). Other-oriented behaviors and modes of thinking are regarded as signs of cognitive maturity in Asian cultures, encouraging Asian American adolescents to plan their academic goals around the needs of others and to meet these needs through academic achievement (Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Dennis, Phinney, & Chuateco, 2005).
The people Asian American adolescents frequently tailor their academic goals around and find motivation to do well academically in are their family members (Fuligni, Witkow, & Garcia, 2005; Lee, 1994). Asian American adolescents from immigrant households are reminded of their parents’ struggle to secure financial stability due to language and cultural barriers (Lee, 1994). Adolescents, motivated by the socioeconomic conditions of their family, make adjustments to their personal academic ambitions in order to repay their family for their financial, emotional, and physical sacrifices (Dennis et al., 2005; Tyler et al., 2007).
Asian American adolescents believe that academic achievement serves as a way to obtain a well-paying job to support their family in the future (Lee, 1994). They pressure themselves to do well in school (Fuligni et al., 2005; Lee, 1994). They spend a considerable amount of time completing homework, attending test preparation classes, and participating in extracurricular activities (Asakawa & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Adolescents limit the amount of free time they have, even if they find the workload draining, because they believe that their families’ future is more important than their own immediate comfort (Asakawa, 2001; Fuligni et al., 2005). Asian American adolescents are driven by their culture’s emphasis on the welfare of others, especially that of family members’, and tailor their academic behaviors to assume the role as future providers of their families (Fuligni et al., 2005; Lee, 1994).


While connectedness to Asian cultural values serves as a strong academic motivator for Asian American adolescents, these ties can interfere with assimilation into mainstream American society (Xie & Goyette, 2003). American cultural perceptions on academics contrast with those of Asian cultures (Asakawa & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). The former stresses self-assertion and views education as a way to explore personal interests, while the latter emphasizes dependence on others and considers the main purpose of education as helping family members in the future (Asakawa & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Markus & Kitayama, 1991). The dual identity of Asian American adolescents as Asians and Americans forces adolescents to adopt two different sets of cultural values, a phenomenon known as marginality (Xie & Goyette, 2003).
Marginality creates the sensation of living in two different worlds without the sense of belonging to either one (Xie & Goyette, 2003). The experience causes feelings of insecurity and frustration because adolescents cannot fully identify with one culture when they are being immersed in another (Xie & Goyette, 2003). In response to this dilemma, many adolescents choose to identify with certain Asian values and adopt American values that enable them to fit in with their peers (Fuligni et al., 2005). For example, some believe in the importance of personal sacrifice but will not go as far as abandoning their individual aspirations to help their families (Asakawa & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Lee, 1994). Struggles to maintain a balance between American and Asian cultural values are often perceived by American society as an example of the individuals’ failure to fully integrate themselves into American culture (Xie & Goyette, 2003).
Consequently, Asian American adolescents, viewing their ability to uphold American and Asian cultural values as a reflection of their assimilation into American society, seek ways in which their achievements can be considered accomplishments in both cultures (Xie & Goyette, 2003). Academic achievement is highly valued in both cultures, thus serving a dual purpose for Asian American adolescents and motivating them to excel in school (Sue & Okazaki, 2009; Xie & Goyette, 2003). Through academic achievement, they can uphold Asian cultural values’ emphasis on preparation to help their families in the future and American beliefs’ focus on individual success (Xie & Goyette, 2003). Adolescents believe that by doing well in school, they can address their feelings of marginality and incorporate two sets of cultural values into their goals (Xie & Goyette, 2003).

Nonetheless, Asian American adolescents continue to experience feelings of marginality even when they motivate themselves academically to uphold the values of Asian and American culture (Sue & Okazaki, 2009; Xie & Goyette, 2003). Academic motivation in Asian American adolescents is viewed as a successful embodiment of Asian and American cultural values, but the pressure to make adjustments to their cultural identity and to be judged on their ability to do so highlights the subtle presence of racially biased treatment in American society (Sue & Okazaki, 2009; Wong & Halgin, 2006). Experiences with marginality not only play a role in academic motivation but also speak to the greater societal context (Sue & Okazaki, 2009; Tran & Birman, 2010). Asian American adolescents are continuously evaluated on their ability to adopt American values and assimilate into American society (Sue & Okazaki, 2009; Tran & Birman, 2010; Xie & Goyette, 2003).

Model Minority Stereotype and Sociopolitical Climate

The model minority stereotype, a term that cites the incorporation of Asian and American cultural values into one’s identity and successful assimilation as the norm for Asian Americans, downplays the reality of the racial group’s struggles (Kawai, 2005; Sue & Okazaki, 2009). Popular literature uses stories of Asian American adolescents’ academic achievement and later obtainment of jobs in lucrative fields as evidence of a successful blending of Asian cultural teachings with American values (Tran & Birman, 2010). However, by focusing on the achievements made by the group, the model minority label fuels societal disregard of the group’s struggles with racially-biased treatment in American society (Kawai, 2005; Wing, 2007). Arguments for better treatment often go unheard, forcing Asian Americans to alter their decisions and behavior to accomplish their goals (Sue & Okazaki, 2009; Tran & Birman, 2010).

Societal misconceptions and their subsequent consequences motivate Asian American adolescents to achieve academically in order to make themselves competitive for particular fields of study (Tran & Birman, 2010). Adolescents aim to avoid negative experiences associated with their racial backgrounds by working towards fields of study where academic achievements play a larger role than their race (Xie & Goyette, 2003). Some professions, like science, mathematics, and engineering, assess experience and skill level using objective academic records which allows Asian American adolescents to bypass discrimination, a form of subjective evaluation (Xie & Goyette, 2003).

Additionally, the lack of Asian Americans in particular professions increases instances of racial discrimination and limits opportunities for upward social mobility (Tran & Birman, 2010). As a result, adolescents choose to pursue professions where their race is better represented in the workforce such as medicine and technology (Sue & Okazaki, 2009; Tran & Birman, 2010; Xie & Goyette, 2003). The model minority stereotype propagates the illusion that the preference for high-paying fields among Asian American adolescents is a sign of their adaptability and success in American culture (Sue & Okazaki, 2009; Tran & Birman, 2010). It ignores the sociopolitical reality and the lengths Asian American adolescents take academically in order to pursue a limited selection of career choices in the future (Sue & Okazaki, 2009; Tran & Birman, 2010).


The factors influencing academic motivation in Asian American adolescents are rooted in Asian cultural values (Fuligni et al., 2005). Cultural values encourage adolescents to form other-oriented modes of thinking and to use their education as a way to secure their families’ financial future (Fuligni et al., 2005). They also contribute to the experiences that Asian American adolescents utilize as factors of academic motivation (Xie & Goyette, 2003). From struggles with marginality and the greater sociopolitical context, adolescents to find the motivation to do well in school in their overarching feeling of not belonging to either culture (Kawai, 2005; Sue & Okazaki, 2009; Xie & Goyette, 2003). Their search for a balance – to support their family members and to establish themselves as members of American society – often leads them to compete for limited spots in fields of study that offer high salaries and minimal encounters with racially-biased treatment (Sue & Okazaki, 2009; Tran & Birman, 2010). The factors influencing the academic motivation of Asian American adolescents branch off from Asian cultural values and the experiences they have as a result of them (Sue & Okazaki, 2009; Xie & Goyette, 2003).
By attributing academic motivation solely to the influence of cultural values, current literature overlooks the personal and cultural struggles that Asian American adolescents face and view as factors of academic motivation (Sue & Okazaki, 2009; Tran & Birman, 2010). Present research does not elaborate on studies of cultural values with analyses of how the influence of cultural values on the search for a coherent identity and on the societal misinterpretation of the experiences of Asian Americans serves as important academic motivators (Sue & Okazaki, 2009; Tran & Birman, 2010). In order to gain a fuller, more nuanced understanding of academic motivation in Asian American adolescents, future research needs to delve into the effects of societal constructions of the group (Xie & Goyette, 2003). Exploration into the constant societal scrutiny of balancing an identity composed of two cultures, stereotypes, and misconceptions of the group’s experience will provide insight into how negative forces can influence the academic motivation of Asian American adolescents (Xie & Goyette, 2003).  


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