This is the second of four posts exploring what motivates students and the tenth in my series examining the Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education’s report on the Top 20 Principles From Psychology for Teaching and Learning . This time I turn my attention to Principle 10: “Students persist in the face of challenging tasks and process information more deeply when they adopt mastery goals rather than performance goals.”

Mastery gets bandied around a lot at the moment. Everyone who’s anyone is shoehorning ‘mastery’ into their post-Levels replacements and it seems to mean something different every time it’s used. In layman’s terms, mastery just means the possession of consummate skill that makes one the master of a subject. Clearly this definition is a bit self-referential, so what do psychologists have to say of the matter?

The online Psychology Dictionary describes ‘mastery learning’ as “the process of internalizing and understanding a complete area of study.” Mastery motivation is defined by Morgan, et al as, “a psychological force that stimulates an individual to attempt independently, in a focused and persistent manner, to solve a problem or master a skill or task which is at least moderately challenging for him or her.” Hsieh defines ‘mastery orientation’ as, “having the goal of learning and mastering the task according to self-set standards. [The] learner is focused on developing new skills, improving, and acquiring additional knowledge.” Students who have a mastery orientation will tend to attribute their failures to effort, rather than skill. Using this definition we can see there’s a close link with the attitudes to learning discussed in Principle 1 as well as the qualities of intrinsic motivation examined in Principle 9.

Generally speaking, teachers are interested in students doing more than ‘merely’ acquiring new skills and knowledge within the domains of the subjects we teach. We also have an interest in fostering a ‘love of learning’ and turning students into ‘life-long learners’. But how should we go about this laudable aim? Psychologists see the need for achievement as a basic human need – we are all driven to achieve, but we may be driven differently. Goal theory identifies two main methods for motivating people to achieve their goals, these are mastery-oriented goals and performance-oriented goals. As you can probably guess, mastery goals are all about getting really good at something. Performance goals, on the other hand, are all about looking good and impressing others. When students adopt performance goals they seek to “demonstrate that they have adequate ability or to avoid tasks in an effort to conceal a perception of having low ability.”

Which type of goal orientation would be more useful in the following situations?

  • enjoying lessons
  • persisting in the face of difficulties
  • seeking help when confused
  • managing tough decisions
  • seeing the point of a task
  • performing well in tests

A performance orientation is only likely to be useful in the last case, but doing well in tests might well depend on all the other aspects of learning. Who is most likely to retain information after it’s been used to prove competence? As Nuthall says, “Ability appears to be the consequence, not the cause of differences in what students learn from their classroom experiences.”

Schools and teachers must share some of the responsibility for students adopting performance goals. If we continue to value increases in short-term performance, then it follows that many pupils will continue to set these goals for themselves. Maybe if we really want students to develop a growth mindset which will equip them with grit, resourcefulness and resilience, we need to stop focusing on what they can do, and accept that the central tenets of Assessment for Learning are holed below the waterline. Any classroom practices which encourages teachers or pupils to believe that assessment proves learning must be rooted out and exposed as the harmful nonsense it often is. Instead, encouraging mastery goals will not only lead to the rounded and resilient pupils we all want, but is also more likely to lead to improved exam performance.

So, what’s stopping us? One obstacle is that we intuitively believe that increasing performance is a good thing. It feels good to perform well and it’s uncomfortable to struggle. Pupils are happier with lessons in which they perform well; teachers feel happier designing schemes of learning which allow pupils to jump from one feel-good performance to the next and school leaders feel happier with a curriculum that ticks boxes, covers content and (with a fair trailing wind, tons of last minute intervention and determined teaching to the test) will result in predictably decent exam performance. Anything that confirms this bias is welcomed and anything that contradicts it is dismissed.

The report offers some very sensible suggestions as to how we can organise our teaching to foster mastery goals.  Firsts we should “emphasize individual effort, current progress over past performance, and improvement when evaluating student work rather than rely on normative standards and comparison with others.” Grading work encourages comparison whereas more formative feedback is more likely to help students to think in terms of improving previous performance. It also urges caution with how we use praise and asks us to “encourage students to see mistakes or wrong answers as opportunities to learn rather than as sources of evaluation or evidence of ability.”

They then  suggest that teachers, “individualize the pacing of instruction as much as possible.” I think this is probably good advice. Perhaps the biggest difference in our perceptions of ability is the rate at which students master new skills and concepts and students who are often perceived as being ‘weaker’ often just need more time than others. The report’s authors advice is to allow students to set their own deadlines and monitor their own progress in order to help them focus on the process as well as the outcome. This sounds reasonable, but could easily become unworkable in a large class. My advice is to make scaffolding available to help students achieve mastery and to withdraw the support more quickly with some students and take a more gradual, incremental approach where it’s needed.

The report also suggests we think about school structures and classroom settings. The institutionalised nature of schools can be a major barrier to encouraging mastery. We don’t really have a growth mindset about education. Everything about schools is set up to value performance over mastery and learning. It would be a brave school indeed that sought to unpick the fabric of classrooms and curriculums and introduce a structure that supported sustained instead of rapid progress.

The report’s advice here is more ideological than supported by research. For instance, it suggests allowing students to work in groups more regularly because, “Cooperation is one of the best ways to promote a mastery goal orientation.” I’d take issue with that – group work is not bad per se, but it often does little to value mastery. Ask teachers to do more group work is not the way to overcome our attachment to performance goals. Instead, we’d be better off thinking about what messages are communicated by such practices as ability grouping and target grades. Any attempt to filter students according to perceptions of their ability will always be flawed. (Dylan Wiliam estimates that most measures result in about 60% of students being in the wrong set!) While it can be possible for ability groups to work, more often students in lower sets result in lower expectations; if some students are given less challenging material to study their perceived ability becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Likewise, target grades often cement fixed, performance-orientated attitudes. If you really must use targets, at least think about how they can be subverted to support a mastery-orientation.

It’s all very well to tell students that we want them to get cleverer through taking risks and making mistakes, but nothing in the way behave supports this message. We are deeply suspicious, for instance, of teachers struggling and would much prefer to cultivate competence than run the risks required for real mastery. We may say we value growth mindsets but we have a systemically fixed mindset view about what schools should be doing. If we want change, we need to stop making the same old mistakes and start making some new ones.

References cited by the report