Posted by Nate Dunlevy

In recent weeks, we’ve talked a lot about motivation and its relationship to reading deficiency in kids. As we begin to process lesson plans and activities that inspire readers, consider this: the very goals we set for our students—and the way we set them—can make or break their motivation to learn.

Achievement goal theory examines how students’ attempts to achieve goals affect academic motivation (Seifert, Understanding Student Motivation, 2004, p. 142). To feel competent, students need to see their goals as realistic and achievable. If they don’t feel this way, we have to either change the goals or alter students’ perceptions of their own abilities.

Mastery v. Performance

Goal theorists generally break education goals into two groups: “mastery” (or “learning”) goals and “performance” goals. Mastery goals involve increased understanding, skills, and content knowledge. Researchers have consistently found that students who have a mastery goal in mind exhibit deeper cognitive processes, strategize more effectively, and are more adaptable to challenges. The goal itself is to learn.

Performance goals, on the other hand, involve reaching a pre-defined performance level or outperforming others. The goal is hitting a mark or winning a competition. Performance-oriented students show more adverse reactions to failure, see less of a link between effort and outcome, and focus more on their performance relative to the performance of others (Pintrich, Journal of Educational Psychology, 2003; Seifert, 2004). A single student can have different mindsets and goals, in different contexts. He or she could focus on mastery in math, but performance in reading, for example.

Moving Beyond Extrinsic Motivators

The key for teachers and parents is to encourage a mastery mindset. This is best done by helping kids realize the intrinsic value in the learning. While that can sometimes start with extrinsic rewards, these rewards serve as a path to something deeper (Hunter, Raising Students Who Want to Read, Scholastic Professional Papers, 2005.)

Initially, when the focus is on extrinsic motivation, the students are doing the work to please their teachers or because they are told the result is going to be good—like a reward of some kind. But, as they continue to work, they can develop greater intrinsic motivation.

Students become intrinsically motivated when they learn how to visualize and record their own academic progress. Charts or reading logs can help them keep track of the number of books they have read, the new words they have learned, or the amount of time they have spent reading (e.g., Braunger & Lewis, Building a Knowledge Base in Reading, 1998).

But, as long as the “point” of the exercise is simply completion of the chart itself or getting a new sticker or badge, the exercise will be of limited value. Concrete tools like charts and logs are great ways to track tangible process, but they should never be the goal itself. The student must be encouraged to find the joy and value in the actual material being read, beyond the simple satisfaction of putting a new sticker up on a wall. Giving them opportunities to express their thoughts and opinions about what they read can move them toward enjoying the material rather than the reward.

Creating achievable, realistic mastery goals goes a long way toward helping kids find the joy in reading and learning. Even in cases where external tools are used, allowing for robust self-expression can be the key to moving kids toward being excited about the inherent joy of reading and the fun of sharing that joy with their peers.

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