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The negative impact of goal-oriented instructions

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Abstract

The phrasing of task instructions can facilitate or hinder the learning process. In this study, three groups of participants (N = 526) performed a foreign vocabulary memorization task, with modified instructions for each group. The instructions were either learning oriented, encouraging participants to improve their abilities; outcome oriented, prompting participants to achieve a positive evaluation of their performance; or neutral, with no goal orientation, for the control group. Participants’ performance in the task was measured along with several factors pertinent to the learning process. Results showed that learning-oriented instructions led to lower performance levels, while outcome-oriented instructions reduced participants’ language risk-taking, both of which negatively impact learning. The control group had the best overall results, indicating that it is better to refrain from using goal-oriented instructions in learning tasks.
REPORT
The negative impact of goal-oriented instructions
Itamar Shatz*
Department of Linguistics, Tel-Aviv University, Tel-Aviv, Israel
(Received 13 March 2015; nal version received 15 April 2015)
The phrasing of task instructions can facilitate or hinder the learning process. In
this study, three groups of participants (N= 526) performed a foreign vocabulary
memorization task, with modied instructions for each group. The instructions
were either learning oriented, encouraging participants to improve their abilities;
outcome oriented, prompting participants to achieve a positive evaluation of their
performance; or neutral, with no goal orientation, for the control group. Partici-
pantsperformance in the task was measured along with several factors pertinent
to the learning process. Results showed that learning-oriented instructions led to
lower performance levels, while outcome-oriented instructions reduced partici-
pantslanguage risk-taking, both of which negatively impact learning. The con-
trol group had the best overall results, indicating that it is better to refrain from
using goal-oriented instructions in learning tasks.
Keywords: goal orientation; learning orientation; outcome orientation;
performance orientation; task instructions; situational manipulability
Introduction
The phrasing of task instructions can facilitate or hinder the learning process. The
current study explores this phenomenon by measuring the effects of learning- and
outcome-oriented instructions on several aspects of the language learning process.
The results can inuence the design of learning tasks, allowing us to replace
instructions which negatively impact learning with more effectively phrased
instructions.
Presently, psychologists identify two primary goals that people pursue in
achievement situations: a learning goal, which encourages people to improve their
ability to perform the task at hand, and an outcome goal, which prompts people to
achieve a positive evaluation of their performance (VandeWalle, Cron, and Slocum
2001). Learning orientation is associated with an adaptive response pattern, which
is characterised by the pursuit of challenging material and persistence in the face of
failure (Bell and Kozlowski 2002; Steele-Johnson et al. 2000), so learning-oriented
individuals perceive challenges as an opportunity to build competence. Outcome
orientation on the other hand, is associated with a maladaptive response pattern,
characterised by less interest in challenging tasks, as well as a tendency to withdraw
from tasks where performance is rated as low. Therefore, outcome-oriented individu-
als often view their capacities as xed, with mistakes being construed as failures
(Bell and Kozlowski 2002).
*Email: itamarshatz@mail.tau.ac.il
© 2015 Taylor & Francis
Educational Studies, 2015
Vol. 41, No. 5, 476480, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03055698.2015.1043982
Notably, the current literature is inconclusive regarding some aspects of goal
orientation. For example, different studies show that outcome orientation has nega-
tive, non-signicant and positive relationships with task performance (VandeWalle,
Cron, and Slocum 2001). In addition, while current research focuses on the inherent
tendencies of people towards learning or outcome-oriented behaviour, goal orienta-
tion is also situationally manipulable (Steele-Johnson et al. 2000). This potential
manipulability has practical applications; by understanding the interaction between
task instructions and learners, it is possible to positively affect individualsperfor-
mance and involvement in learning tasks.
Methods
Participants
There were 526 participants recruited online from Reddit, a popular social news
website. The stopping rule for the experiment was to nish data collection once
there were no new responses to the survey for 24 consecutive hours. There were
360 male participants, accounting for 68.4% of the sample, and 166 females,
accounting for 31.6% of the sample. The mean age of the participants was 22.75
(SD = 6.34). The majority of the participants (N= 354, 67.3%) spoke English as
their native language. The posting clearly stated that people with any level of pro-
ciency in Finnish should not participate in the study, a requirement reiterated in the
rst qualifying question of the survey; those who claimed to have any level of pro-
ciency were automatically removed from the survey and prevented from retaking it
by the surveys software (Qualtrics). No compensation or incentive was offered to
the participants.
Task design
Participants had a set amount of time (1 min) to memorise the denitions of 12 Fin-
nish vocabulary words, randomly distributed in a list. Once the time limit passed,
participants were automatically forwarded to the test section of the task. In the test
section, each Finnish word appeared without its English denition. Participants then
lled the denitions which they remembered for the words. Each correct denition
awarded the participant one point, so that 12 was the maximum possible score. The
words appeared in a different random order in the testing section than they did in
the memorisation section.
Before undertaking the memorisation task, participants were randomly dis-
tributed into three groups:
One group received learning-oriented instructions, which encouraged partici-
pants to improve their abilities. An example of these instructions, given after
the memorisation section but before the testing portion is: Remember: the
goal is for you to feel that you learned something new.
Another group received outcome-oriented instructions, which prompted partici-
pants to achieve a positive evaluation of their performance. An example of
these instructions is: Remember: the goal is for you to get as good score as
possible.
Educational Studies 477
Finally, the control group received neutral instructions, which contained no
specic goal orientation. An example of these instructions is: Remember: the
goal is for you to remember the words that you saw.
Aside from the phrasing of the instructions, there was no further difference
between the groups. Because the distribution process was random, there was no sig-
nicant difference in the gender, age or native language of participants across the
three instructions groups, which was conrmed using analysis of variance
(ANOVA).
Questionnaire design
Before starting the memorisation task, participants gave some basic background
information: gender, age and native language. After completing the testing portion,
participants answered several questions regarding their experience. The questions
were based on a ve-point Likert response scale, where one is Strongly Disagree
and ve is Strongly Agree. The questions measured participantsanxiety, self-
condence and task motivation, all of which are factors which signicantly affect
the learning process (Liu and Jackson 2008; Shatz 2014). In addition, participants
replied to a series of questions used to measure language risk-taking (LRT), based
on the Language Class Risk-Taking scale which commonly appears as a tool in stud-
ies seeking to measure LRT in participants (e.g. Liu and Jackson 2008). After nish-
ing the questionnaire, participants received their performance score, and rated their
task motivation again, in order to determine whether receiving feedback inuenced
how much they enjoyed performing the task.
Results
Multiple analysis of variance (MANOVA) found an overall statistically signicant
difference between the three groups across the factors (F(12, 1036) = 2.004,
p= .021, g2
p= .023). ANOVA indicated that the difference was signicant for two of
the factors: performance score (F(2, 523) = 4.490, p= .012, g2
p= .017) and LRT
(F(2, 523) = 3.326, p= .037, g2
p= .013). There was no statistically signicant differ-
ence between the groups in anxiety, condence or task motivation (both before and
after receiving feedback). Post hoc analysis showed that the mean performance score
for the learning-oriented group was 8.57% lower than for the control group
(p= .013, 95% CI [1.81%, 15.34%]), and that the mean LRT was 6.66% lower for
the outcome-oriented group than for the control group (p= .011, 95% CI [1.51%,
11.81%]). These differences are illustrated in Figure 1.
Discussion
While a short-term memorisation task was used to gauge performance in the current
study, the results are also indicative of long-term performance, as shown by previous
literature which establishes a strong connection between the two (e.g. Gathercole
and Baddeley 1990).
Learning-oriented instructions led to worse performance in participants than the
neutral instructions of the control group in the memorisation task, possibly because
of the emphasis on improving their abilities rather than achieving a high score.
478 I. Shatz
The outcome-oriented instructions, which emphasised the importance of getting a
high score and not making any mistakes, caused participants to have a lower will-
ingness to take risks, which is detrimental to the learning process (Liu and Jackson
2008). Neither the learning nor the outcome-oriented groups outperformed the con-
trol group on any of the measured parameters, indicating that placing an emphasis
on goal orientation in instructions produced no benecial effects. The control group
had the best overall performance because it did not suffer from the negative effects
of the goal-oriented instructions.
The recommendation to phrase instructions in a neutral manner, without a focus
on a particular goal orientation, dovetails with the increasing prevalence of autono-
mous learning, which helps people become familiar with and better understand their
own strengths, weaknesses and general preferences when it comes to learning (Shatz
2014). This is because the improved understanding of an individuals own abilities
facilitates the learning process, especially when unimpeded by the external inuence
of goal-oriented instructions, as the ndings of the current study show that this type
of instructions have a negative impact on the learning process and its outcomes.
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the author.
Notes on contributor
Itamar Shatz is a researcher at Tel Aviv University. His research interests include second lan-
guage acquisition and teaching, as well as the optimisation of learning strategies and teaching
techniques.
ORCID
Itamar Shatz http://orcid.org/0000-0001-8916-9010
Figure 1. A comparison of the mean performance scores and mean language risk taking of
the three groups. An asterisk indicates that the mean is signicantly different from that of the
control group (p< .05). Mean score was normalised to ta05 scale.
Educational Studies 479
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Liu, M., and J. Jackson. 2008. An Exploration of Chinese EFL Learners Unwillingness to
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480 I. Shatz
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