A learning goal in action
“Dad, I’ve done a chunk of this, would you be able to mark it to see if there are any mistakes?”
“Sure,” I said, before adding: “But if I do notice any mistakes, what does that mean to you?”
She thought about this for a few moments and then replied: “A step forward.”
I was both moved and blown away by this response – what an amazing attitude to have developed! But what underpinned it? Possibly a number of factors, but I think the goal she had may have been important.
In this situation, my daughter did not approach the task with a desire to demonstrate flawless performance; rather, she had a goal of learning from the endeavour. This transformed the meaning of mistakes and enabled her to approach her preparations with confidence. She saw any mistakes not as a reflection of her ability, nor a backward step, but rather a source of valuable feedback that would help her to make progress with her learning. This is the difference that the goals we have in mind can make.
Performance goals and learning goals: What are they?
In a performance goal, the focus is on winning positive judgments about your competence – and avoiding negative ones. Basically, the aim is to look intelligent, while avoiding looking the opposite. People with performance goals tend to love tasks on which they stand a good chance of achieving well – for example, being able to get 20/20 on a test that perhaps isn’t actually that challenging, or undertaking a task that they are already good at.
In contrast, in a learning goal the focus is on increasing your competence. As described by Dweck (2000): “It reflects a desire to learn new skills, master new tasks, or understand new things – a desire to get smarter” (p. 15). A person with a learning goal would prefer a harder task on which they wouldn’t necessarily be guaranteed to perform flawlessly – it’s getting stretched that’s important, rather than appearing successful.
Performance and learning goals: So what?
The following table summarizes various pieces of research on the impact learners’ goals can have on their subsequent behaviour (see Ames & Archer, 1988; Dweck, 2000; Elliott & Dweck, 1988; Graham & Golon, 1991; Pintrich & Garcia, 1991):
But how do we help people to set learning goals instead of performance goals?
Shaping learning goals
- The aim of developing skills, rather than demonstrating ability.
- Treating experiences (including so-called failure) as valuable sources of feedback that will support development.
- The process of learning, rather than the outcome a task will lead to.
The process of learning is well summarized by David Kolb’s (1984) model of The Learning Cycle:
The beauty of this model is that it doesn’t matter whether the concrete experience is ‘success’ or ‘failure’ – either way, learning results. Therefore, if our goal is to learn from an endeavour, then it is near-impossible to ‘fail’. Approaching new tasks or challenges with this learning orientation can be quite liberating, especially if one is otherwise prone to paralysing perfectionism.
- What are your goals at present? Are they learning or performance goals? Might you be able to revise a goal to have more of an explicit learning focus?
- If you work with young people, how can you help them to set themselves learning rather than performance goals?
- If you work with young people, or are a parent, what messages do you send about difficulty/failure? How?
References and acknowledgments
Dweck, C. (2000). Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality and Development. Lillington, NC: Taylor & Francis.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.
Elliott, E. S., & Dweck, C. S. (1988). Goals: An approach to motivation and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, pp. 5-12.
Graham, S., & Golon, S. (1991). Motivational influences on cognition: Task involvement, ego involvement and depth of information processing. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, pp. 187-194.
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Pintrich, P. R., & Garcia, T. (1991). Student goal orientation and self-regulation in the college classroom. In M. L. Maehr & P. R. Pintrich (Eds.), Advances in Motivation and Achievement (Vol. 7, pp. 371-402). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.