'Mastery Goals versus Performance Goals' by Trudi Edwards, Head of Primary School

In a time in education where standardised and summative assessment seem to reign supreme and the pursuit of OP1s, ATARS of 99.95 and A+ on each report card dominate, it is crucial that, as educators and parents, we consider the role of two vastly different types of goals and their impact on learning, achievement, wellbeing, and the development of confidence and self-efficacy.

This is particularly critical in Primary Schools, where the foundations which are essential for academic attainment are established in the core areas of literacy, numeracy, thinking skills and contemporary skills required for the future. Even more important, however, are the foundations which focus on the dispositions, attitudes and emotional competencies that enable students to attain their personal best in all pursuits, be they academic, sporting or cultural.

We know that ‘success builds success’ and success can only be established when students are willing, engaged learners who feel a sense of self-efficacy when approaching their learning, particularly when approaching new or challenging learning. We also know that a mastery goal orientation, as opposed to a performance goal orientation, when prioritised by schools, families and students themselves, leads to improved academic attainment and emotional wellbeing. Over the past 25 years, achievement goal theory has emerged as one of the most prominent theories of achievement motivation and it has been evidenced that a performance goal orientation, which focuses on the end result, is far less successful in supporting motivation, understanding, skill development and ultimately achievement than a mastery goal orientation.

As teachers in the Primary School, our shared belief is that a Flinders education should essentially nurture and develop the internal motivation of every student to engage deeply in learning and to support each student to be focused on achieving personal excellence though being mastery goal oriented as opposed to being solely driven by performance goals and recognition. An exclusive performance goal orientation is linked to a decline in conceptual understanding, can negatively impact student wellbeing, often results in a fixed mindset, and can lead to students becoming praise dependent.

A mastery goal orientation enables students to focus on their own growth, with success evidenced through mastery of concepts. Such an approach places personal improvement and attainment at the heart of learning and values intrinsic motivation and resilience to see an endeavour through, which enables the successes of our students in the many activities and pursuits they undertake. We believe to achieve ‘excellence in learning and life’ requires, for every student, the development of character, fortitude in endeavour, and a commitment to personal improvement. Such dispositions and attributes are well served through prioritising a mastery goal orientation which, when embraced by students, enables the most advantageous achievement and motivational patterns to develop. Considerable evidence suggests that Primary School students show the most positive motivation and learning patterns when mastery, understanding, and improving skills and knowledge are emphasised.

A core priority in the Primary School is our focus on learning intentions and success criteria which makes the learning goals for each lesson explicit and provides students with the criteria to measure their understanding and skills development against. Such a strategy not only heightens student ownership of learning, it enables them to reflect on their learning and persist to master the success criteria outlined, essentially developing a mastery-goal orientation. Similarly, our Big Write Program provides students with criteria relevant to their current writing skills and provides clarity to each student in regards to what they need to focus on in order to improve their writing. The personalised goals are targeted and specific, as opposed to vague and generalised, e.g. ‘I can include specific connectives in my writing (because, therefore, as a result)’ as opposed to ‘Use better sentences’. Learning intentions, success criteria and goal setting, coupled with explicit teaching, rehearsal of skills learned and targeted feedback to students based on intentions, criteria and goals provides the best platform for promoting mastery goals in our Primary School. Many other programs and approaches also prioritise and support a mastery-goal orientation to dominate at Flinders, including the essential role of assessment in learning.

The role of assessment in schools should primarily support a mastery goal orientation approach and does so when assessment is viewed by all in the community, not only as assessment of learning, but also assessment for learning. Whilst assessment ‘of’ learning is used to provide an overall grade for reports each semester, these same assessments, along with daily formative assessment by teachers act as assessment ‘for’ learning. This is where teachers, and students themselves in the more senior years of Primary, are able to utilise assessment to identify misconceptions or areas for further consolidation and then use this feedback to develop future learning goals and tasks to address these areas.

So, to end where we began, in a time in education where standardised and summative assessment seem to reign supreme and the pursuit of OP1s, ATARS of 99.95 and A+ on each report card dominate, it is crucial that, as educators and parents, we focus on developing a mastery goal orientation with each of our students which focuses on achieving personal best. This is achieved through goal setting which targets specific learning intentions or criteria in order to constantly improve understanding, further develop skills and processes, and provide for personalised learning to support student achievement, positive learning dispositions, motivation and wellbeing. In doing so, a ‘success builds success’ culture evolves for students where growth and attainment are celebrated against goal achievement, and is not solely focused on grades, awards and recognition which leads to fixed mindsets and in the longer term minimises student agency, confidence and ultimately achievement itself.

Trudi Edwards | Head of Primary School

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