Performance Goals vs. Learning Goals

For my final university assignment we had the option of doing a written reflection, a written portfolio, or a proposal for a degree by research. I chose the easiest – a 2,000-word written reflection of my learning throughout the degree. Knowing the way I roll with most personal reflections, I struggle to reach the word limit and think of ways to waffle my way through. We’re required to make use of academic literature and include references to support our learning.

I fleshed out about 2,000 words in just a few hours last week, with much encouragement from Tristan, before I gave up and thought, I need to get out of the house, so, get out of the house I shall (and we went and had ice cream). I hadn’t included a single reference, because let’s face it – it doesn’t make sense to refer to academic literature when you’re doing your own personal reflection. Why does my learning in this subject need to be backed up by a theory? Right?

Well… wrong. Sort of.

I would not say I was thoroughly determined to get this assignment over the line, but I wanted to finish it – properly. On Monday morning I said to myself, alright, you have nine hours before this is due, so please do it a bit better. In a lot of my years of tertiary study, even though I was organised, I was terribly last-minute about a lot of tasks. This was an exception. While I had written 2,000 words, I had a few days to relax and stop thinking about it, a few days to procrastinate a little, and came back to my piece of work, thinking, “Well, this is a bit shit”.

It is fairly obvious to me that the more time you give yourself for a task, the more time you have to tailor it and fix any problems and really save yourself a lot of stress. So when I realised I had done a really half-assed job, I decided to fix it. I went and looked for academic literature to find something to refine my work. And it was in a piece called Motivational processes affecting learning1 that I learned about performance goals and learning goals, the difference between them, and how people are usually geared towards one or the other.

People who are geared more towards performance goals see intelligence as a fixed trait that can be used to gain favourable judgements of that trait. They tend to use their skills to demonstrate good performance, and the goal is simply to achieve success. However, as explained by Dweck (1986):

individuals with low assessments of their ability are often found to choose personally easy tasks on which success is ensured or excessively difficult ones on which failure does not signify low ability.

This means that people with performance goals may purposely make goals where they are guaranteed success, or do not look foolish if they fail.

On the other hand, people who are geared more towards learning goals see intelligence as ‘a malleable quality oriented towards developing that quality’ (Dweck, 1986). They are focused on the learning aspect and always seek to learn, usually by bettering their own skills, and are not afraid of failure.

Reflecting on my work throughout my degree, I was extremely motivated and challenged myself in the first half of my degree, but after a lot of stress I started to drop. I mean, what do you say to a girl working full-time, attending classes four nights a week and going out to gigs or concerts every Friday? You probably wouldn’t have the heart to tell her that no matter how superwoman she thinks she is, she would be suffering after eight months.

In the first half of my degree, I knew about a lot of the material regarding web design, information architecture and the like, and I still challenged myself to do more than what was expected in the subject criteria, and I still independently picked up extra things to learn, but – suffer I did. (To this day, I still don’t know how I did it.) I was a learner, and I made every effort to push myself and take opportunities. But what did I do? I started to give up. I started to do the bare minimum. I started to not try very hard at all. I stopped challenging myself. Everything was about just finishing it, just getting it done, that done is better than perfect. So what I had turned into was someone who just wanted to achieve performance goals.

So when I came out of it all, when I realised how bad the stress had eaten me up, and how much the second half of my masters degree was all about just get the damn thing done, only then did I realise how much I benefited from being a learner, a perfectionist, an over-achiever (sometimes, mostly harmlessly2), and being someone who constantly pushed herself. I gained so much more knowledge and skills when I was motivated to learn. It’s just a little sad that it had to be quashed by stress.

But only then did I realise I finished my assignment, at 3,300 words.

But you know, after all the times I went 3,000 words over the word limit and still received excellent grades, I thought, well, let’s just leave it at that. I understood my learning experiences in my masters degree better than I thought I ever would. And learning a little bit about yourself, and reflecting on something positively, in essence, is better, and should be more valued, than – you know – a mark of 93/100. 😛

I hit Send – and so ended the coursework of the postgraduate degree that I decided would be my last chapter of academic study.

  1. Dweck, C.S. 1986, ‘Motivational processes affecting learning’, American Psychologist, vol. 41, no. 10, pp. 1040-1048.
  2. Catch the Douglas Adams reference there?

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Comments on this post

Congratulations! ☺️ Must be a wonderful moment for you!

I am pretty much you a few months ago right now, swamped with full-time study, extracurriculars, and part-time job. I am definitely considering dropping a course next year because I need to be able to keep up my grades. And of course, make the most of my education rather than just get by and do the bare minimum to reach my future goals.

Ah, oh well, at least I feel like a semi-important person haha. I was way too idle during high school so this is sort of a nice change. I just have to be sure to watch my health and put that as my top priority!

Congrats, Georgie! ♥️

I agree, I think it’s kind of silly to have academic references for something that’s personal and anecdotal by nature. But hey, rules are rules I guess, even if they make no sense whatsoever. Regardless I think you carried it out pretty well, and I don’t just mean the blog post you have here! 😆

One thing that I admire about this is your decision that this would be the last chapter of your academic studies. Yes, there’s the whole “never stop learning” mantra, but what I admire is your confidence in making your decision. And besides, you don’t have to go to school in order to gain knowledge!

First of all, congrats on making it through. I’m sure this was a teachable moment for you. I can feel that because I feel like I’ve LEARNED more just by reading this post. You’ve beautifully articulated the differences between these two types. Thank you for sharing this with us. 🙂

Congratulations Georgie! This shall be another milestone in your life.

Sad to say, after quick assessment, I think I am a performance goal kind of student all throughout college. I do my best in any activity that needs to be done to assure success, otherwise, I would be miserable. Maybe because I have learned to compete with so much more intelligent guys and I was awaken by the fact that I need to survive with them. 🙁

Firstly, congratulations!
Hmm I think I’m more of a performance goal kind of girl.. Usually if I fail at something I crack it and would much prefer to do something I know I’ll do right. Ahh and now I feel like a twat 😕 haha oh well.

What course is it? I’m thinking about doing a short course in something, just not entirely sure what yet because my options seem to be a bit limited in my town.

That is really great that you were able to get it finished and also discover something about yourself in those moments of completing it. I only did two units at uni (ahah fail) and I was actually doing what you did when under the stress, just wanting to get it done and doing everything last minute. But, I guess that could be because I did have a lot of stress and crazy things.

I think it is good that on the final assignment that you did go back and edit it and look at everything in a different way, and even understand why things changed. ♥️

Congratulations on finishing your Master’s degree! I too, am someone who usually does these sort of reports and reflections last minute. You’ve inspired me to put more effort into them next time one comes up. 93/100 is an incredibly good grade at my school on any assignment, so good job!