Masters and Performers

[This is a rather long post – sorry. It also may appear a little disjointed in places as it’s a small part of much larger work. I will update later with references]

Many teachers are familiar with the work of Carol Dweck and popularisation of her Mindset theory (I’ve blogged about it before). However, Dweck’s earlier pre-mindset research allows us to see how the theory developed and its connection with other areas such as emotion and helplessness.

Back in the 1980’s Dweck, along with Carol Diener, carried out several studies using fifth and sixth grade children in the United States. They divided the children into two groups based on the outcome a questionnaire, designed to identify those children who displayed helpless characteristics. The aim was to attempt to separate those children who showed persistence in the face of failure (the mastery-orientated approach) from those who tended not to persist when presented with the possibility of failing. The children would then be presented with a number of tasks ranging in difficulty in an attempt to see who would persist and who would give up. More importantly, Dweck and Diener also recorded the flow of the children’s thoughts and feelings as well as their performance.

This early research uncovered a number of fascinating behaviours related to learners and the learning process and highlights the dangers of helplessness. When children are comfortable with their learning and can complete tasks or problems successfully, they remain quite confident about their ability and intelligence – this is the case regardless of orientation. Setting goals too low may, therefore, create a false sense of success because challenge is negligible, however, increasing the level of challenge will trigger helpless behaviour in certain learners and mastery behaviour in others. Pupils categorised as helpless begin to act in dysfunctional and damaging ways when things start to get harder and success on the task becomes more elusive. One of the first things these students begin to do is denigrate their own abilities and blame their intelligence (or rather, their perceived lack of intelligence) on the inability to succeed. Dweck and Diener found that children made specific verbal attacks on their own ability such as ‘I guess I’m not very intelligent’ or ‘I’m no good at things like this’. In fact, one-third of the helpless group spontaneously denigrated their own intellectual ability while none of the mastery group resorted to such intense self-criticism.

Remember that these children had already had a string of successes and it was only when they hit problems and began to fail did they begin to lose faith in their own ability. Before they hit problems their performance was indistinguishable from that of the mastery group; they had rapidly discarded these earlier successes and decided that they weren’t clever enough even though their earlier success should have made them feel more confident about their ability. When asked how many problems they had solved successfully, the helpless children recalled more unsuccessful attempts – they remembered their performance as poorer than is actually was. In another study, students were presented with solvable problems first and difficult ones later. It was found that the helpless group were less likely to solve the later problems even though they were easier, suggesting that the helpless orientation is a reaction to failure that carries negative implications for the self. Furthermore, it works to impair ability and results in less effective cognitive strategies.

We can get a better insight into how helpless orientated students cope with failure by examining their on-going verbal responses during the task. Dweck and Diener tracked the thoughts and feelings of their participants as they solved the problems, in an attempt to gain insight into their thoughts and feelings. Change in attitude was rapid in the helpless group once the tasks got difficult and they started to fail. While the problems presented were solvable the children appeared quite pleased with themselves but when the problems became difficult they lost interest and complained of being bored. The ways in which they coped with the anxiety and self-doubt that exploded within them once they realised that they were having difficulties solving the problems, often involved the children drawing attention to other non-task related successes. In what appeared to be an attempt to counter the failure experienced in the experimental situation, some children would inform the researchers that they had been given and important part in the school play or had succeeded in some other activity unrelated to the task. Others would try to change the rules or give plausible explanations for giving the wrong answer. Even these young children were found to be making desperate attempts to safeguard their self-esteem, in other words, they were trying hard not to seem unintelligent. As a result, the helpless group displayed a significant deterioration in the strategies they used to solve the problems as they increased in difficulty. Interestingly, they didn’t appear to objectively decide that the task was too hard for them but increasingly condemned their own abilities, leading them descend into depression and anxiety.

Carol Dweck’s early work investigated the different ways in which helpless and goal orientated learners approached problems. Other psychologists working in the area of motivation and learning have identified two specific ‘goal orientations’ that appear to influence the way in which learners approach the goals set for or by them. The first is known as the ‘performance goal’ orientation (the ‘helpless’ group in the Dweck and Diener study and the orientation) while the second has been labelled the ‘mastery goal’ orientation. The primary aim of the performance goal learner is first and foremost to demonstrate their competence or to avoid looking incompetent. Furthermore, performers tend to select activities that are easier and therefore represent a higher chance of success. For performers, success is everything, even if that success comes about because they have chosen a task that is below their capabilities. Revising and preparing for exams might include constantly going over the same material because they already know it rather than moving onto to a topic they don’t fully understand. In a similar way, given the choice between a task that requires little cognitive investment and one that takes a great deal of effort and thought, the performer would be more likely to choose the latter. The performer might claim that a particular task is pointless or stupid or say that they just can’t be bothered with it. Those displaying a mastery goal orientation, however, are more likely to choose more challenging tasks and persist at them; the primary aim here is to attain a new skill, one that requires dedication and persistence. So the child who constantly complains that it’s pointless to become skilled at algebra because he is never going to use it again, is more than likely anxious about others in the class viewing him as unintelligent because he struggles with algebra, whereas another child perseveres because she wishes to master the techniques of algebra regardless of its future utiliy.

Andrew Elliot, a psychologist at the University of Rochester, further developed the view of master and performance orientations, in part due to the inconsistency of the evidence linking performance goals to a number of other motivational constructs. Elliot proposes a trichotomous model that further differentiates between performance-approach, performance-avoidance and mastery goal orientations. It’s important for us to understand that this separating out of the two performance goal orientations grew from the inconsistencies within the research involving the performance only goal orientation; essentially the original distinctions were unable to be explained in terms of research findings. Basically, performance-approach goal orientations represent the individuals’ attempts to demonstrate competence (through the strategies already discussed) while performance-avoidance orientations represent attempts for the learner to avoid being seen as incompetent. Goal orientations fundamentally alter the way learners view achievement situations, having a knock on effect on the ways in which individuals approach learning situations and, ultimately, achievement outcomes. While those students displaying performance-goal orientations will continue to avoid challenging tasks as a means of demonstrating competence, performance avoiders are more likely to disengage and withdraw from the learning process. The performance-avoidance orientation has also been linked to number of other outcomes including shallow processing, poor retention of information and performance decrements.

Mastery goal learners, on the other hand, are expected to enhance their achievement though placing a greater value on improving their skills and developing competencies. Not only that, but, as Andrew Elliot and Carol Dweck discovered, they are also more likely to display greater levels of persistence and employ more advanced cognitive strategies that lead to the deeper processing of information. Furthermore, empirical evidence has discovered that those students who focus more on trying to develop competence are more resilient in the face of challenge and are more likely to employ higher-level cognitive strategies such as elaboration, critical thinking and self-regulated learning. All this would suggest that a mastery goal orientation is directly related to higher levels of achievement; however, the evidence doesn’t necessarily support this view. Lisa Linnenbrink-Garcia, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and one of the foremost researchers into emotions and motivation, analysed 74 correlational studies, finding that only about 40 per cent of them showed a positive relationship between mastery orientation and academic achievement with five per cent showing a negative relationship. This would certainly suggest that there is some benefit to mastery goal orientation, but in research terms the results are not deemed statistically significant, in other words, the effect is too small, so we can’t be sure of any causal relationship. Frustratingly, there is also some concern over the relationship between performance-approach goals and academic outcomes, with some studies showing a positive correlation between performance-approach goals and cognitive regulation while other studies have found no significant relationship or even a negative relationship.

Inconsistent findings don’t necessarily mean the theory is flawed, it can mean that things are more complex or nuanced than the theory originally proposed. The research for both mastery goals and performance approach goals is in conflict with regards to academic outcomes; the findings for performance approach goals have also been inconsistent in term of persistence. If you remember, those students displaying a performance approach orientation were less likely to persist with a task once the going got tough and much of the research supports this view. However, while in many studies those performance-approach students were more likely to withdraw or opt out of a task and to withdraw their time and energy after experiencing failure, other studies found no significant relationship between performance-approach orientation and effort. Just to make things even more complicated, Elliot found a positive relationship between performance-approach goals, effort and persistence.

The main problem we face is that there appears to be no strong relations between performance-approach orientations and achievement. There is certainly and emotional component at play and this could provide us with a way to reconcile these findings. It appears that while some learners are able to successfully regulate possible debilitating emotions, others are unable to do so, leading to less effort and persistence and the feeling that the task is somehow unworthy of their efforts. Mastery-goal orientated learners are less likely to develop debilitating emotions because they view learning as a challenge and something to become skilled at – they view difficulty and challenge as a vital part of the learning process rather than something that exists in order to trick them or to reveal their incompetence to the world. They also see failure as part of the route they must take in order to reach the goals they have set for themselves. In their model of achievement emotions Diana Tyson, Lisa Linnenbrink-Garcia and Nancy Hill proposed that mastery learners are more likely to evoke positive emotions due to the way they view difficult tasks; they don’t need to regulate debilitating negative emotions because such emotions are much less likely to arise.


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