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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 10/19/2009

Willingham: Is School About Learning or About Grades?

By Valerie Strauss

U-Va. cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, author of "Why Don't Students Like School?" is my guest today.

By Daniel Willingham
I have always told my children that school is not about grades, it’s about learning. I tell them that they shouldn’t compare themselves to other kids but should just mark their own progress in learning.

I’m starting to rethink what I tell them.

I’ve been emphasizing what researchers call “mastery goals.” Kids with mastery goals profess interest in school subjects, and are not terribly worried about grades; they want to learn for learning’s sake.

In contrast, kids with performance goals are mostly interested in getting good grades and looking smart. A host of attitudes about schoolwork—for example, how students think about failure or about cheating—is associated with this basic distinction, and mastery goals are consistently the ones to have.

Some new research is casting a somewhat different light on how parents and teachers might think about these goals and their consequences.

There has long been an oddity in this research. You would expect that students holding mastery goals would get higher grades than those holding performance goals. After all, they are more interested, and tend to use good learning strategies like monitoring whether or not they really understand. Yet the data have not been that consistent.

A new study may explain this puzzle. The researchers tested a hypothesis that seems obvious, after the fact: Some students claim to hold mastery goals merely to ingratiate themselves with the teacher.

The researchers asked 267 French university students taking a social psychology course to rate the extent to which their goals were “to learn as much as possible,” and “to understand what is taught.” These questions are intended as measures of mastery goals, and have been used in this sort of research before. Then students went on to rate these same statements as to whether the thought these qualities would please teachers.

The results were clear. Some students thought that mastery goals impress teachers. For those students, their own professed endorsement of mastery goals did not predict their grades. But for the other students—those who don’t think teachers are especially impressed by mastery goals—there was a consistent relationship. Among those students greater endorsement of mastery goals predicted higher grades.

The straightforward interpretation is that mastery goals do, indeed, predict better learning. Students learn better when they are learning for its own sake, and not just to get a high grade. But some students know that teachers like mastery goals, and some of those students fake the desirable attitudes. They tell teachers what teachers want to hear.

Other data support this interpretation. For one thing, the relationship between mastery goals and learning is more consistent in early grades than in later grades. Younger children may be more guileless than their older counterparts, or perhaps they just haven’t yet learned what their teachers value.

There are also data showing a relationship between student mastery goals and university professor’s attitudes towards students. Professors think that students who claim to hold mastery goals are smarter and oddly enough, they think these students are nicer.

All of these data are correlational and so must be treated with some caution—we can’t know whether one variable is really causing something else in a correlational experiment. But it certainly seems plausible that some students learn what teachers expect them to say about their attitudes towards schoolwork, and then say it.

So that’s why I’m rethinking what I say to my kids about their goals for schooling. By telling them “you should have this attitude,” I’m certainly making clear what I want them to believe, but I’m not so sure I’m making them believe it. And by repeating it again and again, I may encourage them to fake this attitude with me and with their teachers.

If I really want my kids to love learning, I may have more success by articulating the attitude only on occasion, but showing them what the attitude prompts one to do on a daily basis: Try to learn from failure rather than expressing anger and frustration, be eager for chances to learn new things, and take on interesting tasks even if they seem difficult.

By Valerie Strauss  | October 19, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, National Standards  | Tags:  Daniel Willingham, mastery standards, performance standards  
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Citations to the literature cited in this posting can be found here:

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | October 19, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Interesting article. I am a professor and I usually think that students who profess mastery goals are just fooling themselves. They get bad grades but tell themselves (and me), "I learned a lot." They leave the class feeling satisfied and report to the college that they learned a great deal. But if that's true, then their grades should show it. On the other hand, it's annoying to have a student who declares on the first day, "I need an A!" I want students to strive for good grades but not to hound me about it.

Posted by: drl97 | October 19, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

I think your point about teaching this attitude through practice rather than maxims is absolutely right. Of course, it forces us as parents to be engaged learners ourselves, to talk to our kids about what we're reading and thinking and doing and attempt to convey to them why the particular book or new skill we're working on gives us pleasure and satisfaction. As parents, it's so easy to fall back on directives, rather than live out in our lives what we hope they find in theirs. Thanks for a thought-provoking column.

Posted by: exkidspost | October 19, 2009 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Supporting kids to love learning is a different goal than supporting them to be successful. Students will love learning when their own interests in a subject are encouraged and rewarded. Now a college senior engineering student my son loved different facets of engineering, and was supported, but hated math early on. His parents taught him pragmatism, to reach his learning goals he didn't need high mastery of math, just enough to be competent in engineering. We might have happier more engaged students if we didn't set the expectation that they need to be great at everything.

Posted by: speakuplouder | October 19, 2009 4:47 PM | Report abuse

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