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Motivating a Hunger for Knowledge, Not Grades

Thursday, February 02, 2017 by Monica Kowalski, Ph.D.

Monica Kowalski Motivation Theory

In the field of educational psychology, experts have many different theories of motivation. One of my favorites is ‘Achievement Goal Theory’. This theory deals with the reasons that people choose to pursue certain tasks, or the types of goals behind their behaviors. Achievement Goal Theory specifies two distinct types of goal orientations: mastery goal orientation and performance goal orientation.

A person with a mastery goal orientation is focused on learning and improving, or mastering the content or skill, while a person with a performance goal orientation is more concerned with how he or she is performing or appearing to others. With a performance goal, the focus is on demonstrating competence or avoiding demonstrating incompetence (wanting to look "smart" or not look "dumb").

"Students with mastery goal orientations put forth more effort, are more persistent through failures, and use more long-term learning strategies"

Research on motivation shows that mastery goal orientations are highly beneficial for students. Students with mastery goal orientations put forth more effort, are more persistent through failures, and use more long-term learning strategies than students with performance goal orientations, to name a few findings.

In my view, these mastery goal-oriented students epitomize the Remick Leadership Program’s ideal of hunger. They are not just doing what they have to do in order to ace a test or earn a high GPA. Rather, they are driven to continually improve, learn, and understand. They have a deep desire for excellence—not just to appear successful to the outside world, but to live up to their God-given potential. We want to cultivate this type of hunger in Catholic school leaders and students.

Fortunately, motivation researchers have identified several ways that teachers and leaders can encourage mastery goal orientations in classrooms and schools. Some include:

  • emphasizing growth mindsets and learning from mistakes.

  • preventing social comparison and academic competition.

  • recognizing effort and improvement rather than just achievement.

  • de-emphasizing grades and other external rewards for learning.

  • providing more informational rather than evaluative feedback on student work.

Fostering positive motivational climates in our schools can fuel the hunger that we seek to enkindle in ourselves and others. Promoting mastery goal orientations in Catholic schools is essential to our mission to educate the whole child and instill a hunger for life-long learning.

About the Author

Monica Kowalski, Ph.D.

Monica Kowalski, Ph.D.

Dr. Monica Kowalski is the Associate Director for the Program Evaluation and Research and a faculty member of the ACE Teaching Fellows program and Remick Leadership Program. She currently teaches courses in the ACE Teaching Fellows and Remick Leadership Programs.

Kowalski graduated from the ACE Teaching Fellows program, where she taught second grade in Jackson, Mississippi, while earning a master's degree in education. After ACE, she worked in Notre Dame undergraduate admissions for three years before pursuing further graduate studies.