Tag Archives: mindset

Growth Goals: One Path to a Growth Mindset.

Top athletes use both competitive & growth goals

Top athletes use both competitive & growth goals

Goals come in many shapes and sizes. Generally, when we talk of goals in an educational context they usually involve mastery goals, our pursuit of mastery over a skill or particular learning
task (e.g. “My goal is to master algebra”). Other goals might be less productive, for example avoidance goals whose purpose to is to avoid failure or negative outcomes which may lead to success but often lead to self-handicapping, allowing us to survive rather than thrive.

A third kind of goal is a Growth Goal. Martin uses the term Personal Best (PB) to describe the managed attempt to exceed oneself rather than to be “top of the class”. Personal Bests centre on a specific personal challenge (e.g. “I want an A in my next essay because I got a B in my last one”) and the specific steps required to reach the goal – so PB’s are competitively self-referenced – doing better than you did before.

PB’s have been found to increase engagement and academic achievement (Martin & Liem, 2010) as well as promote other skills including self-efficacy, intrinsic motivation and ‘flow’. Studies have also found that PB’s are just one way to encourage and promote an incremental (growth) mindset (Martin, 2014).

Mindset theory continues to gain ground over other motivational and engagement strategies primarily due to its rapidly growing and significant evidence base. The problem of implementation often centres around the actual process by which the fixed mindset (entity based self theory) is transformed into a growth mindset (incremental based self theory). PB’s work by drawing on this incremental philosophy and using a series of small steps to go from one personal best to the next, in the same way an Olympic sprinter aims to shave a second here and second there off his or her fastest time.

Furthermore, PB’s aren’t confined to specific cultural groups, with PB’s being generalised to non-western (Chinese) contexts (Yu & Martin, 2014).

PB’s encourage students to examine feedback constructively and set out a plan by which they either maintain their current level or exceed it, ensuring that they take on board teacher comments and identify gaps in either subject knowledge or study skills. In many ways PB’s are similar to the SMART-type objects used in employee appraisal systems and coaching in that they provide specific time-bound criteria by which progress can be made without relying on extrinsic factors.


PB Worksheet and Worked Example

Martin, A. J. (2014). Implicit theories about intelligence and growth (personal best) goals: Exploring reciprocal relationships. The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 1–17. doi:10.1111/bjep.12038
Martin, A. J., & Liem, G. A. D. (2010). Academic personal bests (PBs), engagement, and achievement: A cross-lagged panel analysis. Learning and Individual Differences, 20(3), 265–270. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2010.01.001
Yu, K., & Martin, a. J. (2014). Personal best (PB) and “classic” achievement goals in the Chinese context: their role in predicting academic motivation, engagement and buoyancy. Educational Psychology, (May), 1–24. doi:10.1080/01443410.2014.895297





Motivation, Learning and Memory (Part 1).


Why do we remember the stories we read in comics but forget what we learned in school?

I recently attended a presentation (organised by the Psychology in Education Research Centre, University of York) by Kou Murayama, a researcher at the University of Reading. Dr Murayama uses a range of research methods, including behavioural experiments, longitudinal studies and neuro-imaging to investigate, among other things, the link between motivation and learning.

As Murayama pointed out, students often recall a great deal about topics that interest them but are often unable to do the same with topics related to school – Murayama used the example of learning Japanese history and spoke about how, at school, he would memorise the entire textbook in order to pass his exams. That information (or at least most of it) is now forgotten, unlike the stories from his favourite Japanese comics, which will remain with him forever.

It has long been proposed by researchers including Edward Deci, Mark Lepper and Carol Dweck that motivation can be viewed as either intrinsic or extrinsic (for an excellent introduction to this I would highly recommend ‘Drive’ by Dan Pink). It has also been understood for many years that interest and curiosity play a key role in the consolidation of learning, often leading to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’.

Goal setting can also be described in terms of intrinsic/extrinsic motivators:

Mastery Goals (Intrinsic) – goals/striving based on personal development (e.g. “my goal is to develop my knowledge”)

Performance Goals (ego/extrinsic) – goals/striving  focusing on the demonstration of normative abilities (e.g. “my goal is to beat other people”)

Both approaches can facilitate elaborative learning processes but it appears that these processes are different for each type of goal. Because mastery-approach goals are linked to curiosity, exploration and an interest-based focus on learning they may facilitate a broad scope of attention beyond the target items. Essentially, mastery-orientated goals lead to greater long-term consolidation of learning while performance goals lead to only short-term learning.

In one particular study, Murayama asked a group of university students to learn a list of words and then carried out an immediate recall test. They were then asked to carry out another recall test a week later. However, one group of participants were given the following instructions:

If you work on this task with the intention to develop your ability, you can develop your competence

The second group were given the following instructions:

The aim of this task is to measure your cognitive ability in comparison with other university students

(The first instruction represents the mastery-goal condition; the second represents the performance goal condition)

There was very little difference between the scores for the first recall test, suggesting that the instructions had little impact on short-terms learning. However, when tested a week later it was discovered that the mastery goal condition produced a significantly higher recall rate than the performance goal condition.

Of course, learning material within an experiential situation such as this reduces the study’s ecological validity due to its artificial nature. Neither does this study suggest anything about learning over the longer term or within specific classroom settings. However, it does allow us to make strong causal inferences between different types of motivators.

The greatest strength of this research (and it is only a small sample of the huge volume of research Murayama has produced) is that it supports the findings of other researchers such as Putwain and Dweck (who I have written about before), and this adds to a growing literature on academic motivation that supports the view that intrinsic motivators are more powerful than extrinsic ones. Not only that, this kind of research also suggests that cognitive functions like memory are influenced by emotional factors such motivation, interest and boredom. It also supports the Dweckian view that implicit theories of intelligence (i.e. ‘Mindset’) can impact heavily on motivation.


Murayama, K., & Elliot, A.J. (2011). Achievement motivation and memory: Achievement Goals differentially influence immediate and delayed remember-know recognition memory. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 1339-1348.

Conducting educational research – are teens more problematic?

I recently conducted a small-scale exploratory study with some year 12 students. I wasn’t totally sure of what I really wanted to accomplish with the study or what to expect but I hoped that I could at least try to establish relationships between a number of different measures.

There were two main points I was particularly interested in:

1. If students could choose their own target grade, how close would this be to their actual target grade?

2. How do the constructs of Academic Self Concept (ASC), Academic Buoyancy (AB) and Implicit theories of Intelligence (Mindset) relate both to each other and the accuracy of target grade predictions?

The three constructs were measured using established and validated likert-scale questionnaires and were administered to 41 year 12 students following the completion of consent procedures.

There was an anticipation that the three constructs would correlate significantly and that those who scored highly on all three constructs would be more accurate with their target prediction. However, while there was a small positive correlation between ASC and Mindset (i.e. those participants who scored highly on the measure of ASC were more likely to have ‘growth mindsets’), none of the other measures appeared to correlate. Furthermore, the majority of target predictions formed a cluster around the “C” grade.

As I’ve already mentioned, this was very much an exploratory study using a small unrepresentative sample. Nevertheless, the results did get me thinking about a number of problems related to carrying out studies with teenagers and their self-concepts, and while this might not be directly related to the task in hand (and certainly won’t explain the results) I began to look back on a previous, half-abandoned project on teenage self concept.

As most parents of teenagers will confirm, adolescence brings with it a period of heightened self-consciousness unseen in younger children. Teenagers become overly, at times almost pathologically, preoccupied with the way in which others interpret their actions and behaviour. In developmental psychology terms this is known as egocentrism and is considered a normal healthy stage of development.

The American developmental psychologist and writer David Elkind expanded on this idea in the 1960’s in a manner that allows us to at least attempt an explanation for the seemingly egocentric nature of teenagers. Once children are able to distinguish between their own thoughts and the thoughts of others (often referred to as mentalizing) they become preoccupied with the fear that the thoughts of other people are focussed on their own behaviour and appearance – what Eldkind calls the imaginary audience. The imaginary audience is seen by the teenager as scrutinising their every move, being critical of their behaviour – the way they dress or their haircut and so on. This fear leads to increase in self-consciousness in terms of the ways in which others (especially their peers) see them. Of course the view held by the teenager is more likely to be imagined than having any existence within reality, nevertheless, it is real for them and no amount of persuasion will convince them otherwise.  A related concept, according to Elkind, is that of the personal fable. Personal Fable describes the teenagers obsession with their own uniqueness and the belief that they are in some way special, leading to the view that ‘nobody understands me’. While Elkinds’ theory has been expanded and developed since the 1960’s we can already see how the way in which teenagers behave is closely linked to the way in which they are developing socially and emotionally.

More recently, researchers have suggested that the these twin concepts of imaginary audience and personal fable represent the teenagers search for identity in the midst of a rapidly changing set of social circumstances – greater independence, the move from primary to secondary education and the increase in pressure from parents and peers. When the young teenager begins to development close relationships outside the family she finds herself torn between her new social life and the desire to remain connected to the family, leading perhaps to anxiety and fixation on one to the detriment of the other. While we can attempt to support the teenager and suggest that she divide her time equally between the two, there is a real possibility that her egocentrism and centration prevents her from dealing with, what is to her, a major all-consuming dilemma. In order to resolve this dilemma our teen is likely to engage in daydreaming as way of placing herself within a number of different social contexts and interactions involving various groups of others, simultaneously she may also employ the concept of personal fable (the emphasis on her uniqueness) as means to separate herself from her family. Indeed this complex and often agonising search for identity may lead to periods where the teenager separates himself from both his family and his own social groups, and while such behaviour may seem unusual, it is rarely detrimental.

So what impact (if any) does this have on the researcher who has chosen teenagers at their focus? My concern is that the objectivity of any self-completed questionnaire is compromised even if basic criteria regarding anonymity and confidentiality are adhered to. There might be a danger that teenagers will attempt to safeguard their self-esteem even with the guarantee that no other person will have access to their personal results. High achieving teenagers might be reluctant, therefore, to accurately reflect their ability for fear of being seen as arrogant while others might not want to underestimate their ability for fear of being seen as stupid. As many researchers in the areas of ASC and related concepts rely heavily on the use of such measures, do we need to question the validity of any results.

Nurturing habits for successful learning

Why is it that some pupils achieve and others don’t? I have briefly touched on some of these both in this blog and elsewhere and I remain a fervent believer that the handicapping of academic achievement is as much caused by external (social) factors as it by internal (e.g. genetics/personality) factors. I have discussed issues such as social class and cultural capital before, so I want now to turn to more psychological factors that might impact on success and failure within a school setting.

The contributions of psychologists Andrew Martin and Herbert Marsh have been somewhat neglected by educators, especially in the UK. Even though Herb Marsh is director of the Self-concept Enhancement and Learning Facilitation (SELF) Research Centre at Oxford University and is probably one of the most prolific researchers into the study of academic self-concept, his theories (supported by a wealth of empirical data) have generally failed to permeate down into the classroom. Similarly, while Martin has become highly influential in the area of student motivation in his native Australia, few UK teachers are aware of his contribution.

Martin views academic achievement in evolutionary terms – achievement and success is something that evolves through our constant attempts to learn. During this process students will encounter both success and failure and future achievement is, in part, influenced by how we react to this. Such success includes things like marks, literacy, numeracy, effort, persistence, engagement, participation, cooperation, etc. and a students’ mastery of all or some of these have a cumulative effect on future success. Therefore, those students who make gains early on continue to sustain and increase those gains while those students who are slow to master them have a harder time catching up – essentially, the stronger get ever stronger while the weaker only get weaker. This phenomenon in education has been described as the ‘Matthew Effect’ by psychologist Keith Stanovich, specifically in relation to reading where Stanovich states:

“Slow reading acquisition has cognitive, behavioral, and motivational consequences that slow the development of other cognitive skills and inhibit performance on many academic tasks. In short, as reading develops, other cognitive processes linked to it track the level of reading skill. Knowledge bases that are in reciprocal relationships with reading are also inhibited from further development. The longer this developmental sequence is allowed to continue, the more generalized the deficits will become, seeping into more and more areas of cognition and behavior. Or to put it more simply – and sadly – in the words of a tearful nine-year-old, already falling frustratingly behind his peers in reading progress, “Reading affects everything you do”
(in Adams, Marilyn J. (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press)

So how do students succeed and why do some fail?

Martin’s research suggests that success can be seen in terms of ‘product’ and ‘process’ outcomes.

In the same way, failure can also be seen in terms of ‘product’ and ‘process’


Furthermore, Martin has developed what he described at the ‘The Motivation and Engagement Wheel’, an attempt to integrate the psychological influences on success and failure. Positive thoughts and positive behaviours logically lead to a higher degree of success as well as increased resilience and buoyancy (the ability to bounce back following set-backs and the ability to see failure more positively). Negative thoughts (such as anxiety and uncertain control) and negative behaviours (such as self-handicapping) not only lead to academic underachievement, they also sustain it.



Motivation and Engagement Wheel (Martin, 2003)

Although Martin never explicitly relates his work to Dweck’s Mindset theory, integrating Dweck’s view of implicit theories of intelligence would certainly complement and extend the work of both Martin and Dweck. For those unfamiliar with implicit theories of intelligence, Carol Dweck has suggested that individuals tend to hold specific views concerning the nature of intelligence. These implicit theories of intelligence are described as either entity theories (where individuals view intelligence as innate and academic ability as fixed and beyond their control) or incremental (where individuals view academic ability as malleable and based on effort rather than innate ability). If we view entity theories as maladaptive cognitions and incremental theories as adaptive cognitions, we can assume an evolutionary path from the former to the latter (and sticking to the principle that thoughts influence behaviour) we can attempt to move our students away from destructive negative self-concepts towards more adaptive ways of thinking.

Part of our roles as teachers should be to identify and attempt to correct these maladaptive views of self in relation to learning. Unfortunately, due to the evolutionary and cumulative nature of motivation, engagement and self-concept, for many teachers (especially at secondary level) the damage becomes more difficult to repair as learners have already established fairly concrete views of themselves and have fallen so far behind their peers that ‘catching up’ seems impossible.

Within a culture obsessed with ranking children against their peers and schools against each other, we perhaps begin to lose sight of the individuals in our classrooms. Martin suggests that pupils should be measured against themselves, in terms of ‘personal bests’ (PB) in the same that athletes not only rank themselves against others but also rank their current performance against their previous performance.

Allowing pupils (especially the ones more vulnerable to negative self belief) to view their own progress far from the spotlight of others’ success could provide the first step on the road to overcoming the negative consequences of failure.

Don’t try and sell us a fixed mindset!

The UK coalition government has recently proposed two specific changes to education. The first is the formal testing of all children at the age of five; the second is the proposal that all 11 year-old pupils be ranked academically against their peers. Both proposals have invited hostility, with opponents suggesting that such policies work to undermine the confidence of less able pupils and place too much emphasis on test taking. Nevertheless, the argument is that in order to ‘raise the bar’ educators should be made aware of those children who perhaps need help towards reaching (and hopefully exceeding) minimum standards in core academic abilities and those children who need stretching and challenging in order to fulfil their true potential.

All of this does make a certain amount of sense, unless, of course, rankings are used in order to separate the ‘wheat from the chaff’ in a manner reminiscent of the old 11 plus days, where children were tested at the age of 11 (the final year of primary education) in order to stream them through the academically demanding Grammar School system or scupper their chances of an academic future by filtering them into the local Secondary Moderns. Ability at 11 would dictate the future career trajectory of both groups, streaming the Grammar School pupils towards university and the others towards less intellectually demanding, manual labour or trades.

While evidence supporting the Grammar School system has been marred by controversy (something proponents of the system seem to overlook), many areas of the United Kingdom chose to retain the bi-partite structure. Although I wasn’t a child of the Grammar School generation, I was unfortunate enough to be living in an area of the country where the Grammar School system had been retained so, at the age of 11, I was required to sit an exam that would have a major impact (at least for a short time) on how I was viewed academically. This was the early 1980’s, before the era of the Tiger Mother, personal tutor and the countless publications on the shelves of WH Smith promising to help your child pass everything from the 11 plus to the Oxford entrance exam.

Needless to say, I failed. I was a ‘failure’.

What sticks in my mind is that during the last few weeks of my primary education the atmosphere at the school changed. Both my best friends were offered places at the Grammar School and had joined with other ‘successful’ children to form a clique based on their perceived intellectual superiority. Us ‘failures’ almost seemed to conform to societal expectations and took to swearing at and picking fights with the ‘Grammar School puffs’. Looking back, this change must have been swift when taking into the account the time between finding out which school we were going to and the end of the summer term.

Many years later I would be reminded of this brief period of social unrest (there is no other word for it) while reading about the simple, yet highly effective field experiment conducted in the 1960’s by an American elementary school teacher named Jane Elliott. Elliott divided her class into those children with brown eyes and those with blue eyes. She then went on to inform the children that those with blue eyes were superior to their brown-eyed classmates and had the blue-eyed children wrap brown cloth collars around their ‘inferior’ classmates neck so that they were easily identifiable. The two groups of children were prevented from playing with each other, eating together or even drinking from the same water fountain. The change in the children’s behaviour was startlingly rapid. The brown-eyed children became withdrawn and sometimes aggressive towards the blue-eyes, while the blue-eyes would tease and bully children who had, only a few hours earlier, been the best of friends. The following day the tables were turned; Elliott told the class that she had made a mistake and it was, in fact, the brown-eyes who were superior. Rather than learn from their own experiences, the brown-eyes chose to exact their revenge on the blue-eyes and the cycle began again.

When children are labelled, they have a tendency to fall head first into everything that label represents.

Although Elliott’s pseudo-experiment took place against a backdrop of racial segregation, it still informs us about the power of stereotypes and how easily we can be coerced into turning our friends into our enemies. I recall that it was one particular boy at my primary school who suggested that all the Grammar School pupils should sit together, eat together and play together because they were in some way superior to the rest of us. The system had made us feel like failures, even though I doubt this was ever the systems intention. In the end it worked out well and my two years at the Secondary Modern were perhaps the happiest of my entire time at school – I also learned more there than I would at either of the state comprehensive schools that were to follow.

Do children fail because they feel like failures?
Do they fail because society has branded them as failures?
Do the labels we apply to children assist in the formation of the child’s perception of themselves as learners (so-called academic self concept)?

Statistically middle-class white children do better academically than their working-class counterparts, even when the working-class children are deemed to be more academically able. Of course this is a rather crude judgement that ignores the multitude of individual differences between and within groups. Certain groups appear more prone to underachievement than others, so girls tend to do better than boys in most subject areas. Nevertheless, girls’ levels of achievement aren’t uniform – they rise and fall. Furthermore, middle-class girls do better than working-class girls, especially in English. In fact, despite the anxiety over male underachievement, social class appears to play a much greater role in academic underachievement than gender. The problem we then face as educators is whether these patterns of underachievement are to do with the learners themselves or the attitudes of a middle-class profession to what is perceived as realistic in the education of working-class children.

Do we, as educators, view working-class children as less able, not because of their intellect, but because of their background?

If we can confidently place our hand on our heart and say that we treat ALL children the same, then that’s great. If we can’t then we don’t deserve the honour of being teachers because we are the problem and not the solution.

Being aware of the destructive labels we use is part of a greater solution, along with the cultivation of a growth mindset in ourselves before we attempt to encourage it in others. The Grammar School system sold us a fixed-mindset, the belief that academic ability is in some way tied to a simplistic view of innate intelligence. In the process, the Grammar School system promoted and sustained class inequality.

The current system still does this to a point – but it is often schools that sustain it.