Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Mastery vs Performance Goals

One major pitfall of reading about the training of an endurance athlete is that, if autobiographical, the author may not offer a disinterested report.  A complete and unbiased record is in principle possible if the athlete wears a GPS/heartrate monitor and publishes every activity throughout a training cycle with no exception. That you are unlikely to find this reveals the problem: self-reports are, by their nature, propaganda, and you don't even know the direction of the bias. An athlete may either under-report the volume and intensity of workouts or over-report them, and it will be hard for you (and probably the athlete) to decipher the motivation behind either tendency. It may well prove worthwhile to drill deeply enough to find out, though, because you can reveal the compulsions behind sport and performance more generally.

Imagine that a competitor of mine has asked me to characterize my training in the six weeks before a big win.  I may be tempted to under-report because if it seems to him that I was less prepared than he, then he will be demoralized because he will know that I have more innate talent for the competition. Imagine instead that a teammate asks me the same thing. I may over-report my preparation because I quietly hope that he will be inspired to prepare at a higher level himself.

In the case of under-reporting to my competitor, I have implied that performance depends on factors beyond his control (and that I am better than he is). In the case of over-reporting to my teammate, I have implied that his mastery may well depend on willful preparation -- and that if I performed better this time it is because I was the better-prepared. Regardless of what I actually did, does the perception of  how I was able to perform make a difference to the person I reported to?

As compelling as sporting performance is to many people, it doesn't have the same gravitas as academic performance. Precisely the same problem hovers over every question about motivation in schools though. Are classrooms places where kids relative performance is determined by factors largely outside of their control, or are classrooms places for kids to develop mastery of chosen concepts and skills? If you think there is a right answer then you haven't plunged the depths of this question. It is an organic tension that lives in every school and classroom.

Rebecca Givens Rolland just published this interesting, if cumbersome, piece in the December volume of  Review of Educational Research: "Synthesizing the Evidence on Classroom Goal Structures in Middle and Secondary Schools: A Meta-Analysis and Narrative Review." She found, not too surprisingly, that across many studies when students perceive that mastery goals are more important in the classroom they tend to have better outcomes than when students perceive that performance goals are more important. In other words, an emphasis on the process of learning is more motivating than an emphasis on comparative outcomes.The pitfall, and the reason this will always be a live issue, is that in order to have a goal orientation at all there has to be a performance on which some will do better than others.  In order to maintain optimal motivation across all individuals teachers, like their athlete counterparts, will need to remain obtuse.


  1. Can an individual have goal oriented motivation without emphasis on competition with others? Goals of mastery, , a "PR" (personal record) or some other objective personal standard can act as motivation. Comparisons, rankings immediately define half of the group as below average, which may inspire some, but counterproductively demoralize others. Competition certainly enhances effort at top levels. Other strategies may be necessary elsewhere. Obtuseness may play a necessary role.

  2. Fran, are you still coaching youth basketball? I'm sure you are conscientious about helping some athletes focus on their own mastery so that they don't get down about not performing at as high a level as others. This is pretty intuitive for anyone who has helped manage the motivation of kids. What kind of "slight of hand" becomes necessary when those goals are formulated? Does it become strictly about improvement? Surely you can't pretend to try to close the gap between high and low performers. But then don't the better players most often stay better? And isn't that still demoralizing?

  3. I think we are on the same page. In athletics, it is usually obvious to all which one excels and which one struggles. A coach would want to maximize abilities of individual players by emphasizing goals that are more obtainable than being the #1 runner or MVP. Slight of hand? Not really. But the coach is arbitrarily deciding what he will define as important and worthy of focus to the athlete. And the classroom teacher will decide how much to divulge of the progress of fellow students. In this way, the subjective emotions of morale are managed by selective filtering of the hard data of test scores and rankings. That's how I had interpreted the last sentence of your original post. But maybe I am obtuse. (:

  4. That's where I'm coming from. Your separate e-mail to me gets right at the heart of the problem. I'll quote at length:

    "My specific questions have to do with the kids that I tutor at the community center. It often feels inefficient to spend time one on one completing homework that is often beyond their grasp. I have been playing with online education program called Khan Academy, which has gotten some attention in media lately. It is self-paced, seems complete, comprehensive and has great features built in such as tracking available to the instructor (coach) and a token reward system of virtual badges and such.

    I think most students could guide themselves through a program like this, except that, it inevitably becomes tedious at some point. Could a system of extrinsic rewards (candy, money, other bribes) based on progress made be a solution? Maybe you have insight both as a teacher and parent. What should a teacher. coach, parent do, if anything, to motivate kids to work harder?"

    The new era of knowledge, represented so graphically by the "knowledge space" mapped out on the Khan Academy, rolls up the blinders on the dynamics inside a classroom. Any sufficiently motivated individual can learn all that is required by schools (and without going to school). So why aren't all kids flocking to the site? Like Fran says, it eventually (well, pretty quickly) becomes tedious. The motivation to go through up to calculus and matrices would have to be extrinsic for very many kids to do it. And bribes won't get you very far -- because kids will care more about the bribe than the learning.

    Ultimately you get back to the "hard problem" of the original post. Most kids who will be motivated will be motivated by being better -- and in most cases that means better than some comparison group. So Fran might help nudge the motivation of his tutee by charting performance relative to the average of the class at school. You will have to be a little secretive though, because you want to keep as much focus as possible on the skill itself, and you can't be transparent with all kids in the comparison group (it is tough to chase a constantly improving average).