October 22nd, 2009

Mastery and Performance Orientations


“Students with mastery orientation seek to improve their competence. Those with performance orientations seek to prove their competence.” (p. 122)

It’s a quote that succinctly captures how what students believe about themselves as learners affects how they approach learning. A mastery orientation means that students believe that they have some control over factors related to learning. They believe that they can learn, that hard work and efforts pays off, and that they have or can acquire strategies that will help them learn. They don’t give up easily when a learning task challenges them. Those with performance orientations see learning as something beyond their control. Generally they equate it with ability and after several failed attempts to learn something, they decide they can’t do it—that no matter what they do, they won’t be able to learn math, learn to write, learn to paint, learn to ski, you name the skill. They just don’t have what it takes.

In light of Tuesday’s post about the error of finding convenient groupings and then putting all students in them, most students are exclusively mastery or performance oriented. They fall somewhere on the continuum between the two extremes, although most researchers would say that few fall precisely in the middle.

I think a lot of beginning students who aren’t among the top cohort of college students put more stock in ability than effort. How they talk about their performance is revealing. Those who do well are not likely to tell a group of peers, “I studied my tail off for this test.” Some research found that when students fail an exam, a lot are not motivated to study harder for the next exam. No, they see their unsatisfactory performance as proof of their incompetence. Do our universities reinforce that conclusion by graciously giving them opportunities to drop the course? If they decide to stay, they do so with fingers crossed that they’ll get lucky on the next exam.

As teachers we want to think about how well we balance mastery and performance goals. Students must perform in our classes, but we can emphasize how the activities and assignments we evaluate offer students an opportunity to master the material. Equally important is how we demonstrate that effort does make a difference. We can tell students that, but it is much more effective to design activities through which they discover what they can do once their put their minds to it.

Here’s the reference for the opening quote: Schraw, G. (1998). Promoting general metacognitive awareness. Instructional Science, 26, 113-125.

  • Colleagues:

    I teach Human Resources Management and Business Administration. I deal with this issue in class-after-class. I am very excited when a student I have been reaching out to – approaches me! [Gender is not important in this story.]

    I see this as an opportunity to cement a relationship that will lead this student to success in this class and in the future. Last week, s/he approached me and asked, "How am I doing in this class?"

    Bordering on giving a cheerful report, versus a true report, I opted for the truth. "You have a C+ average in here. You are doing better with the grammar in your Portfolio project. Your documents are looking more professional. More importantly, you are turning in your homework on time." A look of horror comes over their face.

    "A C+ average? What do I have to do to get a better grade?" (Colleagues, did I not answer that question before s/he asked it???) I smile and say, “You have to ‘want’ to do well in this class. [I continue, because I can tell s/he wants to interrupt me.] That means showing up with your assignment in completed form. You miss so much of the classroom conversation, because you are trying to do your homework and listen to us. How is that working for you?

    “Not too good, sir.”

    “I understand that you do not work, right? I did not remember you talking about having kids or parents to take of right?” S/He nods in compliance. “Therefore, your “job” is to be an Honor Student. Your “job” is to become the best graphic artist in this school. Your “job” is to build a career that will allow you to pay your parents back for them paying for your schooling out-of-pocket.”

    “I know.” [How many times have we heard that statement, with a “but” behind it?] “But, I will do anything to pass this class.” [Groan! Sigh! Holding tongue, now. Time for me to change the channel, mentally.]

    “You expressed today that you do not know what you want to do in a career. Why are you in graphic arts?”

    “They…the people in Admissions told me that my test results said that I should be in that field.”

    “I cannot speak to that, but you are in the right place. Not everyone comes to college with their desired career path in mind. However, you have an opportunity, in this class, to find out what could happen to you IF you would give yourself a chance to believe in yourself.”

    S/he stares at me blankly.

    “The class and I spent 15 minutes today, trying to help you with this decision. Your classmates started making suggestions to you about your career. [I did not start the Help Session] You said that you like music. However, every time someone suggested some type of career in the spectrum of music to you – you shot them down, quickly.”

    S/he states,”I could not do any of those things. Some of them are hard! I cannot make money in music!” [I looked at him. I tilted my head and gave him the “RCA Victor dog” look.]

    “You cannot make money in music…??? Welcome to college! Here is where you learn HOW to and WHERE to get the training. Music is a part of the Entertainment industry. It is merging with games, technology and social media.”

    “Yes, but I cannot play music well enough.”

    “You do not have to play any instrument. As a graphic artist you could design the covers, the games, the characters, the book covers, the costumes, the list goes on…”

    The look of defeat remained on the face. “Please understand that only YOU have control over what you are willing to learn or not learn in school. We will work together as a special project, for the next 8 weeks. You must perform some research and hands-on experiments before you will be able to be paid as a master in any trade. You understand that?”

    “Yes-sir, but I…” [I interrupt here, quickly.]

    “You play Wii games for 3 to 5 hours a day right? S/He nods affirmatively. What if you put as much time into finding what you can and want to do in life? What would happen for you?”

    “I might find it.” It is at this moment, I realized the greatest obstacle to his search. S/He has a real fear that once s/he makes a decision, the parents, friends, etc. will hold the student to it. This is evidenced with the statement that the Admissions person selected this curriculum. S/He is not responsible for it, if it ends in failure!

    “Now, it is time for you to make the decision. You have to take the time to make the decision for yourself. Whether you are right or wrong right now – does not matter. It took me 30 years to decide that I wanted to be an educator and not a lawyer. Do I look happy?”

    “Yes-sir! So it took that long? I guess it was worth the wait.” I reach for the light while picking up my attaché case.

    “You should be proud of yourself. You have beaten the fear of making a choice, today.”

    I close the door and motion towards the Exit sign. “Think about this. What would you do in life if you had no fear? Do not answer now, but we will talk next session.”

    For the first time in three weeks, s/he gave me a genuine smile. The posture changed as s/he reached in his pocket to answer the cell phone. As s/he turned to their new truck, s/he whispered, “Thanks, Mr. Alston.”

    We will see what happens today…………………

    [I welcome feedback and advice to help this student!]

  • Funny. That sounds exactly like Carol Dweck's fixed/growth mindset. Wonder if these researchers ever talk to each other. http://michaelgr.com/2007/04/15/fixed-mindset-vs-

  • I was searching on yahoo for games and found your site. I read this whole article, lots of good stuff. Thanks a million!

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  • naomi

    Now I understand why I dropped out of high school, and after some time I learned to become more mastery and attended uni as a mature aged student. I also found some great resources online to help me with my son, wish I had known this years ago. As a parent I knew immediately what the issue was and sought and found techniques to help. Perhaps sharing insights like to parents would allow us to better support our kids educators.