Teaching Strategies

Learning Orientation

In keeping with the research on extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, the research into learning orientation can also help instructors understand the mindset of their students and the general academic culture in which they operate. Classroom level interventions to foster mastery goal orientations in students can play a significant role in bolstering a culture of academic integrity. 

Researchers into the psychology of learning generally identify two major learning orientations.

  1. Performance Goal Orientation: Students are interested in meeting a normative standard of competence in order to protect their self-image and their public reputation. Learners can have performance-approach goals (focus on reaching a certain level in order to appear competent) and performance-avoidance goals (focus on avoiding the appearance of incompetence by reaching a certain level). Students with performance goal orientations generally view assignments as obstacles to get through and can struggle with persistence in the face of challenges. That said, a performance orientation has some benefits: for example, learning how to meet external expectations is a key life skill, so long as it doesn’t entirely displace orientations towards mastery.
  2. Mastery Goal Orientation: Students are invested in understanding the material and developing competencies. Students approach various tasks as opportunities for deeper understanding and feel comfortable stumbling in the process. Students with a mastery goal orientation are more likely to take creative chances in their learning and persist in the face of setbacks. [15] These students generally view assignments as opportunities to learn.

While it’s easy to treat these two orientations as a fixed binary, it can be helpful to view them instead as a context-dependent spectrum; someone might be more performance oriented in one task and goal oriented in another. It is true, however, that high pressure academic environments can encourage performance orientations in the student body. When performing poorly feels like a non-option for students – as it does for many college students – and students do not feel confident that they can succeed at the set task, academic dishonesty is incentivized. Faculty can intervene at the cultural level by emphasizing growth-mindset and designing assignments that spur intrinsic motivation, as was mentioned above. 

Instructors can also make course and assignment level decisions that bolster students’ confidence in their ability to succeed at the work of the class:

  • Provide students with opportunities to reflect metacognitively on their learning and growth.
  • Use low-stakes activities or assignments to enable students to check their understanding (some strategies are available on the Classroom Assessment Techniques page).
  • Scaffold major assignments to reduce panic around the final deadline and to provide students feedback as they progress (e.g. provide regular quizzes on material to be tested, break down major papers or projects into sub-assignments with due dates leading up to the final product).
  • Provide students some amount of choice over their assessment: 
    • When possible, affirm student agency by allowing them to choose what they want to demonstrate knowledge about (answering a percentage of exam questions of various types, choosing between a few different prompts, tailoring a project or presentation to their own interests). 
    • When possible, give students a choice over what medium they use to demonstrate their learning (exam, paper, presentation, podcast, oral exam, etc.). 
    • When possible, provide students with a myriad of options to demonstrate their learning, some number of which they have to successfully complete in order to earn a certain grade in the course.
    • When possible, offer some flexibility in grading deadlines (give week-long deadline ranges, allow students a few flex days over the course of the semester, be transparent about your practices and philosophy around extensions). 
  • Speak with other colleagues and/or deliver a pre-assessment in a course in order to check that the course material and assignments are appropriately challenging (not too easy or too hard for the student body). 
  • Talk openly with students about how you can support their learning (in and out of class) and how other folks on campus can support their learning (Connors Family Learning Center, the Writing Center, TAs, etc.). 

Students are also more likely to believe that they can succeed at the task in front of them when they have a clear understanding of how the assignment will be assessed. Offering clarity on grading can also cut down on the instructor’s workload, because it empowers instructors to prioritize certain types of feedback and reduces the likelihood and complexity of grade complaints later on. 

When communicating with students about grading, you might want to consider the following:

  • Provide information about the assignment and expectations as early in the semester as possible.
  • Indicate relevant learning goals for class activities and assignments. 
  • Provide numerous opportunities to practice competencies that will be assessed and provide mechanisms for feedback (in class feedback, peer feedback, etc.). 
  • Develop rubrics that reward what you value and prioritize your feedback based on what is most important to you. 
  • Provide examples of previous submissions that illustrate the range of grades (be sure to ask for consent and anonymize submissions). 
  • Highlight strengths and weaknesses in feedback. 
  • Ask students to reflect on how they integrated previous feedback into later work. 
  • When possible, provide opportunities for revision and improvement, and then reward improvement.

[15] Ambrose, et. al. How Learning Works, 71-72.