Performance Goals vs. Mastery

Performance goals are things like grades – work up to a certain threshold, and get a ‘B’.  A lot of rewards are based on performance thresholds:  poop on the potty, and get a piece of candy.  Hit the sales goal, and get a bonus.

Performance goals are an inherently extrinsic, and drive an external valuation work performance.  In some cases, they make a lot of sense (e.g. sales targets).  It is not at all clear that this is the case in education.

Performance goals encourage a good-enough mentality.  Objectives and thresholds are clear, and that “A” is the goal – not the true, down-to-the-core learning of the material.  With a performance goal, the incentive to take risks and indulge the natural desire for skill mastery is undermined.

Research examples abound.  Taking two groups of students, and given them sets of puzzles to complete.  One group receives rewards for finishing puzzles, the other does not.  Invariably, the unrewarded group will choose more difficult puzzles, seek to stretch themselves, and enjoy the activity.  The rewarded group will choose easier puzzles (because the puzzle isn’t the object, the reward is), and get bored and move on once the reward is removed.  Which group will learn more?

The challenge for educators should be to get students to pursue mastery – in a bold, immeasurable way – instead of trying to get an “A” or a “1” rating.  The A is known, predictable, measurable, and necessary somewhere short of mastery.

Pursuit of mastery is immeasurable, and undoubtedly preferable to pursuit of known “performance” thresholds.


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