Thursday, April 24, 2014

Bear With Me, I'm Trying Really Hard To Understand Dweck's Distinction Between Learning and Performance Goals

In "Motivational Processes Affecting Learning," Carol Dweck distinguishes between performance goals and learning goals, and ties a lot of good behaviors to the having of learning goals and the opposite to the having of performance goals. (link)

A learning goal is defined as a goal "in which individuals seek to increase their competence, to understand or master something new."

A performance goal is defined as a goal "in which individuals seek to gain favorable judgments of their competence or avoid negative judgments of their competence."

If a child has a performance goal, their "satisfaction with outcomes is based on the ability they believe they have displayed."

If a child has a learning goal, their "satisfaction with outcomes is based on the effort they have exerted in pursuit of the goal."


Jim: Wait, that's cheating! A learning goal is just a type of performance goal.

Nancy: Oh great, here he goes again...

Jim: Now hold on, I'm being serious. If I have a learning goal, that means that I'm trying to increase my competence. Isn't that, in itself, a performance?

Nancy: We've been through this before, and you've got it all wrong. Learning goals are all about not caring whether other people judge you or not. A learning goal is one where there is no performance.

Jim: You seem to be saying that in order for me to have a performance goal, there needs to be someone actually judging me. I think I have a counterexample to your claim. Sometimes a person will do something just because they want to feel good about themselves.

Nancy: Of course. Like, everybody on Facebook is posting their scores from 2048. That's classic performance goal behavior.

Jim: Yeah, true. But haven't you sometimes played a game like that, even though you never shared your score with anyone? Like, a person is motivated to play 2048 because they're good at 2048, and they want to get a high score because it'll make them feel smart, but not because anyone else is actually going to judge them as smart or talented. It's all about the judgement that they give themselves.

Nancy: That sounds right to me. But that would just be another, more abstract, version of a performance goal. When you play 2048 alone in your room and never share your score, it might be because you want to be gain a favorable judgement...from yourself!

Jim: It's almost like imagining that others could judge you favorably, and that's where the satisfaction comes from.

Nancy: So I agree with that. What's the problem?

Jim: Take a close look at the definition of a learning goal. It's a goal "in which individuals seek to increase their competence, to understand or master something new." Imagine someone who really wants to increase their competence at a sport, like bowling. And they try really, really hard. And then they fail. They don't get any better. Would a person like that be satisfied?

Nancy: Dweck says that he would be satisfied with the effort that he put in to bowling.

Jim: But why would he be satisfied? His goal was to increase his competence, and he failed!

Nancy: Sure, but he failed on his own, it's not like anyone else is judging him for his failure...

Jim: ... but we said that having a performance goal doesn't depend on actually being judged by anyone else. It just has to do with doing the sort of thing that could be judged as a failure by others. What makes this learning goal different than a performance goal?

Nancy: Hmm. I see what you're saying. But there's obviously a difference between the sort of person that is motivated by a performance goal and the sort of person that is just trying to do their best. I mean, can't we imagine a person that would just be satisfied with effort? Someone like our bad bowler, but who isn't trying to achieve any learning in particular? Someone who is just trying to try to learn?

Jim: I think so. But what would we call that objective? It's not a learning goal, exactly. It's like a trying goal? An effort goal?

Nancy: I think maybe it has more to do about character. Our bowler isn't trying to do anything, he's just trying to be a certain sort of person. He wants to be the sort of people that is satisfied with effort, even if he don't meet his goals?

Jim: This is all sounding awfully Stoic. I need to think about it all.


This doesn't exactly fit into the dialogue, but here's a bit from a recent article that's related to all this.
This dovetails with new research led by the psychologist Christopher J. Bryan, who finds that for moral behaviors, nouns work better than verbs. To get 3- to 6-year-olds to help with a task, rather than inviting them “to help,” it was 22 to 29 percent more effective to encourage them to “be a helper.” Cheating was cut in half when instead of, “Please don’t cheat,” participants were told, “Please don’t be a cheater.” When our actions become a reflection of our character, we lean more heavily toward the moral and generous choices. Over time it can become part of us.
Maybe we want people to be "hard workers," or "good learners"? Ideas?


  1. I like to sing. I am a slow learner with music. It makes me very happy when I sing something well. I am performing for my own pleasure. I am happy when I sing well because the sound is beautiful, not because it's "right". I like performing with others, but I don't care if there's an audience. (It makes me nervous. I like the praise. But the experience of practicing is probably more fulfilling than the experience of performing.)

    1. This is great, Sue.

      Would you characterize your pleasure as performance pleasure, or learning pleasure? You write that you like when the song is beautiful. Do you ever feel anxious while practicing alone, worried that what comes out of your voice won't be beautiful?

    2. Nope, I don't worry. I am glad to be able to create something beautiful (when I do), and when I don't (if I'm alone) I laugh about it. More like the pleasure of making.

  2. I think we want people to put forth effective effort.

    I'm not a Dweck scholar, but it's my understanding that successful, confident people attribute their success to internal factors (having the ability and exerting effort). They also attribute a lack of success to the internal factors which they can control and readily influence, namely effort.

    I would interpret a learning goal as an outcome represented by the internal desire to achieve. My success is based on a combination of my ability and my effort. These are qualities of a growth mindset.

    A performance goal, on the other hand, would be considered an outcome based on external factors (luck and the difficulty of the test or assignment.) This person has a fixed mindset.

    At least that's my take.

    1. "...successful, confident people attribute their success to internal factors."

      I think that Dweck would agree with you, but she would also say (I think) that the most successful people, performance-wise, are those who focus on learning goals rather than performance goals? In other words, they're trying to work hard and perform well internally, they're not trying to perform well, as defined externally.

      My major point in this post is that I don't really see the distinction between internal and external goals, unless Dweck means to say that "external goals" only exist when there's an actual, physical, external evaluation.

  3. The model of developing an identity in STEM offered by Carlone & Johnson ( involves building competency in STEM, appropriate *social* performace of STEM practices, and appropriate social recognition by other STEM practitioners.

    That paper came to mind when I read this post.

    1. I'll have to get my hands on that paper, thanks!

      It would seem to me that competency in STEM and appropriate social recognition should be irrelevant to learning goals, the way that Dweck has framed them, and hence dangerous for motivation. Right?

    2. I don't know that I can apply the one framework to the other --- Carlone & Johnson don't cite Dweck and as far as I remember don't make contact with that literature. They are saying that building competence (closest, I guess to an internal "learning goal") and performance, with social recognition from acknowledged experts/practitioners... that all 3 of these things are important for developing an identity in STEM (a sense of belonging).

      I think a good question for Carlone & Johnson would be: Do they see a "STEM identity" as more noun-like ("I'm a STEM person") or verb-like ("I'm engaged in STEM, I work hard at STEM")