Learner motives vary. Some learners are motivated by a desire for self-improvement. They rise to challenges and embrace learning. Others learners are less motivated to achieve, and struggle to succeed. Understanding why – and applying the right combination of learning goals – can help them succeed.

The 2 types of learner motives

For training programs to be effective, trainers need to recognize and account for two types of learner motives: task involvement and ego involvement. Task involvement is a motivational frame of mind in which learners view successful understanding of the material as the ultimate goal. Task involved learners are concerned with achieving individual mastery of learning material, and they believe greater success comes with greater effort.

Ego involvement is a motivational frame of mind in which learners are concerned with assessing ability. Unfortunately, this can only happen in comparison to others. In this motivational state, learners aren’t focused on individual mastery of learning material. Rather, they are focused on how they perform in relation to their peers. This creates a number of problems.

High performance in relation to others means ego involved learners only need to demonstrate high ability relative to whatever is deemed average or acceptable performance. For example, if an average score is 70, then a score of 80 is a sign of higher ability. But that’s not a mastery level. And, ego involved learners who see no chance of showing higher than average ability are inclined to withdraw from learning. This allows them to protect themselves from being seen as less than average.

In fact, studies indicate that ego involved learners prefer less difficult learning tasks in order to avoid the possibility of appearing less than average. This differs from task involved learners, who aren’t in competition with anyone other than themselves. Because there is no potential for a loss of status, task involved learners actually prefer moderately difficult learning tasks.

To some degree, we are all predisposed towards either task or ego involved learning. However, trainers can steer learners towards task involved learning regardless of inherent learning motives. Accomplish this by aligning learning goals with task involved learning.

Performance and mastery goals

Just as there are two types of learning motives, there are two types of learning goals. Performance learning goals measure learners based on how they perform relative to each other. This is true even if minimum passing percentages are set by instructors. And because these goals are ego involved goals, they put learners on an ego involved learning track. This creates all of the problems that plague ego involvement:

  1. The need to only outperform the average to achieve “success”
  2. A desire for easy tasks with a low chance of failure
  3. Withdrawal from learning when facing failure
  4. Anxiety regarding a potential loss of social status

Mastery goals create a task involved framework by focusing on knowledge acquisition and mastery of tasks. Since mastery goals only relate to the learner and the information to be learned, there is no social stigma attached to failure. Learners are therefore much more open to challenging tasks. They are more resilient when dealing with potential failure in the task, and they get more enjoyment from the task. By setting mastery learning goals, trainers help guide learners predisposed to ego involvement towards a task involved approach.

Using goals to influence learner motives

This doesn’t mean a performance goal can’t or shouldn’t be created, however. The reality of training is that some measurable metrics need to be returned from the training. Therefore, it is up to trainers to create, and direct learner focus towards, mastery goals which emphasize successful acquisition of knowledge over peer competition. There are some easy ways to do this.

  1. Allow learners to learn from their mistakes. Ungraded self-assessments and practice exercises give learners an opportunity see what they know and what they don’t. Follow up these practice exercises with review material so learners can immediately see the correct information and develop understanding of material they didn’t get right during the practice sessions.
  2. Provide constructive comments during training. One to one feedback is shown to increase feelings of achievement in learners. The feedback should be constructive, not merely critical. Don’t just tell learners what they are doing wrong, explain how they can improve.
  3. Encourage peer cooperation rather than peer competition. Have learners work together on group exercises to solve problems. If your learning platform has a discussion forum, use it in courses to encourage student collaboration.

When performance goals are necessary, focus on results while avoiding unfavorable peer judgements. Certificates are an excellent way to provide performance goals without creating direct competition between learners. Certificates of achievement avoid the peer judgement that leaderboards and other gamification elements create. Learners are able to adopt a mastery approach to learning that creates a feeling of accomplishment from the successful acquisition of knowledge while also receiving recognition of achievement with the certificate.

download and print certificates of completion

Conclusion

Learner motives affect learner success. Ego involved learners are more difficult to teach because they are less likely to rise up to challenges, and tend to withdraw if it is apparent they will not perform well. In this way, they are able to either rationalize or avoid a reduction in status among their peers.

The most successful training focuses on task involvement. Task involved individuals are motivated to acquire skills and knowledge. They tend to put forth more effort and have a greater sense of self-satisfaction at the conclusion of learning. Regardless of ability, task involved learners will continue to seek the knowledge necessary to improve mastery of a task or subject.

The successful acquisition of knowledge is the measure of a successful training program. When this is clear to learners, then a positive learning environment is created from the outset. Providing clear mastery goals which emphasize successful learning over peer competition and status minimizes the possibility that learners will withdraw when challenged. When instructors emphasize mastery goals, learners are encouraged to adopt a mastery approach, and everyone benefits.