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.