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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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If each could recognize and accept the different orientation that the other has, they wouldn't be so annoyed. They might realize that both want to do the best job they can, but within the constraints of available resources.


The posting below looks at how differing orientations to the same task can impact student and faculty perceptions and outcomes. It is by Marilla Svinicki or the University of Texas-Austin and is #43 in a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Volume 18, Number 1, December 2008.© Copyright 1996-2008. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Give Students a Compass:Can General Education Rise to the Challenge?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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How Many Pages?


He said, "How many pages does that paper have to be?"

She said, "As many as it takes to make your case."

This exchange is pretty common,and annoying. The student is trying to set the boundaries of the assignment and is probably annoyed with the vague response he got from the instructor. The instructor wants the student to learn how to make a good argument, and is probably annoyed that the student seems to be focusing on quantity rather than quality. But there's a motivational theory that might help each party understand the other.

The theory is called Achievement Goal Orientation (Dweck, 1986). The core of it asserts that the kind of goal that students pursue can produce very different behavior patterns based on their "orientation" to that goal.

The most desirable orientation, teachers believe, is the "mastery" or "learning" orientation. Here a student is trying to learn or master the content. To this end, he is willing to expend a lot of effort, take chances at difficult tasks if they promise to help him learn more, persist even in the face of temporary setbacks, ask for help, and generally exhibit all those highly desirable behaviors that teachers would say indicate that "he really wants to learn." Such students are

wonderful to teach.

Another more familiar orientation is the "performance approach" orientation, or, less flatteringly, "grade obsessed." When students adopt this orientation, they are concerned with demonstrating their competence rather than learning. They want a good grade, preferably better than the other students, because they interpret that as a sign that they are "good." Students with this orientation stick close to things that they already know or that they know are correct. This way they can be certain of success and appearing competent. In the "grade-conscious" student, a high grade symbolizes high competence. But in many cases, the grade becomes an end in itself, and in a "curve" grading system, a high grade may just mean that a student was the best of a bad lot.

This brings me to my favorite goal orientation. It's not really one of the official orientations favored by theorists, but it's one we all recognize. I call it a "strategic effort" orientation (but in the literature it's often called "work avoidance"). This kind of orientation recognizes that there are many demands on everyone's time, and sometimes students have to sacrifice quality in the face of over-commitment. The theorists who put forth the "work avoidance" orientation meant it to be a bad thing, but I differ. I defy anybody in the education system, faculty included, to assert that they haven't had this orientation to some task they had. Maybe we've spent five instead of ten hours grading during a week full of meetings. Or maybe we've skimped on the references in order to get a paper submitted before a deadline. None of us would say we were being work avoidant; we're being strategic in how we spend our time.

I think that's what is happening in our opening scenario. The teacher wants her student to be mastery oriented and to work as long as it takes to really understand. The student, on the other hand, may be faced with having to make choices - to be strategic in the way he allocates his effort, which requires a good understanding of what is required.

If each could recognize and accept the different orientation that the other has, they wouldn't be so annoyed. They might realize that both want to do the best job they can, but within the constraints of available resources. Such an understanding might even lead to some compromises that would allow everyone to achieve a reasonable goal, and possibly put an end to all that frustration.

Dweck, C. 1986. "Motivational processes affecting learning." American Psychologist 41, 1040-1048.