Learning Epistemologies

From LearnLab
Jump to: navigation, search


Learning is influenced by our students’ as well as our own epistemologies (theories about learning). In addition to cognitive factors, motivational factors influence the quality of learning. Motivation is an affective property that energizes an individual to act. Motivation to learn in turn is shaped by our theories about what it takes to learn effectively as well as by our values, goals, and expectancies.


Learning goals may be contrasted with performance goals. Learning goals reflect the desire to understand and master new material; performance goals are more concerned with appearing to “look smart,” especially on difficult tasks. Thus, individuals with learning goals are motivated to actually develop their competence on some task, whereas those with performance goals aim to document their competence, rather than seek opportunities that challenge them. Those who have adopted learning goals perform at the same level whether they have high or low confidence in their abilities on some task. However, for those with performance goals, even high achieving students may show impaired performance on tasks which they are not very confident about performing (Dweck, 1989).

In addition to goals, other factors impact performance on challenging tasks. It has been demonstrated that how students conceptualize intelligence, ability, and effort influences their performance on challenging tasks, whether they choose to work on more challenging tasks, and how much they enjoy these tasks and the degree to which they will persist on them in the face of failure (Dweck, 1989).

If failure is attributed to lack of effort, rather than to low ability, then the student may compensate by increasing the amount of effort. For these students, intelligence is viewed as malleable and failure as an indicator that mastery of the task requires a new strategy or more effort. They are more likely to feel in control of their learning, adopt learning goals, and self-regulate their behavior in the face of failure in order to optimize their performance.

On the other hand, when ability is seen is fixed and seen as the cause of impaired performance, increasing effort is not considered to be a viable solution to overcoming failure. In fact, for those who view ability as fixed, and therefore intelligence as well, the outcome of failure is most likely decreased effort. Since ability and intelligence are seen as fixed, there is no incentive to form new learning strategies or master difficult material; thus performance goals are more likely to be adopted.

Not only the students’ own theories about learning, but those of teachers and parents also influence the quality of learning. Cultural expectancies and values play a role in determining what a “smart” child should know. When a student’s theories of intelligence matches that of their teachers or parents, the more likely the student is to do well in school (Dweck, 1989; Sternberg, 2002).

Students’ theories of learning can be changed with both explicit instruction on learning factors and also more indirectly through different kinds of praise which have differential effects on performance (Dweck, 2002). Praise which focuses on the process of learning, rather than a trait, such as intelligence, has been shown to increase students’ effort on difficult tasks and the implementation of learning goals. In contrast, praise which focuses on intelligence can impair performance, especially on tasks that students do not feel confident performing.

The online demonstration for this principle is currently being developed.

Educational Applications

Whether they fail or succeed on a task, praise students on the process taken to learn, not ability or intelligence, so that effort and the pursuit of learning are emphasized . In this way, students will be more motivated to learn when the material becomes more difficult. When ability or intelligence is the focus of praise, the role of effort in learning is minimized and increasing the likelihood that students will favor performance goals over learning goals.

As Dweck (2002) comments, with process praise, “you really have to appreciate what went into producing what the students produced: what went into the ideas, the strategies, the choices, the development, the execution of the project. It becomes an interchange with the student rather than simply an evaluation.”

Suggested Readings

Dweck, C. (1989). Motivation. In A. Lesgold and R. Glaser (Eds.), Foundations for a psychology of education (pp. 87-136). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. The author presents a conceptual framework for studying motivational constructs and to illustrate how these constructs affect learning. For example, learning may be impaired when students adopt performance goals (e.g., focusing on gaining positive judgments of their competence) over learning goals (e.g., actual mastery of task while risking failure). The author also challenges the common perception that “brighter” students employ more adaptive methods to cope with challenging tasks.

Dweck, C. (2002). Messages that motivate: How praise molds students’ beliefs, motivation, and performance (in surprising ways). In Aronson, J. (Ed.), Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education (pp. 37-60). San Diego, CA: Academic Press. This chapter presents findings on the effects of different type of praise and feedback on academic performance. The volume contains chapters on different psychological factors, including motivation and theories of intelligence, that affect learning. Several chapters contain a Q & A section between researchers and teachers, as well as suggested readings.

Sternberg, R. J. (2002). Intelligence is not just inside the head: The theory of successful intelligence. In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education (pp. 227-244). San Diego, CA: Academic Press. This chapter challenges conventional notions of intelligence and explores three aspects of “successful intelligence” (analytical, practical, and creative). Although these aspects of successful intelligence have been shown to predict course performance, those students who were taught in a manner that matched their ability (analytical, practical, and creative) outperformed others when evaluated on successful intelligence. See Dweck, C. (2002) for more information about the volume.

Wigfield, A. & Eccles, J. S. (Eds.) (2002). Development of achievement motivation. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. This volume features chapters, written by both educational and development psychologists, on different aspects of motivation as related to learning. The volume is broken down into four major topical areas: competence-related beliefs, reasons for engaging in achievement activities, self-regulation of achievement behaviors, and instructional practices.