Motivation Monday: Goal Orientation Theory and Growth Mindset

Goal orientation theory posits that students engage in any given learning activity for one of two reasons. If an individual has a performance orientation towards a task, they complete it because they want to demonstrate competence, usually to an audience they seek approval from (e.g., peers, teachers, parents). Contrarily, an individual with a mastery orientation towards a goal hopes to gain knowledge or develop a skill for understanding purposes. In other words, someone with a mastery orientation wants to learn out of interest in a particular domain, to “learn for the sake of learning.”

Why it matters for education

Research shows that mastery orientations support the highest quality of learning for studentsNorth East Arrow. Students with mastery orientations are more likely to seek academic challenges and persist in learning difficult concepts. Further, mastery orientations bolster the effects of executive function strategy use by providing students with the intrinsic motivation to think flexibly and focus their effort on furthering their academic knowledge and understanding.

Educational psychologist Carol Dweck presents a particularly meaningful perspective on goal orientation theory by encouraging teachers to support students’ growth mindsetsNorth East Arrow. A student with a growth mindset believes their skills and talents are malleable and a product of effort, and they are more likely to develop mastery orientations towards academic tasks.


Teachers and parents can make small adjustments to their language to help foster a growth mindset in children. Here are some ideas.

  • Praise student effort rather than ability. For example, instead of telling a student who aced a math test, You’re so good at fractions! say, I can tell you studied a lot for this test — keep up the hard work!
  • Remind students of their ability to grow. Carol Dweck’s talk on growth mindsetNorth East Arrow highlights the positive effects of infusing “yet” into conversations with frustrated and overwhelmed students. Help students reframe I’m so bad at math to I just don’t understand this topic yet.
  • Teach students that mistakes are learning opportunities. You can do so by embracing mistakes yourself — own up to a time you did something incorrectly and explain what you learned from the experience.
  • Keep students’ academic scores private from peers. Re-consider hanging scored student work on the wall and academic award assemblies. For students who value peer recognition as a reward, praise students’ effort and actions.

Growth mindset interventions have the potential to lessen the effects of poverty on academic achievementNorth East Arrow. With this exciting possibility, it is important to note that applications of growth mindset theory cannot succeed without robust academic skill instruction and supportNorth East Arrow. SMARTS’ executive function curriculum helps all students develop the strategies they need to benefit from growth mindsets.

  • Taylor McKenna, M.A., SMARTS Intern

Build Your Executive Function Toolkit in 2022

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