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Mental Wellbeing

Education for Mental Health Toolkit - Learning Focused

Research shows that learners and educational environments can adopt one of two types of goal orientation – learning focus (sometimes called mastery focus) or performance focus (1-3).

Learning Focussed Introduction

Research shows that learners and educational environments can adopt one of two types of goal orientation – learning focus (sometimes called mastery focus) or performance focus (1-3). Which orientation is adopted can have profound effects not only for academic learning, persistence and success but also for psychological wellbeing (1, 3). 

Education for Mental Health

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Students who adopt a learning focus will seek to master their discipline and concentrate on their own learning and development. They will engage in deep learning, seek meaning in their learning, be intrinsically motivated, respond positively to academic challenge and generally have better wellbeing (1, 3-4). A learning focus is highly adaptive, preparing the learner for future challenges as they build a stable foundation of knowledge, understanding and skill on which further learning can be built (1, 5). 

Students who adopt a performance focus will regard performance on assessment as the point of education (3, 5). They will focus on performing well relative to others and be conscious of their apparent ranking (1, 6). These students will be more likely to focus only on what they need to perform well in the next assessment, be extrinsically motivated and regard academic challenge as a potential threat to their status. Performance goals tend to be associated with higher levels of anxiety and dissatisfaction (4). Their learning can also be quickly forgotten, leaving them vulnerable to future academic challenges (3). 

Evidence suggests that the curriculum can play an important role in shaping students’ goal orientation. How curriculum is designed and delivered can create a cultural focus and practice that moves students into more of a learning focus. There is some evidence that once students have moved into this orientation, it can be maintained even if they re-enter a performance focus culture (2). 

Curriculum that moves students into a learning focus will place a focus on deep learning, supporting students to find meaning in learning, providing an internally coherent curriculum that links concepts, engages them in sustainable challenge and creates a collaborative learning culture that de-emphasises competition. This section will focus on exploring these concepts and identifying practice which can help. It should be noted, that the concepts in this section are supported by and linked to other themes in the tool kit – particularly those aspects addressed in Social Belonging and Scaffolded Design. 

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  1. Watkins C. Learning, performance and improvement. International Network for School Improvement, London Centre for Leadership in Learning, Institute of Education, University of London; 2010.
  2. Senko C, Harackiewicz JM. Performance goals: The moderating roles of context and achievement orientation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2002 Nov 1;38(6):603-10. Available from: doi: 10.1016/S0022-1031(02)00503-6
  3. Soderstrom NC, Bjork RA. Learning versus performance: An integrative review. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2015 Mar;10(2):176-99. Available from: doi: 10.1177/1745691615569000
  4. Postareff L, Mattsson M, Lindblom-Ylänne S, Hailikari T. The complex relationship between emotions, approaches to learning, study success and study progress during the transition to university. Higher education. 2017 Mar 1;73(3):441-57.
  5. Elliot AJ, McGregor HA. A 2× 2 achievement goal framework. Journal of personality and social psychology. 2001 Mar;80(3):501-519
Diener CI, Dweck CS. An analysis of learned helplessness: Continuous changes in performance, strategy, and achievement cognitions following failure. Journal of personality