With the start of a new year, everyone is naturally trying to set their intentions. I usually do this type of activity with my classes but I stress the difference between learning and performance orientations. This has been a theory in education and education psychology for some time and is catching on in more education reformer circles. I spend a lot of time thinking about how high-achieving students can make the move in my class so I’ve structured the grading in such a way that nearly ensures the grade one is most looking for, I require they use pen to demonstrate that I don’t care about how straight the lines on the page are (among other reasons), and I give deadlines at the beginning of the term to allow them to learn how to manage their own time.
What are learning and performance orientations?
Take a look here for a comprehensive study. In short, the two orientations are types of people/learners. Performance-oriented people are more concerned with the grade, how they are perceived, and achievement to achieve. These are the students who ask, “Is this on the test?” when a teacher digresses a bit from the topic. When performance-oriented students receive a graded test, they are only concerned about incorrect answers as it would impact their grade so their first inclination is to correct or critique the grader rather than looking to see if they actually earned the grade and how they can improve. Learning-oriented students enjoy learning for the sake of learning. They tend to take more risks because the grade doesn’t matter as much. In class, they are asking more holistic questions: “Is that like when this other thing happened?” or “That reminds me of this song.” While I enjoy having learning-oriented students in class way more, it takes some maneuvering to get anyone into that realm and the reality is that you want some performance orientation in every student.
When you are thinking about setting your intentions for 2016, think learning rather than performance. I think about the consistent resolution of losing weight. Companies make a ton of money based on people thinking about their weight as performance, rather than learning. Performance: I need to lose 20 pounds. Learning: I need to learn to eat in a way that respects my values of health and family. We see diet companies and gyms giving potential clients deals based on how much they lose or invest into a specific program, rather than what they are learning. Performance: Eat these pre-packaged meals or memorize these points for each food item. Learning: Find the balance between fiber, fats, and sugars. Honestly, this is why most diets don’t work: people aren’t learning why the diet worked for them in that moment.
I look at college counseling in the same way. This can be extremely difficult because high-achieving students have been really successful at being in performance mode for their entire academic career. And the students who are better learners typically don’t receive much of a reward for being in learning orientation for their academic careers so college isn’t on their radar. So one reason I look at college counseling in this way goes back to my tagline—creating a better student, not just a better applicant. Students need to learn some important things about themselves during this process, and this learning will carry them through past college and into career and life. Performance: I have to go to X University and will only be successful if I am at that school or a school like it. Learning: I would like to grow in these ways while in college and that means first applying to a school that I never thought I could get into.
The other reason I think about college admissions as performance and learning orientation is because the colleges think about admissions in that way! I like to think about the stereo I had growing up. There was a dial for treble and another dial for bass. We were pretty adept at finding the right balance for the right songs and then moving the dial around for the next song. Think about one dial as performance orientation and the other as learning orientation. Each school is looking for a different balance and it’s important to figure that out before you apply so that you are presenting yourself according to that balance. Performance orientation may include grades and test scores while learning orientation can be gleaned from essays and letters, and some from the transcript as well, especially when you see a student taking risks by taking more rigorous courses or demonstrating an upward trend during high school. Colleges are saying that the straight-A student isn’t necessarily learning much: Do they know why they earned the As? Can they replicate those habits in college? What happens to that student when things get more difficult, as it will college? It also goes back to why colleges are less inclined to accept AP credit—Did a 16-year-old learn the same sort of themes and concepts and habits in the high school setting as she will when she is a 20-year-old learning from a course backed by the National Science Foundation and from a professor who won a Noble prize in that area?
Here are some common thoughts about college framed as performance and learning objectives:
Performance: I can’t afford college so I just won’t go.
Learning: I can learn to afford high-priced items such as college tuition.
Performance: I will only get letters of recommendation from teachers in classes I have an A.
Learning: I will get letters of recommendation from teachers who can speak to my growth as a student.
Performance: I will major in a topic that will earn me a lot of money, regardless of if I am passionate about it.
Learning: I will study topics that will help me grow as a young adult and those that I am passionate about.
Set your intentions for the new year as learning objectives rather than performance objectives.