Student Goal Orientation, Motivation, and Learning (page 2)

By — The Idea Center
Updated on Dec 16, 2008

Encouraging a Mastery Orientation

Mastery Oriented Students. We can begin by looking at the mastery oriented group and attempting to discern the reasons behind their orientation toward these goals. The broader literature on motivation provides some possible insights into their behavior. One theory of motivation holds that students are motivated to engage in behaviors 1) that have value to them and 2) where they have a reasonable expectation to succeed.

Behaviors have value because they are intrinsically interesting, novel, or curiosity arousing, because they have an immediate use in solving an individual’s current problem, because they contribute to the long range plans of the individual, because they are valued by the social group of which the individual is part, and because they represent a challenge to the learner’s skills. If the tasks that we are setting for our learners fit any of these molds, they are more likely to want to master them.

Expectations of success at a task are influenced by past experiences of success, the perceived difficulty of the task, the persuasiveness of others who are encouraging us to continue, initial feedback on success, and the degree to which the demands of the task fit the skills of the individual. If the tasks we are setting for our learners have any of these characteristics, the learners are more likely to be willing to take them on.

In light of this theory (known as expectancy value theory) our learners are more likely to adopt a mastery orientation if the task on which they’re working fits these two sets of criteria. What is encouraging to instructors is that we have a lot of control over both of the two sets. We can choose tasks our students value and we can structure the learning situation so that their probability of success is a reasonable one. Certainly we can continue to support their efforts while they work on the task so that they are encouraged by their progress.

Another motivation theory that relates to the mastery goal orientation we’d like our students to adopt is self-determination theory. This theory asserts that individuals are more motivated to work at a task if there was an element of choice or control involved. Individuals who have choices associated with their efforts are more likely to adopt a mastery orientation. This theory relates nicely to the expectancy value theory because if an individual has choices about what and how he’ll work, he can choose tasks that interest him and which he feels competent to perform – the aspects of expectancy value theory just discussed.

The final theme that comes from students who adopt a mastery orientation has to do with safety versus risk and the consequences of failing. When learning, one can never be in a risk-free environment since learning is a risky business. It involves attempting something you don’t already know how to do, hence the risk. However, if the benefits of succeeding outweigh the costs of failure, taking a risk is worthwhile. So in a learning situation an instructor should work to reduce the cost of failure. There are many ways of doing this. First and most influential is the reaction that the instructor has to student failure. If the instructor reacts to a student error with interest and support rather than criticism and withdrawal, students are more likely to view their mistakes in a constructive light. Second is the consequence of making a mistake. If it only results in demerits, students will attempt to hide their mistakes and miss the opportunity to learn from them. If on the other hand mistakes are followed by additional opportunities to learn without severe penalties, students will be more willing to identify their mistakes and correct them. Third is the model that the instructor presents to the class when he or she makes a mistake. Rather than becoming defensive or trying to bluff through an error, if the instructor acknowledges the mistake and models how someone should approach correcting that mistake, the students have learned a very good lesson about how they should cope with their own mistakes. Fourth is to offer credit for making progress, not just reaching a preset criterion. Helping students become reflective about their learning so that they base their self-worth on how far they’ve come rather than on how they compare with others is an important component of getting them to adopt a mastery orientation. Fifth is to encourage the development of a learning community in the class where everyone is expected to make progress and encouraged to help everyone else make progress.

The bottom line on encouraging students to adopt a mastery orientation involves giving worthwhile assignments where the focus is on learning and making progress rather than being perfect.

Performance Oriented Students. If we look closely at the behavior of students who are displaying performance approach, performance avoidance, or work avoidance orientations, we might be able to speculate on the type of environment that might encourage them to move in the direction of mastery orientation. For example, students who are performance approach oriented want to be better than everyone else in their peer group for they may see that as the only way to gain attention and recognition for their efforts. Is it possible that by providing them attention and recognition for their own progress, and their own effort, we may end up weaning them away from comparison with others as their benchmark of achievement? Certainly the research on collaborative vs. competitive reward structures seems to indicate that minimizing competition and rewarding collaboration results in better learning (Johnson and Johnson, 1985) for a whole variety of reasons. Recent efforts towards shifting grading methods away from norm referenced comparative forms of grading to criterion referenced individual achievement grading will also help move the students’ focus away from how they compare with others to how much progress they have made and how much further they need to go. Even the shift to portfolio type grading as opposed to tests as the basis for grades plays a role in shifting student attention toward mastery.

In the case of performance avoidance oriented students, their goal is to play it safe and only do what they know will be successful. We must ask ourselves why they are adopting that orientation at this point. What is it about failure that is so bad that it must be avoided at all costs? In reality there is nothing wrong with failure; the problem lies in our reaction to and interpretation of failure. For many individuals, failure is an indication of lack of ability. For others failure simply means that they don’t know how to do that specific thing at this specific time. In fact a much healthier interpretation of failure is that it is an opportunity for learning. So why do our students work so hard to avoid it? Possibly the answer lies in the reactions of their teachers and the modeling of how to react to failure, as noted earlier. First of all, teachers should focus on wrong answers not as failures, but more accurately as misunderstandings. No student sets out to give a wrong answer; as far as they’re concerned, they’re giving a correct answer. They may just be answering a different question. So instructors should take errors as “teachable moments,” opportunities for learning to occur, and react accordingly. That provides students with a different model of how to react to mistakes with renewed determination to understand rather than with resistance or frustration. The same opportunities present themselves when instructors make mistakes. These, too, are teachable moments. They give the instructor an opportunity to model how to cope with a mistake in a positive way rather than becoming defensive and annoyed.

For students who have adopted a performance avoidance orientation, the answer appears to be transforming the classroom environment into a safer place, one where mistakes are accepted as opportunities to learn rather than behavior to hide. Positive instructor comments, joint pursuit of the solution, and a supportive community of learners are all strategies that might coax a performance avoidance individual over to a mastery orientation. Finally we have our work avoidant students. First we should examine our own attitudes toward these students and their behavior. In reality they may not just be lazy; they may be trying to be strategic in the use of their resources. After all, ours is not their only course or source of work. Students live real lives outside the classroom and the circumstances of those lives often take precedence over the artificial deadlines of academia. We can hardly criticize them for wanting to get the biggest bang for their buck; we certainly do that ourselves. Perhaps we should examine more closely what we’re asking them to do. Is the value of the task obvious? To us, yes, but maybe not to the students. If they understood and accepted its value, perhaps they would be more willing to put effort into it. Is the amount of benefit equal to or greater than the amount of work they will have to put into it? Is there a way to structure the tasks so that the focus is on the critical aspect of the task? For example, in many math-based classes, like statistics, the secret to success is the initial set-up of the problem. If the students don’t get that part right, nothing else will be right. However, from long years of schooling, the students are more likely to focus on getting the right answer by whatever means. If the key to success is getting the problem set-up right, why not focus most of our students’ efforts (and their grade) on that? They can certainly work through one problem completely to show that they know how, but why not make the bulk of their work revolve around the key skill of problem analysis? Another example of cost/benefit analysis in a course like statistics is to consider what exactly do professionals in the field do when working in this area? I can tell you with absolute certainty that no one in psychology knows the formulas for all the statistical tests we use, even the ones we use most frequently. If that is true (and it is), then why should students spend their limited time memorizing formulas? A professional in the field knows how to look the formulas up or use computer software to do the actual calculations. The important task that cannot be automated is knowing which statistic to use when. That’s the professional aspect of the task and that’s what I’d want my students to focus on so that’s where the grade is focused.

I grant you that there are some students whose work-avoidance orientation is not so lofty as efficient resource allocation. Some really are just trying to slide by. In their case an instructor may not be able to effect a change in orientation. Perhaps the best one can do with those students is to minimize the aggravation that you feel when interacting with them. Since their goal is to know what they have to do for a given grade, perhaps the best way of dealing with them is to make those criteria very clear and readily available to them so they can meet the standards without having to constantly ask about the requirements. A clear syllabus, easy to understand and track, that’s available 24/7 on a class website might be the best answer to dealing with their needs. However, that doesn’t mean that we are giving in; it means that the criteria we set for our students are focused on the most important things we want them to learn. If they’re only going to put in the minimum necessary effort, at least let’s focus that effort on something we think is worthwhile even if they don’t agree.

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