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  • Writer's pictureAaron Daffern

Task Structures That Support Mastery Goal Orientation and Value

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The goal orientation of students has much to do with their motivation, persistence, and academic achievement. Broken down into two broad categories, most students approach learning tasks with one of two goals in mind. First, they could seek to learn something new, master a skill, or improve on their existing knowledge. This kind of goal is called either a learning goal or a mastery goal.  

Second, students could seek to achieve something related to performance. Either they want a good grade, appear smarter than others, or hope to not look ignorant. This goal is called a performance goal and is associated with less motivation and achievement than mastery goals.

Meaningful Tasks

If teachers want students to adopt a mastery goal orientation for their class, to focus on learning rather than just getting a grade, designing meaningful tasks is the place to start. Fill-in-the-blank worksheets and copying definitions out of a dictionary are fluff work and students know it. When planning instruction, tasks that are assigned merely to fulfill a need to generate a numerical grade for a grade book are hardly meaningful.

The next logical question, then, is meaningful to whom? If the teacher is the one meant to learn, than designing tasks meaningful to her is appropriate. Since it is the students, however, that are the ones learning, meaningfulness revolves around them. Will the task help them learn something new? Will it activate prior knowledge or help them make connections? How does it fit into the larger picture of the curriculum unit? Will the students have gained something valuable by completing the task?

Finally, meaning is not self-evident. Sometimes teachers must be very explicit when giving instructions if they hope to attach meaning to a task. Never assume that students will infer the proper meaning but instead lay it out for them, plain and simple. This will not only increase the value of the task but will also help students along the path toward a mastery goal orientation.

Diverse Tasks

In addition to providing meaningful tasks, teachers should also provide diversity and novelty in what students do in class. Even the most interesting task can become dull if repeated time and time again. The human brain is wired to seek out novelty and the tasks teachers choose should harness rather than dampen that natural desire.

This is one of the major problems with following a textbook religiously as a curriculum guide. As thorough as the included tasks might be, they tend to be highly repetitive. What teachers interpret as developing a routine the students usually find monotonous. Teacher-made (or teacher-found) tasks interjected into the curriculum guide can add some different flavors to the tasks teachers assign.

One of many ways to offer diversity in tasks is to design them to meet the needs of various learning styles. Whereas mastery learners prefer lists and computation, self-expressive learners thrive on creating something from their imagination. Understanding learners prefer analysis and problem-solving while interpersonal learners need to find a relational angle to the task. The same content viewed from four different learning styles can help create vastly differing tasks.

Challenging Tasks

Reasonable challenges can be the difference between boredom and frustration. Each child operates at a slightly different ability level so what may be an easy task for one child might be arduous for another. By either either using tiered assignments or varying levels of support within an assignment, teachers can tailor tasks to meet the students at their level of challenge.


For different reasons the outer ring is not ideal either. Tasks that fall under this description are completely out of the reach of students even with teacher assistance. Teaching students to derive the quadratic formula is a worthy goal of rigorous instruction. Doing so with 1st graders, however, is instead an act of lunacy.

It is the middle ring that teachers should strive for when creating student tasks. These assignments are challenging because students have to stretch beyond their current abilities to achieve them. By designing tasks that can be achieved with teacher guidance, learning something new becomes a realized goal in the classroom and helps steer students toward a mastery goal orientation.

Short-term Goals

Following from the previous point on challenging tasks, helping students develop short-term learning goals will also help build a mastery orientation. If teachers design tasks with sufficient challenge, some will inevitably be of longer duration than typical assignments. Tasks that involve multiple steps, real-world application, or higher order thinking skills usually take more than one sitting to accomplish.

Thus, explicitly helping students see the value of setting short-term goals will help them organize their learning. An otherwise doable task can sometimes overwhelm students. By breaking it down into manageable sections, students can begin to take on larger assignments one step at a time.

In addition to providing reasonable chunks to focus on, short-term goals also help students evaluate their progress. Children should be able to measure whether or not they are on track before arriving at a task’s due date. Short-term goals will allow them to measure their progress and make adjustments as needed.

Learning Strategies

Finally, intentionally sharing effective learning strategies will help sustain a mastery goal orientation in the classroom. Similar to short-term goals, explicitly teaching learning strategies equips students to monitor their learning. It is learning strategies that are most effectively taught in the challenge zone of proximal development. Rather than giving students the answer, teachers instead provide them with a strategy so they themselves can find the answer.

If it is mathematics, students might need to draw a pictorial representation. Perhaps they need to write an equation or act out the problem with models. If reading, summarizing the paragraph helps students to comprehend what they read. On the other hand, students also need to be able to skim a page looking for a specific answer. Sometimes unknown to our conscious minds, adults use learning strategies all the time to attempt to make meaning in a new situation. Teachers should explicitly teach these same strategies to children.

Mastery learning goals, the target of these task structures, are associated with deep- rather than surface-level processing of material. Stemming from learning strategies, students with a mastery goal orientation seek to understand the complexities of topic much more than performance goal-oriented students. By using successful learning strategies, students are equipped to go beyond the surface and explore contents at a much deeper level.

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