A recent study by Israeli and American educators investigated whether the beliefs students and teachers hold about learning and school affect students’ social behavior in class. Behavior problems have traditionally been seen as a characteristic of the individual student and/or as a result of the teacher’s deficient classroom management skills.
Remedies have relied heavily on behaviorist strategies such as reinforcing desired behavior and either ignoring or giving negative consequences for disruptive behavior. However, the success of these responses is limited and educators have been looking for a preventive approach.
Researchers Avi Kaplan, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, and Margaret Gheen and Carol Midgley, University of Michigan, suggest that achievement goal theory, which emphasizes the relationship between characteristics of the educational environment and students’ behavior, may provide the framework for finding a better solution to this problem.
Achievement goal theory
The achievement goal theory of motivation focuses on how children’s behavior is influenced by their beliefs about school and learning — whether their goals are getting good grades, outperforming other students, and demonstrating their ability (performance goals) or the learning, improvement and mastery of academic skills (mastery goals).
Past studies suggest that performance goals stressing social comparison increase disruptive behavior. Students who are focussed on grades tend to react negatively when challenged by difficult tasks. In classrooms where competition is high, students with poor skills tend to avoid work that will reveal their weaknesses. This emphasis on performance has been associated with students’ own reports of being disruptive in school. However, in classrooms where the focus is on learning and improving skills, students spend more time on task and have more positive attitudes toward school. They cope with difficulty by seeing errors and failure as part of the learning process.
Research has revealed that certain groups of students exhibit more behavior problems than others. Boys tend to be more disruptive than girls. Students who receive low grades also have more behavior problems. Although more disruptive behavior has been reported for minority students as well, these researchers speculate that this may be caused, at least partly, by minority students’ alienation from school or by prejudice and racism in the school environment.
Focus on mastery rather than performance
Kaplan et al. hypothesize that when the emphasis on mastery goals is high in a classroom, levels of disruptive behavior will be lower. In contrast, when classes are highly competitive and high achievement with little effort is valued (if you’re smart you don’t work hard), the classroom culture encourages students to cover up for low skills by either avoiding work or disrupting the classroom.
Kaplan studied ninth-grade students in 113 classrooms in five ethnically diverse high schools. Data from a total of 388 students, 25 teachers and 60 ninth-grade math classrooms were analyzed. Fifty-four percent of the students were African American, thirty-eight percent European American, five percent Hispanic, and one percent Asian American.
Students reported on their math ability and their personal-achievement goals. They were asked whether they were oriented toward outperforming other students, demonstrating how smart they were, and avoiding doing worse than others, or toward learning and understanding the material. They were also asked about the goals most important to their teacher and whether they engaged in annoying or disruptive behavior in class.
Their teachers were asked to describe their goal-related approaches to instruction. Did they emphasize students’ learning, understanding and enjoyment of math, or did they stress the need for students to get good grades and show how smart they were? Students’ grades for the first and second semesters were collected.
Classroom goals affect student behavior
As seen in previous studies, disruptive behavior was positively associated with being a boy, with having low math grades, and with low belief in their ability. Poor behavior was also associated with an emphasis on performance in their classroom.
Students’ perceptions of classroom goals varied significantly by room, as did the level of disruptive behavior. Teachers’ and students’ reports of classroom goals were consistent. Students’ personal goals often varied from those they believed were held by their teachers.
Despite this, teachers’ perceived goals significantly influenced students’ behavior. Kaplan et al. also investigated the relationship between classroom goals and students’ behavior after controlling for students’ demographic and academic characteristics.
They compared a sample of African American students with European American students and found no significant relation between ethnicity and levels of disruptive behavior. Classrooms had significantly different levels of disruptive behavior even after controlling for students’ variables such as academic performance.
The levelof disruptive behavior in a classroom was positively correlated to the academic goals described by students and teachers. Competitive, performance-oriented classes showed a significantly higher level of behavior problems than classes focussed on improvement of skills and enjoyment and mastery of the math curriculum.
Teachers’ attitudes toward learning and success critical
Kaplan and colleagues report that when disruptive behavior is prevalent in classrooms, teachers are often blamed for class mismanagement and students are blamed for lacking social and self-management skills. Recommendations for effective classroom management and discipline usually involve creating a structure of consequences for inappropriate behavior.
These researchers suggest, however, that focusing on treatment of disruptive behavior with behavior modification or with self-management training may be insufficient or even a misguided approach for dealing with classroom behavior problems. Their findings suggest that, at least in this sample, the level of disruptive behavior varies between classrooms and that the achievement goals of the classroom explain differences in the level of disruptive behavior.
These researchers stress the importance of teachers’ attitudes toward learning and success. Rather than adopt harsher rules to control their students, teachers should consider modifying the messages they send to students regarding what is important in school. When classroom culture emphasizes lesson mastery, students are less likely to disturb the lesson, get into trouble or annoy the teacher; and teachers are less occupied by disruptive behavior.
These researchers note that classrooms emphasizing mastery over performance goals differ on many dimensions, including the types of tasks students are asked to engage in, the way student participation is facilitated, and the ways in which students are recognized and evaluated. In mastery-oriented classrooms, students receive the message that their main purpose is to learn, to improve and to master the material, rather than to demonstrate high ability, compete with their peers and conform to the teachers’ goals.
Teachers who emphasize learning and improvement appear to hold beliefs and employ instructional strategies that allow more active student participation and interaction and a more relaxed approach toward talking and moving in class. This study points out the benefits of constructing learning environments in which school is thought of as a place where learning, understanding, improvement, and personal and social development are valued and in which social comparison of students’ ability is de-emphasized.
“Classroom Goal Structure and Student Disruptive Behavior” British Journal of Educational Psychology Volume 72, Number 2, June 2002 Pp. 191.
Published in ERN September 2002 Volume 15 Number 6