In his enthralling book, The Rise of Superman: 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).
Knocking on the door of our potential, feeling as if we are on the verge of breaking through a barrier and realizing a new — and more skilled — version of ourselves is the lifeblood of motivation. And motivation like this is its own reward.