Students identify teacher behaviors, practices that motivate learning

iStock_000016876858XSmallAgain and again, teachers’ relationships with students have been found to play a surprisingly potent role in why children succeed in school. Student-teacher relationships seem to be even more important than autonomy and choice in motivating students, according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Education.

The study looked at how teachers cultivate a “mastery goal orientation” in their classrooms in the eyes of their students. According to achievement goal theory, students have either a mastery goal orientation or a performance goal orientation towards learning; that is they are either primarily motivated to develop competence or to display competence (e.g. grades and test scores). Research has made a strong case for creating a “mastery goal structure” in the classroom.

To promote a mastery goal orientation, teachers are advised to share authority with students, to allow them more choice in school work, to recognize students who are making progress and to provide more meaningful and interesting tasks. But what do students think promotes a mastery approach to learning?

Related webinar:  Current motivation theory and practices for the classroom with Michael Middleton

Student perceptions

“Students’ perceptions of their teacher in terms of how he or she relates to students in general, and to themselves in particular, were mentioned frequently as a way by which teachers communicated an emphasis on mastery goals,” the researchers write. “Social relationships are not typically referred to as an integral part of achievement goal theories; however, some researchers have considered how students’ social motivations are related to their personal goal orientations.”

For this study, researchers asked 197 middle school students (grades 6-8) from a rural midwestern school to respond to five statements about learning that are characteristic of a mastery goal orientation. The students rated how true the 5 statements were about their math teachers on a scale of from 1-5 (not at all true to very true). Students were then asked to explain what it was that the teacher did or said to merit that rating.

The statements about the student’s teacher were:

  • wants us to understand our work, not just memorize it
  • thinks mistakes are okay as long as we are learning
  • really wants us to enjoy learning new things
  • provides time to really explore and understand new ideas
  • recognizes us for trying hard.

 What did the teacher do or say

The researchers employed a commonly used scale on mastery goal structure, the Patterns of Adaptive Learning Survey (PALS). Middle school students were surveyed about their math teachers in the middle of the school year. In addition to rating their teachers 1 to 5 on the 5 statements, children were asked to give specific reasons why they gave their teachers these ratings so that researchers could add children’s viewpoints to recommendations on mastery goal structure in the classroom.

“The central aim of the current study was to identify and provide examples of teacher practices that students report as evidence of a mastery goal structure,” the researchers write. The researchers also wanted to compare what students said with current recommendations for creating a mastery goal structure. Researcher C. Ames organized the optimal conditions in 6 categories known as TARGET.

The 6 categories in TARGET are:

  • task (variety, amount and level of challenge of tasks)
  • authority (power, discipline and decisions including student choice or input)
  • recognition (responding to students with feedback, praise , rewards)
  • grouping (allowing students to work in groups or independently)
  • evaluation (nature of student evaluations)
  • effort (use of time in managing classroom activity).

Based on their study of middle school students, researchers say social relationships should be added to that list. Students cited teachers’ affective and pedagogical practices more often than they made comments on task, authority, recognition, grouping, evaluation and time. “Although personal characteristics and achievement history influence students’ goal orientations, goal theories posit that perceptions of others’ emphases on goal orientations or goal structure are also influential,” they write.

9 categories of comments

After reviewing student responses, researchers grouped the comments into the 6 TARGET categories and then added three more categories that reflected other comments made by students. Those 3 additional categories for student comments are:

  • affective (teacher-student interactions including caring, support, conflict, respect, humor, etc)
  • pedagogical ( explaining, demonstrating, reviewing, giving examples)
  • teacher says ( statements such as “she always tells us it is better to learn it instead of just memorizing the math.”)

“A particularly striking aspect of the results was the consistent salience to the adolescents of their teacher’s interactions with students in terms of both teaching content and conveying affect,” the researchers write. “Neither pedagogical nor affective characteristics of teacher-student interactions feature in goal theorists’ recommendations for creating classroom mastery goal structure.”

Nevertheless, the study also provides support for the recommended educational practices of TARGET, the researchers write. Many students referred to their teacher’s choice of tasks, recognition, evaluation practices, and use of time. Few made comments related to grouping or to teachers’ authority or student autonomy. The researchers said it may be that there were few references to teacher authority because teacher authority is “ubiquitous.”

Below are some of the responses students made to the statements about a mastery approach to learning:

Wants us to understand our work, not just memorize it.

Students referred most frequently (30%) to teachers’ pedagogical practices. These included teachers’ use of different approaches to explain content and use of examples students could understand. (“Whenever we’re learning something new she uses examples or explains it to us if we have questions.”)

Students also mentioned how their teachers encouraged them to participate and ask questions. About 21% mentioned affective aspects of student-teacher interactions, particularly teachers showing they care about students and listening to them. Students said this mastery value was communicated to them when the teacher showed concern about students understanding the material, about getting the help they needed and being prepared for their futures. (“Because she is kind.” “Because sometimes it looks like she doesn’t care.”) Tasks were mentioned by 13.2% of students.

Thinks mistakes are okay as long as we are learning.

The greatest proportion of students (33.5%) mentioned teachers’ evaluation practices as communicating this value to them. Among the students’ responses were comments on how teachers encouraged or allowed students to redo homework, quizzes or tests and on how they gave grades for homework completion rather than for correct answers. More than a quarter (27.9%) mentioned affective aspects of teacher-student interactions Recognition practices were mentioned by 19.8% of students (“If we get a problem wrong but we tried hard she tells us ‘nice try, next time you will do better.'”)

Really wants us to enjoy learning new things.

Almost half (48.7%) of students referred to the affect of teacher-student interactions as a reason for how they rated their teachers on this approach to learning, researchers write. (“She will make up something or make us laugh so we will get it.”) Over one-fifth (21.3%) referred to using interesting and enjoyable tasks. (“She gives us fun projects. Like one time we got to make a number line using different colors.” “She keeps having us do the same type of problems.”) About 20% of students referred to pedagogical practices.

Provides time to really explore and understand new ideas.

Not surprisingly, students (45.7%) responded to the question of why they rated their teacher the way they did by referring to their teacher’s use of time. (“She won’t go on to another thing until all of us get it.”) One-third of students (34.5%) mentioned pedagogical practices including encouraging students’ questions. Interactions with teachers were mentioned by 17.8% and tasks were mentioned by 9.6% of students.

Recognizes us for trying hard.

Students were most likely (55.8%) to cite teachers’ recognition practices in response to this statement (“Yesterday she told me I tried hard on my test, next time I will do better.”) About 30% mentioned affective aspects of teacher-student interactions and 12% mentioned evaluation practices (“She lets us retake a test that all of us did bad on but she knows we tried.”)

The observations by students themselves can be used by educators to create a motivational environment in the classroom that encourages a mastery goal orientation, the researchers say. A wealth of research to date implies that an emphasis on mastery goals is linked to many positive achievement beliefs and behaviors.

“What Do Students Think About When Evaluating Their Classroom’s Mastery Goal Structure? An Examination of Young Adolescents’ Explanations,” by Helen Patrick and Allison Ryan. The Journal of Experimental Education, Volume 77, Number 2, 2008, pp. 99-123.


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