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Learning Orientation

Emphasize learning and understanding and de-emphasize grades, competition, and social comparison

Learning Orientation Overview


A student’s orientation to an academic task comprises the answer to the motivational questions Why do I want to engage in this work? and What am I trying to accomplish as a result of my effort?
Students with a learning orientation engage in order to gain mastery, improve their knowledge and skills, and develop understanding - they want to be better tomorrow than they are today.
Students with an ego orientation engage in order to appear smarter than others by outperforming their classmates and/or by avoiding looking less capable than their classmates - they want to show that they are better than (or at least not worse than) those around them.
In reality, we are all driven by both (and an ego orientation is not all bad!), but a learning orientation is often underdeveloped/de-emphasized in schools relative to ego orientation.

How to support learning orientation: Principles

Emphasize student reasoning, sense-making, and developing a deep understanding as the goal of activities, rather than producing the right answer or complying with instructions
  • Use assignments that are meaningful, challenging, and require students to take personal responsibility to engage at a deeper conceptual level with the material; provide students with ample time to do this work
  • Press students for evidence and reasoning to demonstrate the importance of making sense of phenomena and/or solving design problems, rather than simply producing the correct answer
  • Provide multiple ways to complete assignments and/or allow for flexibility in approaches to solving problems
  • De-emphasize the negative consequence of mistakes by framing mistakes as part of the learning process that helps students improve their skills
Principles: Emphasize student reasoning, sense-making, and developing a deep understanding as the goal of activities, rather than producing the right answer or complying with instructions
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The teacher presents students with overly simplistic, one-dimensional learning tasks that focus on surface demonstrations of understanding, producing answers without explanation, adhering to a pacing guide, or following instructions. The teacher provides students with challenging, authentic science work that requires sustained effort and thinking and the use of all three dimensions of NGSS to explain phenomena or design solutions. Tasks are sufficiently open-ended to allow multiple answers or approaches, and group tasks are designed to foster authentic collaboration by requiring multiple perspectives or multiple roles.
The teacher cuts off students’ working or thinking time for the sake of “moving on.” The teacher provides students additional time on tasks when they are engaging thoughtfully or having rich discussion but may not be completing the task as quickly as anticipated.
The teacher seems to be primarily listening for a correct answer rather than evidence of student thinking, for example by switching quickly from a student who can’t answer correctly to one who can, or moving on immediately with no opportunity for explanation, elaboration, or alternative perspectives once the answer has been articulated. The teacher challenges all students to elaborate on or extend their thinking. This could include supportively sticking with or returning to a student who initially provided an incorrect/incomplete answer and providing verbal scaffolds to help the student to participate by confirming, restating, or extending what classmates said. The teacher elicits the perspective of several students and facilitates student argumentation so that students can reconcile their different understandings.
When students make mistakes, the teacher supplies students with quick answers or corrections in order to “move on,” and/or the teacher responds negatively to student mistakes by making comments like, “You need to listen next time,” or using sarcasm such as, “I guess [X] is way more interesting than science.” The teacher models excuse-making, blaming others, or other external attributions for students’ low performance or lack of understanding The teacher provides time for students to reflect on why certain mistakes occurred, or the consequences of their mistakes for the scientific learning goal. The teacher communicates that mistakes are a natural part of doing science and an opportunity to improve and develop deeper understanding.
  • Design assessments to evaluate students’ three-dimensional learning with a focus on reasoning, making sense of phenomena and/or solving design problems, and deep conceptual knowledge rather than superficial knowledge
  • Use rubrics and descriptive criteria for assessments rather than policies such as grading on a curve to focus the assessment on students’ understanding rather than on their relative standing among peers
  • Provide positive and constructive feedback to students that emphasizes that success and failure are related to one’s effort and strategy use, which can be changed
  • Provide opportunities for students to revise work or submit multiple drafts
Principles: Use evaluation and feedback practices that focus on deeper content understanding/reasoning and students’ effort and strategy use over normative comparisons and ability/intelligence
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Evaluations focus on correct answers, memorization, superficial knowledge of facts, and/or rely on question types that require less thinking (e.g., matching, true/false, some multiple choice). The teacher may motivate students by incentivizing them to comply with instructions, finish fastest, work for a certain grade, pass an assessment, please the teacher, or perform better than peers. When evaluating and discussing student work, the teacher seeks out evidence of learning/growth (including creative thinking or adjusting to feedback), making sense of phenomena and/or solving design problems, and meeting standards through the use of performance assessments or open-ended questions.
The teacher posts students' grades, announces the class average, or provides other public-facing information on assessments that allows students to easily compare their performance with other students in the class. The teacher provides detailed feedback so that students can learn from their mistakes. Feedback is provided privately so that students cannot easily compare performance.
The teacher acknowledges students with phrases that highlight a students’ intelligence (or lack thereof) and/or convey the message that some students are good at science and others are not. The teacher’s praise and constructive feedback focus on effort and strategy use. The teacher explicitly articulates that effort and strategy use are within the student’s control, can improve, and are important for developing a deep understanding.
The teacher either does not allow students to correct mistakes on submitted work or does allow students to correct mistakes, but emphasizes doing the corrections to earn more points/get a better grade rather than focusing on the revision process as an opportunity to learn, grow, and/or deepen understanding. The teacher provides students the opportunity to revise and edit their work in meaningful ways to demonstrate growth, deepen understanding, and learn from mistakes.
  • Communicate that all students have valuable contributions by calling on a variety of students in a supportive way during class discussions or activities
  • Encourage students to focus on their own effort, growth, and learning as opposed to comparing themselves to their peers
  • Avoid tasks that encourage competition among students (to solve a problem first, to earn the highest grades, etc.) and practices like posting student grades publicly
  • Design group work that requires multiple perspectives/roles to promote peer collaboration focused on learning rather than performing
Principles: De-emphasize social comparison and competition
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The teacher compares students to each other, explicitly or implicitly, by highlighting the work of a few students as being the “best” or attributing examples of good work to the intelligence or behavioral compliance of the students who completed them. The teacher identifies the contributions of all students in helping to advance the class’s process of making sense of phenomena and/or solving design problems and emphasizes meeting learning standards over the relative contributions of individual students.
The teacher casts students as competitors by suggesting, implicitly or explicitly, that students cannot work together because they will cheat or that weaker students will coast off the work of stronger students. The teacher allows students to work and share out as a group and/or emphasizes that the group reporter is sharing out the group’s ideas (“we think” vs. “I think”) to convey the importance of hearing the ideas rather than identifying who has the right/best ideas.
The teacher provides little guidance about how students can comment on each other’s work or grade each other, which could allow for exclusive focus on right answers and/or possible teasing or social comparison based on wrong answers and mistakes. The teacher provides structured opportunities for students to give each other constructive feedback that focuses on ideas and/or the reasoning behind ideas.
  • Approach course content, lesson activities, and your own learning with a positive attitude and a willingness to take risks (i.e., doing something outside of your comfort zone)
  • Identify and model the use of effective learning strategies when encountering challenging tasks or making mistakes
  • Principles: Model the commitment to learning and growth that you want your students to exhibit
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    The teacher stays focused on delivering the curriculum and/or positions her/himself as an infallible expert who is transmitting content to the novice students. The teacher talks positively with students about her/his prior learning experiences, overcoming challenges, and/or examples of continuing to learn outside of school.
    The teacher glosses over, downplays, or apologizes excessively for her/his mistakes and/or pushes back or retaliates against students who point out teacher mistakes. The teacher identifies her/his own mistakes and embraces mistakes as an authentic part of learning/doing science and an opportunity for growth and improvement.