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In his enthralling book, The Rise of SuperHuman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, Steven Kotler, describes mastery as a euphoric experience, and one that transforms us. He writes, “When doing what we love transforms us into the best possible version of ourselves and that version hints at even greater future possibilities, the urge to explore those possibilities becomes feverish compulsion” (Kotler, 2014).

 

Mastery, for Kotler, and others like him, lies at the heart of motivation. The desire to discover our talents, skills, and reveal unique possibilities is exactly what drives us to keep at something – often feeling like we are right on the edge of a “breakthrough”. And this breakthrough often comes in the form of new learning.

 

Looking to see just how strong the pull of mastery can be on typically difficult subjects like math, Jan Plass, a professor in NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and her team looked at two main types of motivational orientations: mastery goal orientation, in which students focus on learning, improvement, and the development of abilities, and performance goal orientation, in which students focus on validating their abilities.

 

Recruiting a group of middle school students, the researchers had them play the video game FactorReactor, which is designed to build math skills through problem solving, and therefore serves as diagnostic for learning.

 

In order to test the impact of different settings on learning, students were randomly assigned to play the game alone, competitively against another student, or collaboratively with another student. The researchers controlled for students’ abilities by conducting a pre-test.

 

While at first glance, educational video games would seem to promote performance rather than mastery orientations given their competitive focus and that they are often played with others, the result was just the opposite. The students who played the math game either competitively or collaboratively, had the strongest mastery goal orientations, performed best in the game, and experienced the greatest interest and enjoyment (Plass, et. al., 2013).

 

Paul O’Keefe, the study’s second lead author explains, “The increased interest we observed in the competitive and collaborative conditions suggests that educational games can promote a desire to learn and intentions to re-engage in the material, and in the long run, may create independent and self-determined learners” (O’Keefe, 2013).

 

As Plass and O’Keefe note, mastery goal orientations have been consistently found to facilitate learning because students are focused on accruing knowledge and developing abilities. They also view mistakes and difficulties as part of the learning process – rather than an indictment of their lack of ability. By contrast, performance goal orientations may hurt the learning process, particularly for those who do not feel competent – for instance, students who fear looking less intelligent than their classmates may avoid opportunities that would, in fact, bolster their understanding of the material (Plass, et. al., 2013).

 

And while mastery aids learning, it also greatly influences how likely we are to stick with something.

 

Having already uncovered that young athletes who played for coaches who were taught how to create a mastery climate reported lower levels of sport anxiety compared to youngsters who played for coaches who were not trained, Ronald Smith, and Frank Smoll, two psychology professors at the University of Washington, wondered if a mastery orientation would also affect factors such as enjoyment, continued participation, and ego orientation.

 

To test their theory, Smith and Smoll gathered 145 boys and 98 girls playing basketball in two separate Seattle leagues, and ranging in age from 9 to 13. They were given questionnaires to fill out twice, once prior to the beginning of the season and again 12 weeks later when the season was almost over.

 

 

Their results likely won’t surprise you. When athletes played for coaches who used a mastery orientation, they enjoyed the game more, were more likely to continue playing, and had less of an ego orientation. On the other hand, when coaches used an ego orientation style of leadership – playing just to win, so to speak – the students enjoyed the game less and were more likely to drop out early. Further, these findings held for athletes across all ages (Smith, et. al., 2015).

 

“One consistent finding of our research is that a mastery climate retains more youngsters in sports. It keeps them coming back” (Smith, 2015).

 

And, according to another study, it seems that the process of developing mastery – rather having it already – acts like a motivational magnet.

 

Recruiting 72 undergraduate students a research team led by Sami Abuhamdeh of Istanbul Şehir University, had them play four rounds of the Speed Slice game on Nintendo Wii. The objective of this first-person perspective video game is to slice various objects appearing on the screen before the opponent can. As the players competence levels varied, the researchers were able to test the students’ levels of enjoyment, suspense, perceived competence and performance concerns when they dueled against a weak opponent – winning the game by a large margin – versus when the met a tough opponent – winning by a very slim margin.

 

Interestingly, while participants rated their own competence levels to be much higher when they won by a wide margin, they enjoyed the game much less. Moreover, when asked which of the two games they would like to play again – either against a weak or tough opponent – 69 percent of the participants actually chose to play the game they won by a slim margin (Abuhamdeh, et. al., 2014).

 

For anyone who has ever watched a close match – say Venus Williams against Serena Williams – these results are not surprising. Not only do we enjoy watching things that offer us more suspense, we enjoy playing games that are more suspenseful – the ones we are not so sure we can win. When knowing almost in advance what the outcome of a game will be, we are not kept on our toes, and consequently, our mastery, and our interest go down the drain. On the other hand, uncertainty, as Abuhamdeh notes, drives intrinsic motivation because it drives mastery (Abuhamdeh, et. al., 2014).

 

And when we are robbed of the ability to develop mastery, our motivation takes a nosedive.

 

Many in education have seen this effect in the children of over-controlling parents – also frequently called “helicopter” parents.

 

To examine how parenting behaviors – and in particular, helicopter parenting, affects the psychological well-being of children, Holly Schiffrin and colleagues from the University of Mary Washington in the United States, asked a total of 297 American undergraduate students, aged 18-23 years, to answer an online survey. Students were asked to describe their mothers’ parenting behaviors, rate their own perceptions of their autonomy, competence, and relatedness (i.e., how well they get along with other people). The researchers also assessed the students’ overall satisfaction with life, their level of anxiety, and whether or not they suffered depressive symptoms.

 

While many parents consider the highly intensive, involved, and hands-on parenting style that is characterized by helicopter parenting an important part of their children’s development, Schiffrin’s results show just the opposite. Overall, an inappropriate level of parental behavioral control was linked to negative well-being outcomes for students. Helicopter parenting behaviors were related to higher levels of depression and decreased satisfaction with life. In addition, helicopter parenting behaviors were associated with lower levels of perceived autonomy, competence, and relatedness. And those who perceived they had less autonomy and competence were also more likely to be depressed (Schiffrin, et. al., 2016).

 

Schiffrin’s results hint at the concerns of many college educators, including Evelynn M. Hammond, former dean of Harvard, who described her class of incoming freshman as “over-parented and under-prepared”, that robbing children of the ability to develop mastery doesn’t only leave them less able to cope with daily life stresses, but more depressed, and a whole lot less motivated.

 

The ability to test ourselves against a worthy challenge, experience uncertainty and suspense, and ultimately uncover new skills – often that we didn’t realize that we had – is what drives learning, mastery, and motivation, and quite often, our enjoyment of life.