Thursday, March 20, 2008

Knowing to Know Best

One of my biggest frustrations in life was proving to my mom that I was a good student. Not because I didn’t do well in school, but because anything I would do wasn’t good enough.

Let me illustrate. I would proudly come home with an eighty nine, the best grade in the class, without studying! Her usual response, “You could have done better...had you studied.” For my high school graduation, as a joke, I told her I wasn’t graduating with honors. She started to cry and pleaded with my brother to not disappoint her like I did! Anyhow, while I did graduate with honors, it still wasn’t good enough for her.

I didn’t get it! I did not drink or smoke. I was the VP of my graduating class. I was in the volleyball team. Furthermore, to top it all off, I was consistently, and easily, getting straight A’s. I was an exemplary student. Nothing seemed to satisfy my mother; except my straight-A-didn’t make-mom-cry-nerdy-little brother. But I'll deal with that issue on my shrink’s couch.

The point of the matter is that, by any other standard, any parent would want their child to not struggle. Doing well in school came to me effortlessly. I didn’t have to do homework or study to be at the top of my class. Paying attention in class was enough for me to get an A. Nevertheless an easy A was not enough for my mom. She wanted me to study. She wanted me put forth my best effort. She actually wanted me to learn something!

In her infinite wisdom, Mom knew that it was better to learn with effort than getting an A without it. She knows that mastery of the material is really what matters in learning. I, on the other hand, focused on performance.

Carole Ames confirms my mom’s viewpoint. In her article Classroom: Goals, Structures and Student Motivation, Ames differentiates between mastery goals and performance goals. When a student is concerned in learning for the sake of learning, he is focused on mastery. Conversely, when a student is concerned about how well he did compared to others, he is focused on performance.

A mastery goal is one that focuses the learner’s attention and effort to his ability to acquire knowledge. It is a goal that helps the student become intrinsically motivated to learn, either the material or skill, based on a set of absolute standards. Mastery goals are criterion based. They increase the quality of the student’s engagement, and how much effort the student is willing to put forth to achieve. Mastery is about persistence and attitude towards learning. It fosters problem-solving and helps the student deal with adversity. It encompasses not only acquiring knowledge, but also, increasing the student’s confidence in school, which in turn helps build up his self-esteem. Mastery is learning for the sake of learning. Learning is the means and the end.

On the other hand, a performance goal is one that focuses the learner’s attention in how well he did compared to others in class. The student is extrinsically motivated to perform not so much to gain success but to avoid failure. Performance goals are normative based. They link the student’s self-esteem to how well they have done in contrast to his peers. Performance based goals are a double edge sword. They can either promote a student’s self esteem if the student has apparent success with little effort; or stifle the student’s self-worth and later performance, if he feels he can’t do any better no matter how much effort he has put into the task. It rewards student’s aptitude and natural ability. Performance goals focus on what comes easily, without effort. Furthermore, they can give students a false sense of confidence, thinking that everything in life can or should be easily attainable. Studying and learning are just the means to show what the students can do; it has nothing to do with achievement.

Now, I understand what Mom meant by, “You could have done better.” She knew there was a bigger lesson to learn. As long as I do my best, the result would be much more satisfying because my confidence and self-esteem would have increased regardless of what anyone else did -even my little brother.

My worth is not measured by other’s standards, but only by my own. Who I am has never been defined by how use the talents that I have been given to get ahead, but how I used them to develop and make up for the abilities I lack. She knew that taking the easy road would not prepare me for life, but exerting myself to do my best -always, regardless of outcome- would help me endure whatever situation might arise. Mom does know best!

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