“I do my work because I want to get better at it.”

Mastery Orientation

Children with a mastery orientation want to increase their competence and abilities while mastering new tasks over time. They demonstrate a desire to learn and are not afraid of new and challenging experiences.

These children are not primarily motivated by external assessments or rewards, but rather value learning for its own sake. They typically view “failure” as a learning experience. The overall goal of mastery orientation is to increase knowledge (rather than simply “showcasing” that knowledge). Children with mastery orientation tend to believe that intelligence is not fixed, but rather can be nurtured and developed.

The Research on Mastery Orientation

When children set out to do a task, they can either proceed with a mastery orientation or a performance orientation (Dweck & Leggett, 1988). Children with a mastery orientation have learning goals – they are concerned with increasing their competence and abilities while mastering new tasks over time. Conversely, children with a performance orientation have performance goals – they are concerned with eliciting positive judgments about their work.

There is strong evidence that a mastery orientation can boost children’s academic performance, in the short- and long-term. In an experimental study, Elliot and Dweck (1988) manipulated fifth graders’ orientation by highlighting either performance goals or learning goals, and by providing feedback indicating either high or low ability on a task. They found that in response to obstacles, mastery-oriented children tended to view challenging situations as an opportunity to acquire new skills or extend their mastery. This response caused them to seek challenges with a positive attitude and high persistence. Performance-oriented children, on the other hand, sought to avoid others’ unfavorable judgments. They avoided failure by avoiding risk and difficult/challenging tasks. In response to failure, performance-oriented children were more likely to give up, because they saw failure as evidence of low competence (Elliott & Dweck, 1988).

Other empirical evidence demonstrates that having mastery rather than performance goals can exert a positive influence on children’s academic outcomes. In one study, Wolters (2004) found that junior high students who adopted mastery goals were more motivated and engaged; they procrastinated less and persisted more and used more effective learning strategies than students with performance goals. Another study found that fifth and sixth grade students who were high in mastery goals had better science grades than students with other types of goals (i.e., better than students who were high in both mastery and performance goals, or students who were high in performance goals alone; Meece & Holt, 1993). College students with mastery orientation have also been found to be more engaged in class and to receive higher grades than students with other types of goals (Harackiewicz, J. M., Barron, K. E., Carter, S. M., & Lehto, A. T., 1997).

How children think about intelligence can lead them to adopt either a mastery or performance orientation. Research consistently indicates that children who believe intelligence is fixed tend to adopt performance-oriented goals, whereas children who believe intelligence is controllable and buildable adopt mastery-oriented goals (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Elliott & Dweck, 1988). Not surprisingly then, children’s understanding of intelligence predicts a variety of long-term academic outcomes. Stipek and Gralinksi (1996), for example, found that among third through sixth graders, those who believed intelligence was fixed (based on an assessment conducted at the start of the school year) had lower grades and lower achievement test scores at the end of the year than those who thought intelligence could be increased. In another study, students who believed they had control over their intelligence had increasing grades over two years in junior high school, while students who thought intelligence was stable had a flat trajectory (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007). Theories of intelligence have also been manipulated in real-world contexts and found to have positive impacts on achievement (Blackwell, et al., 2007). After an intervention teaching students that intelligence was increasable and controllable, students with declining math grades saw an increase in motivation (via teacher report) and no further declines in performance; control group students, who did not have the intervention, continued their downward trajectory in grades.

Based on these findings, we believe that strategies to help children develop a mastery orientation to learning (and the related belief that intelligence can be increased) hold great promise for improving academic achievement.

For a detailed summary of the research and a bibliography, please see Child Trends' working paper on our Reports & Tools page.

Strategies for Improving Mastery Orientation

To influence children’s mastery orientation toward learning, research suggests focusing on the structure of tasks and evaluation, as well as adult-child interactions. Specific strategies include:

  • Providing tasks that are meaningful to children, given their interests and environments.
  • Presenting children with realistic but challenging tasks and placing the emphasis on mastery of the skill, rather than performance.
  • Focusing on the value of learning (and what can be gained), in both adult-child interactions and in formal and informal evaluations.

Learn more about the other three essential life skills:

Self-Control

Persistence

Academic Self Efficacy

Social Competence