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Study finds learning outlook affected by environment

Students’ outlook toward learning is strongly influenced by their environment, according to a recent study co-authored by Stanford psychologist Paul O’Keefe.

The study, published online in the journal Motivation and Emotion, divides motivation for learning into two distinct categories: mastery and performance. Students who learn for mastery are interested in developing new skills for their own sake, while those who learn for performance are focused on displaying their abilities to others.

Psychologists tend to favor mastery-oriented learning since it emphasizes being motivated intrinsically and seeking out new challenges. Most schools, however, focus on performance-oriented learning, since students must demonstrate knowledge to others on tests and exams.

O’Keefe – along with his fellow researchers Adar Ben-Eliyahu of the University of Pittsburgh and Lisa Linnenbrink-Garcia of Duke University – sought to explore the effects of being exposed to environments that favor mastery-based learning.

“We know a mastery environment is great,” O’Keefe recently told the Stanford News Service. “We know mastery goals are great. Study after study shows this, so what we wanted to examine was how a purely mastery-oriented environment affected goal orientations and whether these changes would endure when people returned to less ideal learning environments.”

The researchers surveyed a group of eighth- to tenth-grade students three times over a nine-month period. These students were asked if they agreed with statements that aligned either with mastery- or performance-oriented learning, such as “It’s important to me that I learn a lot of new concepts in science” or “One of my goals is to show others that I’m good at science.”

In the first survey, taken while participants were still in school, students scored high in performance-oriented learning. By the time of the second survey, however, students were placed in a mastery-oriented environment – a summer enrichment program – and their responses changed accordingly.

The largest surprise, according to the researchers, occurred six months later when the students took a third survey. Students had returned to school, but they continued to score high for mastery-oriented learning.

The study’s authors concluded that these results suggest that mastery-oriented environments have a lasting impact. According to O’Keefe, the study indicates that teachers and employers should take steps to foster a mastery-oriented environment.

— Kurt Chirbas

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