What’s your goal?

What are our motivations when we take on tasks in school? As part of the research I did when writing my book, I found some really interesting discussions about this issue. When we approach a task, the end goal we have in mind can have a big impact on how useful or effective that task is, both in terms of learning and also in terms of our well being.

There are two types of goals when taking on a task in school:

  1. Performance goal: if a student is motivated by a performance goal, then their primary concern is how well they do in the task – how successful they are, where they placed in relation to other students, what their score or grade was. They take on tasks to do well. If they are worried they might not do well, then students motivated by a performance goal might seek a way to avoid the task, fearing that it might expose them as “a failure.”
  2. Learning goal: if a student is motivated by a learning goal, then their primary concern is how the task helps to improve or develop them, through gains in knowledge or skills. They take on tasks to improve themselves, to learn something new, and to develop. If you are motivated by a learning goal, then failure to fully complete a challenging task is an opportunity to learn from mistakes, not a judgment on you as a person.

Students motivated by performance goals focus on avoiding failure. This can result in using tactics to get out of doing tasks that might be difficult, or even engaging in what the researchers call “self-handicapping” so that they can blame someone or something else for why they didn’t do well:  

For example, a student might postpone completing a [piece of homework] until the last minute or stay up late partying the night before an important test. Although the student can now blame failure on a factor unrelated to her intelligence, she has sacrificed the chance to learn and excel.

from Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills that Promote Long-Term Learning 

The research shows that students motivated by learning goals make better progress, are more resilient, are more likely to persist with difficult tasks, and seek out challenges – all features we want to encourage in our young people at Churchill.

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Learning goals at Churchill

At Churchill Academy & Sixth Form, the only time when students have a performance goal is in their final GCSE, A-level, BTEC or other public exams or assessments.

At every other time, tasks are designed and set up with a learning goal in mind.

School tests and internal exams

End of unit or end of year exams and tests are designed to help students in their learning. Revising for and completing the tests themselves are opportunities for retrieval practice, a learning strategy that has been shown to improve memory and long term learning. After students have completed their tests or exams, teachers will spend time with their classes going through their answers and their scripts, helping students learn from where they got things right, mistakes they made, and gaps in their learning revealed by the test. Of course, we want students to do well, and it is important that they try hard to do the best that they possibly can – but that is not the goal. The goal is to learn.

Performances and matches

Performances in drama, dance, music and sports matches are also learning experiences. Of course they are rehearsed or practised carefully, so that the performance is the best it can possibly be, but each performance is a learning experience. Each time a dancer steps onto a stage in front of an audience, it makes them a better dancer. Each football match played against “real” opposition builds the team’s and individuals’ skills and experience, making them better. Winning the match, or putting on a great show, is fantastic – but our aim is to learn.

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Challenges in school

Taking on a challenging or difficult task in school – in a lesson, as part of our extra-curricular activities, personally, or even socially – is an opportunity to learn and grow. It doesn’t matter if we don’t get it all right, or even if we get it wrong – because that’s not the point of taking it on. If we learn from the experience, it’s worth it.

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